Monday 30 December 2013

A few of my favourite things

This blogspot is a selection of material, written by others that I have shared during worship this year...

The opening poem by Al Young maybe my favourite thing I've come across this year. He wrote for a woman he worked along side who was struggling with grief following the death of her mother. She explained that although her mother had died six months previously she had only just begun to grieve properly as her and her mother ever really got on. Her grief was as much for the their lack of relationship as for her mother's death. Grief you see comes in many forms. It is rarely simple and often complex as all human love is complex. So all wrote the following beautiful poem.

“How the Rainbow Works”

(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.

 by Al Young

The following pieces explore grace from a variety of perspectives. What is Grace this phenomena that strikes just when we need it the most>

From “Shaking the Foundations” by Paul Tillich

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed."

The following is by a dear friend and colleague who is serious ill and who I am holding in my heart and soul right now...She certainly hits the spot beautifully as she talks here about Grace

“Grace” by Rev Jane Barraclough

“I once attended a course on Dying Well, given by a friend who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and had become a Buddhist monk. I believed he might have something to teach me; and you never know when these lessons might come in handy.

I can’t remember anything of what he said. What I remember was a young woman who had come to Brighton from London, especially for the course. She was Afro-Caribbean and I would guess her religious background was some form of Pentecostal Christianity. Her father was dying and she said something that has stayed with me all these years. She said, “I would like my father to die in a state of grace.” I didn’t know what she meant then, and it has taken me a long time to come to some sort of realisation.

Grace is a gift. It comes from outside ourselves. It has nothing to do with how virtuous we are, or aren’t. We cannot demand it; there are no special prayers.

Last summer we were on a family ramble, complicated somewhat by the fact that the natural pace of walking varies a great deal. At one point I was waiting, with my mother, for my father and his grandson. My father, using a tall stick, walked hand in hand with the little boy, in no hurry to get anywhere. By the distant snatches of conversation, they were discussing the miraculous inner workings of the combustion engine. I looked at my mother and she murmured, “Yes it is difficult to tell who is leading whom.”

In that moment, I knew we were blessed. I was blessed to see the peace my parents had found, with their grandchildren, in their old age. It was a moment of grace. Grace is around us all the time, the moments of grace come when we know it, when we remember that everything comes to us as a gift.

So what was it the young woman wanted for her father, as he was dying? She wanted him to know that he was loved by God, knowing that he was blessed.

To experience grace is not about virtue, it is not about any sense of having worked for the blessings that we have. Nor is it about being abjectly humble, as some religious traditions would have you believe it is. Augustine argued that we are miserable sinners that we could only be saved by the intervention of God, which he called grace. I think he missed the point of grace because he went on determined to be deserving all his life, in a rather life-denying way. Whether we deserve it or not, has nothing to do with it.

The world is simply here for us as a gift. We can choose to receive the gift with gratitude or we can decide it is never enough for us, or we can decide that we receive what we receive in life because we somehow deserve it. The last has always been a favourite among those most privileged in society. Those with an overpowering sense of their own entitlement to all the good things in life are also often the most difficult to satisfy. Those who can live their lives in a state of gratitude are more likely to know when they have enough.

To experience grace we have to be open to the possibility of its existence. The winds of grace may always be blowing but we need to have our sails up if we are to make any headway.

The following is by the great Maya Angelou

“When Great Trees Fall"

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

Finally something that appears frivolous and humorous and yet makes a deep point.

“A Gratuitous Duck” by Barbara Merritt

Maybe I don’t get our much, but I have always heard the word gratuitous associated with “gratuitous sex and violence” in movies I don’t want to see. Other negative connotations include gratuitous humiliation. The definition I always assumed was that gratuitous meant unnecessary, arbitrary, indefensible, senseless, and unjustifiable. Until I purchased a gratuitous duck. On my day off, a friend and I were visiting a an art gallery. I was not intending to buy a duck. I did not need a duck. I was not looking for a duck or any other sculptures of farmyard animals.

But there that duck was, with soulful eyes. Standing a full sixteen-inches tall, made with a hand-carved wooden body, a metal neck and head – a handsome piece of primitive folk art. While it clearly belonged in the mallard family, the colours were a beautiful blend of gold and green. I was surprised to find out that the duck was not very expensive. Completely on impulse, caught up in some whimsy I did not understand, i purchased said duck, intending to place it in the foyer of our home. But this duck gives me such delight that it is now sitting in our living room. Every time I see it I smile.

It has been hard to explain to my family why i felt the need to purchase this rather large, multi-coloured, aquatic bird. And then someone told me it was a “gratuitous duck.” I assumed initially that this was an insult, a way of saying that the purchase had been frivolous and indulgent. But no. I was introduced to the other meanings of the gratuitous.

Gratuitous comes from the same root as gift, pleasing, gratitude and grace. Latin: gratis. Something that comes to us as a free gift, a spontaneous and unmerited, unlooked for and unbidden gift is a “gratuitous gift.” Theologically, grace is often referred to as “gratuitous grace.”

I had not earned this duck, hoped for it, or searched for it. I wasn’t even conscious that I wanted it, let alone needed it. Yet there it sits, in a central place of my living room, offering a blessing that partly has to do with beauty and partly to do with something more mysterious.

The universe offers many uninvited gifts. Some seem unnecessarily harsh and capricious. I’m never happy with such “gifts” – I resist them, resent them, wail against them, and fiercely wish they had not found their way to my address.

And then other gifts are sheer grace, absolutely gratuitous, in the best sense of the word. A smile from a stranger, the first warm day of spring, a flower coming up through an old icy snowdrift, an email from a long-lost friend, a word of encouragement from a colleague. I just need to focus on the truth that grace shows up in surprising ways.

I have a duck to prove it.

We often receive gifts on our birthdays. The following piece by Henri Nouwen speaks of the spiritual importance of birthdays

Henri Nouwen “Birthdays”

Birthdays are so important. On our birthdays we celebrate being alive. On our birthdays people can say to us, “Thank you for being!” Birthday presents are signs of our families’ and friends’ joy that we are part of their lives. Little children often look forward to their birthdays for months. Their birthdays are their big days, when they are the centre of attention and all their friends come to celebrate.
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.

The next piece is by one of my favourite writers he talks here of how vital the laughter is the a person spirituality. Sadly the spiritual life can sometime get a bit too serious and life is far too serious a business to be taken too seriously

“Laughter” by John O’Donohue

"I think that laughter is one of the really vital dimensions of the divine presence that has been totally neglected.

I often feel when the Divine One beholds us obsessed in our intricate maze of anxiety and planning and intentionality, that She can’t stop laughing.

It’s great for people, actually, to laugh, too. I love a sense of humour in a person. It’s one of my favorite things, because I think when somebody laughs, they break out of every system that they’re in.

There’s something really subversive in laughter and in the smile on the human face. It’s lovely and infectious to be in the company of someone who can smile deeply.

I think a smile comes from the soul. And I also love its transitive kind of nature—that if you’re in the presence of someone who has a happiness and a laughter about them, it’ll affect you and it’ll call that out in you as well.

Your body relaxes completely when you’re having fun. I think one of the things that religion has often prevented us from doing is having really great fun. To be here, in a way—despite the sadness and difficulty and awkwardness of individual identity—is to be permanently invited to the festival of great laughter."

But to get a little more serious once again. I think that following is one of the most beautifully moving poems I have ever read. It is by Denise Levertov

"The Fountain"

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.

By Denise Levertov

I think that perhaps the holiest of all holy waters must be tears. I the following two pieces the first by Robert Walsh and second by Forrest Church captures this near perfectly...


Sometimes tears come to my eyes.

Is it about the war?

Is it from getting older?

Or is it just autumn?

I’m self conscious about it,

Afraid people will think I’m grieving,

Or that I’m a sentimental fool.

I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.

It happened when I had lunch with a friend I

Hadn’t seen in a long time.

It happened when I saw a bright orange maple tree

Outside my office window.

It happened when I saw a bride, whom I have known

Since she was six, kiss the groom.

It happened when one of my granddaughters

Held out her arms to me.

It happened when I heard a song about a lost dream.

It happened when I recalled a promise I had broken,

And a thank-you I had not spoken.

It happened when I thought of a friend

Who died in autumn.

It’s happening now, as I write these words.

I wipe the tears away

And go on as if everything is normal.

But it’s not normal, it’s intense, full of joy and sorrow,

And the joy and sorrow are together

In the same moments.

This is the life, and the world, I have been given

For this short times, this blink of an eye.

Thank you

by Robert Walsh

"...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?”

By Forrest Church

Tears are symbol of compassion and of course they are formed in the eyes. Of all the characteristics of Jesus it has always been his eyes or the way he looked at people that has stood. Whenever he looked on people he showed them love. He never gave a hard look. John O'Donohue seems to capture his eyes in the following poem

"The Eyes of Jesus,"

I Imagine the eyes of Jesus
Were harvest brown,
The light of their gazing
Suffused with the seasons:

The shadow of winter,
The mind of spring,
The blues of summer,
And amber of harvest.

A gaze that is perfect sister
To the kindness that dwells
In his beautiful hands.

The eyes of Jesus gaze on us,
Stirring in the heart's clay
The confidence of seasons
That never lose their way to harvest.

This gaze knows the signature
Of our heartbeat, the first glimmer
From the dawn that dreamed our minds,
The crevices where thoughts grow

long before the longing in the bone
Sends them towards the mind's eye,

The artistry of the emptiness
That knows to slow the hunger
Of outside things until they weave
Into the twilight side of the heart,

A gaze full of all that is still future
Looking out for us to glimpse
The jeweled light
in winter stone,

Quickening the eyes that look at us
To see through to where words are blind to say
what we would love,

Forever falling softly on our faces,
His gaze plies the soul with light,
Laying down a luminous layer

Beneath our brief and brittle days
Until the appointed dawn comes
Assured and harvest deft

To unravel the last black knot
And we are back home in the house
That we have never left.

By John O'Donohue

How we look at others is so important. Whether we give a hard look or whether we look with compassion can make all the difference to how we interact with the world. The following two pieces seem to catch this near perfectly,

I recently came across the following in Bill Darlison's wonderful book of short stories "Concentration and Compassion".

“The Dog in Hall of Mirrors”

"There once was a dog who wandered into a room filled with mirrors. The dog looked around, seeing what appeared to be lots of other dogs, growled and showed his teeth. When he saw the other dogs do the same, he got frightened and cowered. When he noticed the other dogs cowering, he once again growled and started barking. A similar reaction from the others made him cower and become very frightened once again. This continued over and over again until the dog finally fell over, dead from emotional and physical exhaustion.

I wonder what would have happened if the dog had, just once, wagged its tale?"

“Glad To See You!”

The drivers on the island of Dominca blow their horns a lot. I was there for a week and drove a rented car over truly terrible roads, and on the left side too. The roads are narrow mountain roads with no centre lines, no speed limits, and lots of curves.

The car rental guy explained. When they blow their horns, they may be warning whoever or whatever might be around the corner, but more often it’s in the nature of a greeting – they are just glad to see you. I think maybe they’re also glad to be alive, to have a destination ahead, and to have all four wheels on the narrow road, passing through the beauty of the rain forest and the misty mountains.

Soon I got into the spirit of it and began to give a little honk when I met another car. Eventually, I learned to wave at the other driver as I steered with one hand.

At first, I was suspicious of the friendliness of the Dominicans. I assumed they wanted something from me. I assumed they wanted to sell me something, or ask for a handout. Some of them did. But most were just, as the man said, glad to see me. After a while, I began to trust their essential goodwill and relax.

The “kingdom of God” is a mysterious idea to me. I’m not sure what it means. But if it came to be, I imagine as one of its characteristics that people would always be glad to see each other. They would react to the presence of another human being with joy and awe. They would smile and wave and maybe blow their horns or pluck their harps in greeting. Even if the person they met was a stranger, even one of another race or nationality or lifestyle, they would show with their greeting that they really believed that the other person had inherent worth and dignity”

by Robert Walsh

I love the following poem on joy by Annie Sexton

Welcome Morning

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

I couldn't end without a little more wisdom from Forrest Church. This is taken from "The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology” from the chapter “The Search for Meaning"

“I live according to a few simple principles. One I call “nostalgia for the present” (embracing each day as it passes rather that ruing it after it’s gone). Another way you might put this is “looking forward to the present” (enjoying what you have as if in a state of anticipation rather than aching longingly for that which very likely will not be). By focusing one’s energy, to the extent that is possible, on the present, one is liberated from fears of the future and also liberated from regrets about the past. I have seen people in the last weeks of their lives live every minute more fully than they have before, because they recognise what most of us don’t in our daily living; that each moment is precious.

The opposite of wishful thinking (wishing for something you lack) is thoughtful wishing (thinking to wish for what you’ve got right now). What we have right now is this day with the wind blowing and mottled light on the mountains in this beautiful place, carrying on a conversation with another human being who is also going to die. It’s very precious. It’s a miracle that we’re even able to converse. We tend, I think, to take our lives for granted rather than receiving them daily as a gift. I would hope that each day I live I might, through some encounter, be born again to an awareness and appreciation for the gift, the mystery of being, the wonder and the miracle. Not the miracle out there, but the miracle in here.”

Sunday 29 December 2013

Turn, Turn and Turn Again

"Once a king had a great highway built for the members of his kingdom. After it was completed, but before it was opened to the public, the king decided to have a contest. He invited as many as desired to participate. Their challenge was to see who could travel the highway the best.

On the day of the contest the people came. Some of them had fine chariots, some had fine clothing, fine hairdos, or great food. Some young men came in their track clothes and ran along the highway. People traveled the highway all day, but each one, when he arrived at the end, complained to the king that there was a large pile of rocks and debris left on the road at one spot and this got in their way and hindered their travel.

At the end of the day, a lone traveller crossed the finish line warily and walked over to the king. He was tired and dirty, but he addressed the king with great respect and handed him a bag of gold. He explained, "I stopped along the way to clear a pile of rocks and debris that was blocking the road. This bag of gold was under it all. I want you to return it to its rightful owner."

The king replied, "You are the rightful owner."

The traveler replied, "Oh no, this is not mine. I've never known such money."

"Oh yes," said the king, "you've earned this gold, for you won my contest. "He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

Remember those words of wisdom as you travel the road of life!

Author unknown

"He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

I was sat in the dark, in total silence except for the birds singing outside of the window on Christmas Eve with a handful of like minded friends. It was Christmas Eve, but it was also Tuesday and every Tuesday I attend a meditation group at 7am. It has become a vital aspect of my weekly ritual and I often experience the Divine powerfully during this time. We sat in silence and in total darkness together and as the silence came to a close we began to share one by one where we are at spiritually. As we spoke and the hand of the clock moved towards 8am the sun slowly began to appear. By the time our hour had ended it had turned from night to day.

We had experienced the changing of the light together. What a beautiful experience to share together the turning from night to day.

This is the turning season. The days are beginning to get longer we have passed the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. We are coming to the end of the Calendar year and will soon be stepping into 2014. What has the year been like for you?

If it has been like mine it has been a mixture of many things, some beautiful, some painful. This is life and brings to mind those words of Moses, during his final sermon as the people were about to step out of the wilderness into the Promised Land, without him. In Deutronomy 30 v 19 he said “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,”

I love that phrase “Choose Life”. Not necessarily an easy ride, but definitely one worth taking. There will be bumps in the road and troubles to face, but there will often be treasures too. Those treasure can often be found in those very obstacles, rather like those faced by the man in the story. That said if we face the obstacles and do not flee them we will know a life that is both rich and rewarding and we may well become inspirations to others too. By doing so we can lead the way to a freedom open to everyone

In life we are faced with many decisions each and every day. We are constantly making decisions about which path we are to follow. If you are anything like me you won’t always make the right one; if you are anything like me sometimes you will try to avoid having to make the decision, you will wander around in the wilderness of life, hopefully not as long as Moses and the ancient Israelites, before daring to enter into the promised land. Also truth be told by not making a decision we are actually making a decision. Passivity, doing nothing, is an action in and of itself. In the end we all have to make a decision one way or another; we all have to turn down one path or another.

It’s an interesting phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. It brings to mind a pantomime that is very popular at this time of year “Dick Whittington” which is loosely (very loosely by the way) based on the life of Richard Whittington who was in fact made Lord Mayor of London four times, despite what the rhyme says. He did all kinds of good public works during his career. Now in the pantomime he comes to London from Gloucestershire to make his fortune, “where the streets are paved with gold”, accompanied by his cat. At first he meets little success and is about to return home. As he turns back and climbs Highgate Hill, he hears the sound of the Bow Bells of London ringing. The bells though seem to be doing more than merely ringing, they are speaking to him. He hears them say...

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

So he turns again, he turns around, he does not return home. Instead he turns back to London and a whole host of adventures. One such adventure is on a ship where his cat is employed as a rat catcher, which leads to him gaining many friends. The adventures continue and eventually he becomes very prosperous and marries his master’s daughter Alice Fitzwarren and is made Lord Mayor of London on three occasions (Well actually four it would seem).

Now like all great tales, some of it is true and some of it is not. The fact that not all the tale is factually accurate does not mean that the story has no meaning. There is a universal truth in this tale that has spoken to those who have seen the pantomime or heard the story and it is in the rhyme and the voice Whittington heard through sounds of Bow Bells.

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

Whittington did not turn away he stepped forward into the unknown. He chose the heroes path. Just as so  many have done before and since in so many of the stories of life, he heard the call to adventure and he answered it.

It is a curious phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. Did you know that to turn or to re-turn was the original meaning of the religious word “conversion”. Conversion is rooted in the Latin word “convertere”, which meant to turn around to transform.

Now for a long time I use to think that if a person had been converted that this was the end of a process. Thankfully I no longer live under this delusion. Today when I think of conversion I think of it as the beginning of something of the start of a journey, down another direction perhaps or perhaps not, maybe we can turn and keep on turning down the same path. Today I see conversion as an ongoing process, not a once or perhaps twice in life time experience.

This is also how I view the beautiful tradition that I have chosen to walk down and continue to do so breath by breath, moment by moment and day by day. This is not something that comes easily to me, I am not someone who came naturally to religion. In fact I only became interested because of life changing spiritual experiences. I came to religion seeking answers, this eventually led me the Unitarian tradition, where the search has gone on. Have I found the answers? No if truth be told what I have actually found are more questions as the experiences have grown and developed. Do I believe that one day I will uncover the answer? I very much doubt it. That said what the last few years have shown me is that this spirit of humility and openness will lead to experiences way beyond my imaginings. I am sure I will be born again and again and again, I will keep on turning and resisting and turning again. I believe that this is the best way to travel, “platinum class” if you like.

In his seminal work “Varieties of Religious Experience" William James describes those who are religiously inclined as being once born or twice born, or born again as some would describe it. It is interesting that some people have described me as someone who has been re-born. Maybe they are right, maybe, maybe not.

Personally I do not like the definitions, they just seems so static. When I engage with the spiritual lives of others I see nothing that could ever be described as static. I witness people being born and reborn over and over again. I see people turning and returning over and over again. The spiritual life is not a straight path, or at least it’s not for me or the people I engage with. It is a life that is constantly turning and re-turning.

One of the reason I came to Unitarianism and certainly why I stayed is that it not only recognises this continuing process, actually it does more than this, it celebrates it. It’s kind of accepted that Unitarians will keep on turning and returning that their understanding of their faith will go down many avenues. This doesn’t make our faith woolly in any sense, just honest. I believe one of the roots of the Unitarian tradition is that we make the space to hold one another in our searching. In many ways it is probably harder to be a Unitarian than to follow a more orthodox tradition or to reject religion all together. We do not offer absolutes instead we encourage individuals to search their own experiences; individuals are asked to to seek and ask questions not only of themselves, but of each other and to actively engage with each other; individuals are asked to search the holy books of human history and of modern inquiry but not to be chained down by any of them. We say keep on turning down that road and keep on returning.

Unitarians do not all think in the same way, they don’t all believe exactly the same things and as a tradition we celebrate this. This is a joyous thing. Because even though we may not “believe” exactly the same we still journey together in our fellowships of love and attempt to carry what we experience and understand into our daily lives together. It's about being beacons to one another and the world; its about encouraging others and helping them find the courage to do the same, to keep on turning and returning. To keep on turning and not fear what we may or may not uncover on the way. You never know it may be a real treasure.

So here we all stand at the turning point of the year. Ready, I hope, to let go of what has been but without regret and to step out into the unknown; to keep on turning down that unknown road, to keep on choosing life; to keep on being born anew, again and again and again...You never know by doing so you may just make the road smoother for those who follow.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Happy Christmas: Seasonal Inspiration 4

Happy Christmas to you all...I wish you a wonderful and a wonder filled time...

As my little gift to you and whoever else may stumble across this I thought I'd put together one final collection of inspirational readings I've come across this advent season...I will begin with the following which I was recently invited to share at the Altrincham Court Leet Carol Service

"A Christmas Prayer" by Maureen Killoran

Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense
would I have for you this season,
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find,
the ones that are perfect,
even for those who have everything (if such there be).

I would (if I could)
have for you the gift of courage,
the strength to face the gauntlets
only you can name,
and the firmness in your heart to know
that you (yes, you!) can be a bearer of the quiet dignity
that is the human glorified.

I would (if by my intention I could make it happen)
have for you the gift of connection,
the sense of standing on the hinge of time,
touching past and future
standing with certainty that you (yes, you!)
are the point where it all comes together.

I would (if wishing could make it so)
have for you the gift of community,
a nucleus of love and challenge,
to convince you in your soul
that you (yes, you!) are a source of light
in a world too long believing in the dark.

Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense,
would I have for you this season,
but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find,
the ones that are perfect,
even for those who have everything (if such there be).

The second is another prayerful peace by Howard Thurman. To find out more about this great man please click here Howard thurman

“I Place My Gifts” by Howard Thurman

I place my gifts on my altar this Christmas:
Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine.

The quiet hopes that flood the earnest cargo of my dreams
The best of all good things for those I love.

A fresh new trust for all whose faith is dim.
The love of life, a most precious gift in reach of us all:
Seeing in the acts of each day, the seeds of tomorrow.

Finding in the struggle, the strength for renewal,
Seeking in each person, the face of kinship.

I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas
Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine….

Amidst all of its whirl and activity, may this Christmas bring you To your heart’s altar; there to receive a sustaining grace; the gifts of renewal and healing, the gift of stillness, and peace …
Before you set out again to follow your star….

This piece was posted to facebook by my colleague Rev Sue Woolley. It was originally conceived by another colleague Rev Liz Birtles and was rewritten by our late colleague Rev Simon John Barlow, a much loved minister, but someone I sadly never knew personally.

"A Manger of the Heart" Inspired by Rev. Elizabeth Birtles, rewritten by Rev. Simon John Barlow

Prepare the way to welcome your inner child,
The being of love and light,
The spark of holiness that lies deep in us all.

Seek signs of hope and promise in your life
And the world around you;
The stars that point the way to the Light of God.
Make your way to the sanctuary of peace and acceptance
In the depths of your secret heart.

Prepare a manger in your heart,
Built with the wood of your life:
Your body, your home, your physical comforts.
Line it with the straw of your life:
Your friendships, your memories,
Your harvest of sweet and bitter remembrances.

Bring your life’s gifts to your inner child;
Your contentments, your thankfulness,
Your hopes, your expectations of growth.
Surround your manger with your joys,
Your loves, with those you know and have known,
With the Light of Lights.

Commit yourself to nurture your inner holiness,
To seek joy wherever it may be found;
To give and receive love every moment of life;
To keep to the paths of beauty, truth and love.

Remember that here in the manger of the heart
Is perpetual light, the comfort of true peace,
And the delight of universal serenity.
When you return to the bustle of the world,
Remember your inner holiness in all that you do,
And greet the holiness in all those you meet.

The next three pieces are all taken from "Celebrating Christmas: An Anthology" edited by Carl Seaburg

“Christmas Wants” by W. Waldemar W. Argow

What do you want for Christmas? Of a truth, the answer to precious few questions serves so completely as a clue to the mystery of the human heart. At other times of the year we may dissemble and make-believe, but at Christmas our true nature reveals itself and we act from the hidden motives that dominate our lives.

Come with me this blessed Yuletide season and let the heart confess those wishes it has ever longed for, but never dared express. Aye, what is it we truly want?

I want a few faithful friends who understand my loneliness and who make it less, not by what they say but simply by what they are.

I want a growing capacity to appreciate and respond to the uncomplaining suffering of others, knowing that they fight as hard a battle against odds as ever I do.

I want a mind unafraid to travel, though the trail is not blazed, and a heart willing to trust, even when faith seems the most unreasonable of efforts.

I want a sense of duty tempered with compassion; a conception of work as a privilege; an instinct for justice tempered with mercy; and a feeling that responsibility is my debt for the opportunity of living in a day when great ends are at stake.

I want tasks to do that have abiding value, that make my life a lot better and the world a little brighter.

I want a sense of humor, including a sense to laugh much, often at myself; the grace to forgive and the humility to be forgiven; the willingness to praise and the capacity to respond to greatness and glory.

I want a glimpse of verdant hillsides, the never-resting sea, the horizon-seeking plains and the sound of a bird lifting my spirit higher than any bird can fly.

I want a few wistful moments of quiet amidst the raucous noises and feverish fret of the day, and when twilight descends like a benediction I want a sense of an abiding and eternal reality whose other name is God.


Dear Virginia

You knew all along that there was a Santa Claus. Santa as a phantom of your delight sparkled with truth from your very first encounter with life. You were born to a community of care and concern. A place was made for you. Your needs were provided. The world welcomed you and accepted you with the certainty that all life leaves on the mark of its renewal. This acceptance, in its way, is another name for love. Santa’s other name is love too.

What you should know, what you need to know is that there is a Scrooge. Scrooge wears many masks, and in the long days of your becoming, you will find him many times. You must know who he is. Unless you know the masks of Scrooge, unless you know his meaning and can learn to greet him at a proper distance, you too can be such as he! You might become a Scrooge.

The Scrooge of fiction is a familiar character of Christmas telling. To cheer and bright greetings, he has but one reply - ‘Bah humbug!’. He keeps his accountant, Bob Cratchit, on a miserly dole. He counted out the coal lumps for the feeble heating stove. His vision of life, and its purpose followed a miserable narrow track - indeed life had no joy and grinding

toil was meat enough for any person. Neither did he spare himself.

To be sure, as his tale of Christmas unfolds, he has menacing dreams and frightening visions. He awakened a changed and reformed man. But the Scrooge that lives amongst us, still awaits the healing of visions and dreams.

I pray that you will recognise the masks of Scrooge. His is the mask of cynicism. He feeds on the sorrow of unrealised dreams and ever seeks to remind you that there is no profit in dreaming; that dreams and expectations of better things, or a better you, are foolish fantasy. Reality is hard and unrelenting.

Scrooge wears the mask called despair. The frowns of the cynic are graven more deeply. They never give way to smiles. This mask mocks you with the certainty that everything good will be worse. The motto on the portals of Dante’s Inferno is appropriated for the living: ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here’

Scrooge wears blinkers. This mask is a curtain that keeps you from looking out to the company of others on life’s journey. Blinkers that keep your purposes narrow, make all dreams private property and deny you the thrill of community achievement and the sharing in another’s joy.

Scrooge wears a mirror. This mirror is a mask that tells you that you alone are of value. Purposes end with the fulfilling of yourself. The whole world is your own reflection. The selfish solitary concern of your whole life is your own well-being.

These words about Scrooge are a warning of the perilous. You need realistic hopes and not just idle dreams. Keep your eyes open. Polish up your stars and visions, but please keep a sharp eye open for Scrooge - that he you not become.

“To Live a Life – Not Merely a Season” by John Haynes Holmes

The wonderful thing about Christmas is that it fulfils all our dreams. It suspends our indifference and selfishness and fears and hates, and makes us for an instant spiritually kin. No one must be hungry or homeless on this day, no child forlorn, no heart forsaken, no race despised, no nation outlawed.

Christmas is the demonstration that no hope is vain, that the highest vision may be made real. It is as tho a spell were cast upon us, to save us...from our cruelties and lusts and make us ministers of love. The spell is fleeting – it passes quickly! But this means not at all that it is an illusion but that, real for this one day, it may be caught by the spiritual conjuration of our hearts and made real forever.

This our task – to seize and hold and perpetuate the Christmastide! To live a life, and not merely a single day or a season, which is delivered by prejudice and pride, hostility and hate, and committed to understanding and compassion, and good will! Then there will be no more Christian and pagan, Jew and gentile, black and white, native and alien, or any division – but only the human family, one as God is one, and heirs of that promise.

The following is by Maya Angelou. The find out more please click on the following link Maya Angelou

“Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem" by Dr. Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth's tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal's, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.”

― Maya Angelou

The following is an extract from "Love and Death: My Journey Through The Valley Of The Shadow" by the late great Forrest Church, which he wrote as he was dying of Oesophageal cancer.

A Closing Prayer

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2007

On this night of nights,
We have more for which to be grateful than we will ever know:
More cause to bless and cherish
And bend our knee in wonder,
More call to lift our hearts on wings of praise.

For we, too, on this very night,
Illuminated by a story and a star,
Can witness a miracle:
A birth — heralding our birth,
Pregnant with promise and oh so surpassingly strange;
A life — no less magical than ours;
A death — to charge our days with purpose,
Helping us to live in such a way
That our lives, too, will prove worth dying for.

To enter the realm of enchantment,
We must first shed our self-protective cover,
Not, as we too often and so sadly do,
Take this precious life for granted,
But unwrap the present and receive the gift,
Mysterious and charged with saving grace.

So let us, on this night of nights, set aside our shopping list of grievances,
Resist the nattering of our grubby little egos,
And crack our parched lives open like a seed.

Let us pray.

Let us awaken from the soul-crushing allures
Of sophisticated resignation and cynical chic,
To savor instead the world of abundance and possibility
That awaits just beyond the self-imposed limits of our imagination.

Let us awaken to the saving gift of forgiveness,
Where we can, in a single breath, free ourselves and free another.

Let us awaken to the possibility of love,
Body, mind, and spirit,
All-saving and all-redeeming love.

Let us awaken to the blessing of acceptance,
Expressed in a simple, saving mantra:
Want what we have; do what we can; be who we are.

Rather than let wishful thinking or regret
Displace the gratitude for all that is ours, here and now,
To savor and to save.

Let us want what we have —
Praying for health, if we are blessed with health,
For friendship, if we are blessed with friends,
For family, if we are blessed with family,
For work, if we are blessed with tasks that await our doing,
And if our lives are dark, may we remember to want nothing more than the loving
Affection of those whose hearts are broken by
our pain.

Let us do what we can —
Not dream impossible dreams or climb every mountain,
But dream one possible dream and climb one splendid mountain,
That our life may be blessed with attainable meaning.

And let us be who we are —
Embrace our God-given nature and talents.
Answer the call that is ours, not another's,
Thereby enhancing our little world and the greater world we share.

That is my Christmas prayer,
Call it thoughtful wishing.
All we have to do is put our heart in it.
And there's one more bonus.
Unlike wishful thinking, thoughtful wishes always come true.

Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.

Finally a little bit more of Howard Thurman

When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the king and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the brothers,
To make music in the heart. (Howard Thurman)

Let us go out into the world and let us carry the spirit of Christmas into all that we feel and all that we think and all that we say and all that we do.

May God go with us all.


Saturday 21 December 2013

Seasonal Inspiration Part 3

This is the third blogspot sharing pieces I have come across and been inspired by this season...I hope they speak to you too...

The first two pieces are on "Hope"...both claim it is not the same as optimism...Hope is not some projection into the future but more "an orientation of the heart"...both inspired my Advent mantra "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness"...The idea that we bring light, from the candles of our own souls into the dark places of our world rather than cursing all that is wrong...Do what you can, with all that you have in the place that you are, as often as you can...bring a little light to the world...

“Hope” by Vaclav Havel

Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.

Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.

It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,
even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

"HOPE, NOT OPTIMISM" from Taking Pictures of God
by Bruce T. Marshall

A friend whose wife is undergoing treatment for a serious illness told me that their physician advised them to approach it with hope, not optimism. My friend found this guidance helpful, and it makes sense to me.

Optimism, as I understand it, is an attitude of expectation that a particular result will occur—that a person will recover from an illness, that we will achieve a specific goal, that the Publishers Clearing House will pick my number from among the billions submitted. The dictionary defines optimism as “an inclination to anticipate the best possible outcome.”

Hope is less specific. It’s an attitude that looks for possibility in whatever life deals us. Hope does not anticipate a particular outcome, but keeps before us the possibility that something useful will come from this.

We are told that an optimistic outlook is a good thing, but I’ve rarely found it so. Optimism often leads to disappointment. When the best possible outcome doesn’t occur, we are let down, may even feel betrayed. Optimism may then become its opposite—pessimism, an inclination to anticipate the worst possible outcome.

Hope is more resilient, more enduring, more helpful. In a serious illness, for example, there are often setbacks. In the face of these, optimism may wear down. But hope encourages us to move forward despite the setbacks.

As we pursue our goals in life, optimism may lead us to expectations that are unrealistic and ultimately hurtful. Hope advises us to look squarely at the realities that confront us while remaining aware of the possibilities.

Erich Fromm observed, “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence, those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”

It is helpful guidance, I think, whether we are faced with a serious illness, a personal dilemma, or a society that seems determined to destroy itself—not optimism that a particular result will occur, but hope to “see and cherish signs of new life” wherever these may occur.

I love the next two pieces as they speak of the transformative "magic" that the season can inspire in our lives...It is easy to miss this as we get lost in what the stories are trying to teach us. We argue about events and impossibility of them instead of losing ourselves in the story in the universal mythos...They teach a universal truth that speak to us...past, present and future...What does humanity need "Glad tidings of comfort and joy" or "Glad tidings of reason and fact"?

“In this season of growing darkness” by Rick Kelley

In this season of growing darkness, as days shorten, as cold and encircling gloom deepen, let us turn to the inward light of the human community to be warmed by the world of legend and fancy.

Let us turn to the stories of miraculous births that remind us of the wonder and beauty of another human life.

Let us turn to the fanciful figures of jolly elves dressed in red who remind us of the generosity and loving care nestled within the human heart.

Let us, most of all, turn to the tales of brave and courageous men and women who stood up for what they believed, and who tell us once again of the indomitable spirit residing within humanity.

In so doing,

May we, too, become bearers of light amidst surrounding darkness...

May we reach out to others with generosity and loving care, showing them the ‘larger’ side of ourselves...

May we reveal to those closest to us some of the wonder and beauty of our existence...

And may we find within ourselves, together, the courage and determination to be with that which we believe, the freedom to become which we would become.

“And Stars Twinkle in the night air” by Richard S Gilbert

And the stars, twinkling in the night air,

Become beacons leading to a babe in a manger, or a cave,

Or other humble place, in east or west,

A child in whom the human race was born anew.

And simple shepherds, so close to the earth,

Become heroes in a great miracle play,

Finding the new born babe before the great kings of the East.

And angels, those celestial non-creatures, made heavenly music,

To stir the heart for centuries.

(Oh we know it didn’t happen that way

But one must admit, it is very poetic.)

Only a myth, you say?

Of course only a myth,

The stuff of which dreams are made.

The fabrications of which joys are made.

Only a myth.

Yet those myths link us with those we never knew,

And will link us with those we will never know.

They will speak a poetry irresistible.

For we are sustained not by bread alone,

Or by reason,

Or by fact,

Or by the daily hum drum,

So much as we are by the poetry of human imagination,

Which paints pictures where before there were only colours,

Which forms songs where before there were only sounds,

Which writes stories where before there were only words.

Someone needs to be our story teller,

For human life is more than a bleak passage

Between the portals of life and death.

It is a story, a myth

It is the myth of Jesus, or the Buddha or Confucius.

Heroes of the race.

Or is it the story of a life,

Yours or mine, a story with a beginning and ending

And all that goes between of despair and hope.

The following is a meditation based on the "Mythos" "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"...I recently told a version of it during worship and then when I finished I asked the congregation to sing. Everyone joined in and what was so beautiful is that they all knew it by heart...When we learn something by heart it becomes deeply engrained within is us...Thus revealing something of the magic of this this season...

Meditation on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Edward Harris

What can we say about Rudolph?

He was excluded by other reindeer. They did not let him play with them. We may feel confident that they made fun of him and his red nose.

It is possible that they hurt poor Rudolph. He was on the outside. The other reindeer had a special relationship with Santa Claus. They were the elite: Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Comet, Blitzen, fine names, sturdy names, bespeaking solidarity, stability, education, training, ability, access to the very best. These reindeer were strong and fast.

Rudolph was smaller and his only distinctive feature was a shiny red nose. It seemed to have a glow about it. It made the young Rudolph a figure of fun. "See Rudolph the Red-nosed. Ha! Ha! I'd rather be dead than red in the nose,” they'd say.

Still he may have been content to be red-nosed by himself. He probably muttered more than once, "I don't care. Let them have all of the fun. I can have fun by myself."

Did Rudolph wish to be included? We don't know? Probably he did, for it is the deepest wish of all creatures to belong and be accepted.

So what happened?

On a foggy Christmas Eve, Santa realized Rudolph could make the difference in guiding the sleigh. Rudolph could lead them through. Rudolph's special trait was his ugly, shiny, red nose. It was this nose, this trait that was needed.

So Santa goes to little Rudolph and asks him to guide the sleigh. Actually to lead it. He would be in front of the other reindeer. Because their mission of getting Christmas to the boys and girls of the world was so important, it became necessary to rethink past practices.

When Rudolph was asked, what did he say? We don't know; it's not recorded. We know he did not say: "I can't. I'm too little." He didn't say, "Me? The others always make fun of me." He didn't say, "Now you ask me, I've got something else to do. It isn't fair."

He didn't say spitefully, "Get somebody else. Let Dancer do it." He didn't say, "I hope you crash, you and all the others."

So we have a classic story of the insiders excluding the newcomer and making fun of his special traits. It happens all of the time in schools, play grounds, classes, society.

We say: "They just don't have it. And if they do, well we got here first and don't have to let them in our group, our company, our church, our club, our political party, our games."

He just did it. He led the sleigh through. He did the job. It was a hard job but he did it. Then all the reindeer loved him.

What does the little story, the bit of doggerel mean? What is its moral?

Some possible meanings: Anybody can serve; we need everyone to be part of the team; even the ugliest (or what we label ugly) and smallest has a special contribution to make; the mission is more important than personalities.

There are perhaps others. (Can you think of some?) Remember them when you hear the song.

For me Christmas and the way we celebrate it is the perfect universal festival. It speaks to all people, past, present and future. It has developed from a variety of traditions, religious and secular. There are many who would love to see the back of it, from both religious and secular perspectives. There always has been. These voices will never win, as the spirit of Christmas will always win...One light will always defeat the darkness...The following two pieces express these sentiments...

“Christmas” by Charles Stephen

Oliver Cromwell once ordered the heathen celebration of Christmas ended; the new England Puritans objected to the celebration as well and in 1659 passed a law setting a fine on anyone “found observing any such day as Christmas...whether by forbearing labour, feasting, or any other way...”

But Christmas survives all efforts to subdue it. Cromwell and the New England puritans were right of course, about the “heathen,” pre-Christian origins of Christmas. But they were wrong in trying to disavow it because of those origins. Its beginnings make it more universal, and those of us who have a touch of the heathen upon us can find good meanings in the season.

Scrooge, after all, was converted and promised, “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” So can we, whatever our theological beliefs, for Christmas is so much more than theology, so much more than the Bethlehem legends.

It is as ancient as the awareness of the winter solstice; and as contemporary as the inner need each of us has to hope and dedicate ourselves to peace upon the earth and within the hearts of men and women everywhere. It is as deeply rooted as human loving and sharing and giving, and it is as new as the birth of our children and the birth of wonder and birth of new ideas and new love.

“Christmas” by E. Burdette Backus

Christmas is the time when the idealism of the human heart comes to the fore. It is the reassuring revelation of those qualities in human nature in which our chief hope lies. There is much, oh so much, that is wrong with the world, that mocks the sound of the Christmas bells; but as long as our hearts respond to the song of “peace on earth, goodwill to all,” as long as we have the grace to act on the injunction that it “is more blessed to give than to receive,” as long as we sincerely feel that the great ends of life are served in causes that transcend their petty personal interests, there is hope that we shall redeem ourselves from our woe

Saturday 14 December 2013

Searching for the Heart of Christmas

We are well and truly into Advent now, well into the festival of light at this the darkest time of the year. How are you doing? Are you in the spirit of the season or are you struggling a little. It can be a difficult time for some folk in so many ways. It’s just so easy to get lost in so many different things. So much so that we fail to fully experience what this time is all about. We all have a bit of Scrooge within us do we not, we all have a little bit of “Bah Humbug”.

I've been thinking these last few days what exactly Christmas is all about, what is at its heart? What is the spirit of Christmas we hear so much about? I've been asking other people too and have heard some interesting views I've also had a look at what is has meant in the past too. It has not been celebrated in the same way over the years. Some of the things people complain about it today have always been present. This blogspot is an attempt to just explore what Christmas is about, what is at its heart? What is the heart of Christmas?

A friend of mine says that Christmas is a time of love and compassion of bringing to the surface our better selves. For many it is about family (however that is understood) coming together. For some it is about God’s Love incarnating perfectly in life, in the Christ child. For others it is the celebration of the end of winter and the coming of life and renewal in the spring time. I think it is all of this and a whole lot more. It seems to me that Christmas is the ultimate universal festival of the heart. It is a mixture of so many traditions and it has altered so much over time, embracing and incorporating so much of this simple spirit of light and love. Christmas is the ultimate festival of the heart, perfectly placed in the deep mid winter when we need it the most.

That said the very fact that it is a festival of the heart causes difficulty for some, if not all of us. Christmas is difficult for everyone in one way or another. Some places of worship offer what are called “Blue Christmas” services. These were begun for those who had suffered losses during the year to remember their loved ones, but this has now extended to include all who find this time of year difficult. Feelings such as grief and suffering are felt more intensely at this time of year because they stand in such contrast to what the Christmas ideal stands for; namely a time symbolising the fullness of the heart; a time when we are supposed to be at one with all that we love, with all that is love. It is important to remember this as we embrace the season with all our hearts.

Christmas is the season of the heart. It is a time to focus on the ties of the heart, the loves of the heart, the dreams of the heart; it is a time to focus on the hearts yearnings and longings; it is a time when we are called to concentrate on the heart, on what it wants, what it needs and what it compels us to be. Perhaps the darkness and the cold of winter helps us with this as through it we appreciate the light and the warmth that the heart of the season can bring. Perhaps by feeling cut off or separate from the ideals of season, by our own grief and sorrows, we can be brought closer to the true heart of it. Not because we are told me must, but because our own heart’s desire it.

We need to remember this as we rush through this season; we need to remember that for many there is pain and suffering. This is why my theme for Advent this year has about bringing that bit of light from our own hearts and souls into this season. By bringing light to the suffering of others we can bring warmth and light to our own hearts. This helps us connect to ourselves fully, to one another, to all life and to that eternal and universal spirit that runs through all life. For “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” When we light the candle within our own hearts we incarnate the Kingdom of God that is within us and we make it present amongst us. In so doing we bring that commonwealth of love to life right here right now.

The heart of Christmas is connection; connecting with best of ourselves, that of others and that of life. Music and singing aid this. People come together and sing communally more at this time of the year than at any other. We sing together; we sing “Glad Tidings of Comfort and Joy”, both of which are needed during this season. I know the power, the spiritual power of singing so well. Singing is one of those practices that bring me closer to that universal, that eternal spirit, it fills my heart to overflowing and compels me to fill the cups of others. It compels me to give my heart.

To give ones heart is the heart of Christmas. As Christina Rosetti wrote “What shall I give him, give him my heart.”This is the heart of Christmas.

Now of course some will argue, usually the “Bah Humbuggers” that this is not what Christmas, or whatever mid-winter festival they believe they are celebrating, is actually about. Maybe they are correct, but I suspect that they are not. Christmas has meant many things to many different people at many different times. It incorporates many traditions, is celebrated differently around the world and at different times in many other cultures. Some would like to see the back of it from a variety of perspectives both religious and secular, but that’s never going to happen. The power of love runs deep and the heart will always overcome the “Bah Humbuggers”. Just as lighting one candle always overcomes the darkness.

Did you know that Christmas was once banned in England. The Puritans in Parliament wanted the people to focus purely on Sunday as the holy day and wanted rid of all the other festivals, such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which they considered both heathen and Catholic. Christmas was a time of rejoicing and in the eyes of the Puritans debauchery. Over indulgence and revelry at this time of year is not a new phenomena it has its roots in the Christmas tradition. The Puritans turned Christmas to Christ-tide, a day for fasting rather than over-indulgence. In 1647 they passed an ordinance abolishing it. That said as much as they attempted to enforce them the laws were hard to maintain and the people continued to celebrate these feast in the ways they always had. The measures were completely swept away following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when all legislation passed between 1642 and 1660 was made null and void.

Now of course theologically speaking the Puritans were quite right in most of their objections about Christmas and the time that it was held. That said Christmas was never a celebration of theological correctness, of biblical literalism, of doctrinal purity, of historical factuality. Christmas is rooted in the pre Christian traditions. It was originally a celebration of the returning of the sun at the winter solstice that the church co-opted. The birth of Jesus was not assigned to December 25th until the year 336 and only after much debate and argument as this was the time of year that was originally assigned to the sun gods. This included Mithra, a popular deity worshipped throughout the Roman Empire as well as the dying and rising Egyptian god Osiris. So yes they Puritans and other critics are and were correct when they said, and when they say that Christmas was created by the Roman church and was a co-option of already existing winter solstice celebrations.

Does this matter? Well to many yes it does. To me I actually think it enhances and adds to the universal and eternal spirit that is the heart of Christmas.

Christmas, as we celebrate it today, owes as much to Victorian England and the writing of Charles Dickens as to anything else. “A Christmas Carol” first published on December 1843 is the epitome of what we see as the heart of Christmas today. Dickens caught the imagination of his readers in Britain and America and did so much to create the Christmas ideal a time for family and the simple pleasures of coming together around the table heart to heart.

Christmas as we understand it today and certainly the message that lies at its heart has a deep and rich history and has been fed by many traditions both ancient and modern. This is why I believe Christmas is for everyone, in every time and place. It matters not what name we give this festival of the heart that comes alive at this time of year. It matters little to me the variety of roots that formed it either; they certainly do not diminish its power. Quite the opposite actually the universality of it actually enhances my faith in that universal and eternal spirit that I name God, that light of hope that finds a way through in the darkness of winter and warms our hearts and hearths, that runs through it.

You see the heart of Christmas is the heart itself, burst to overflowing, lit up bringing light and warmth into this season of darkness and cold. It brings hope in what can be very cynical times, as it always has. Christmas is the dream of the heart, wishing to come alive. This is why Christmas is both the religious and emotional centre of the year for most folk. Christmas is the time of the heart, which calls us to our truest nature, to be all that we can be.

This is why it is the holiest of holy days and nights. This is why I believe it is for everyone regardless of background and or faith, or lack of it. Christmas connects to something universal, something eternal in all of us which allows us to connect to our true selves, to one another, to all life and to that loving and eternal spirit that runs through all life.

“Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day”. Well it can be if we make it Christmas every day. It begins by lighting that lamp, that fire in our hearts and in our hearths.

“For it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness”