Saturday 28 June 2014

Circles on my mind

I woke on Monday morning with circles on my mind. I am not entirely sure why, but they were there. Perhaps it had something to do with reaching and passing the mid - point of the year and acknowledging that the day light hours would now be shortening. Maybe it was images of a group of Unitarian young adults attending Stone Henge to mark and celebrate the summer Solstice. Maybe it was influenced by the World Cup and the nations of the world coming together in celebration of “The Beautiful Game”. Perhaps it was that image of the spherical football that had sown a circle seed. Or maybe that thought was actually the flowering of a seed that had been planted a few weeks previously when I attended a talk given by Rev Dr Ann Peart on “How We See The World”, which looked specifically at maps and their meaning throughout history.

I know that this probably sounds a little strange but I have noticed that circles and spheres have been cropping up in conversations everywhere. I have heard talk of circles in the physical circles I move in, as well as the social media ones too. I have lost count of the number of times, in recent weeks, I have heard the phrase “circles of friends” and how society is made up of many over-lapping circles. I wonder how many times such phrases have been uttered by my own lips. I heard it several times as I chatted with friends over coffee on Tuesday morning and within a friendship circle I am part of on Monday evening. Now is this because these things are on my mind that I have been hearing them, or is it because I keep hearing of circles and that this is why they are on my mind? Well who knows? Certainly not I.

I woke up on Monday morning wondering if human lives are made up of circles; I woke up on Monday morning wondering if all human life is made up of circles. Circles that are ever widening or ever decreasing.

The great nineteenth century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson held this view, he often spoke of circles. His essay titled “Circles” opened with the following words:

“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

(You can hear the whole essay by clicking here)

Emerson was suggesting that all life is a series of ever expanding circles; circles ever reaching out and encompassing more and more, as more is revealed. I think I agree with Ralph Waldo, certainly when I look at my life it is built on many circles, that are forever reaching out.

Now I am sure that there are many who will say that there must be a limit to these circles and that life on this sphere the earth is one of them. Well while that was once the case it is no longer true, we can after all blast off into space and so the circles of physical limit seem to be ever expanding too. As they say the universe is ever expanding.

Now when Emerson spoke of these ever increasing circles he was not talking of merely physical ones, he saw this same limitlessness with regard to truth and understanding too. He saw God similarly also. He saw the Divine as being beyond the circumference of these ever expand circles, but he also saw God at the core, the centre of the circle. This kind of Panentheism is something I have great deal of sympathy with. It makes sense to me, the idea that God somehow circles all life; the view that God is somehow more than all that is and yet is also at the core of life and truth; God is greater than all and yet at the core of everything.

So yes it seems that life is made up of circles and perhaps it has always been thus.

The circle is a central symbol of many of humanities religious traditions. It is often depicted as representing the sun, the moon, the door through which we are born and the human eye, I hear Emerson echoing these thoughts in his essay. As the circle has neither a beginning or end it is often seen as representing God’s love which is considered both perfect and eternal. This is why the circle is the symbol of the wedding ring, when two souls bind themselves to each other.

One example is the symbol of eternity and perfection, Ouroboros (Greek for tail swallower), which can be found in the Transylvanian Unitarian crest. This image of a snake swallowing its own tail symbolises infinity, re-birth and eternity and can be found in many other cultures throughout human history.

In many cultures the circle becomes a wheel. In Buddhism you will find “The Wheel of Dharma”, which with its eight spokes represents the “eight fold path”, which keeps rolling on to eternity. Other examples include the native American medicine wheel or Celtic wheel which with its four spokes stands for the four compass points, the four elements, the four times of the day, the four phases of the moon and the four seasons. Both were originally formed from stone circles and depict how everything in the universe is tied together, how even separate things move as one and are centred around the Sun, the giver of life, God. Here humanity is also placed at the centre at one with the Divine, the Great Spirit. Other examples can be found in Pagan and earth centred traditions. In Hinduism Shiva is depicted as dancing in a circle of flames, which represents the “Cycle of time with no beginning and no end. All these examples and many others appear to depict the circle as representing the inter-relatedness of everything.

Throughout human history the circle has appeared and re-appeared over and over again. It usually relates to the concepts of eternity, infinity, re-birth and perfection, with the Divine at is core and yet also somehow beyond the circumference.

Now while the centre is ever present the circumference is not, it is ever expanding. I believe that if we wish to remain in harmony with the core then we need to continue to expand with it. If we allow ourselves to be inspired by the centre we will forever be expanding the circumference. This is beautifully illustrated in the poem "Outwitted" which is the middle section of “Epigrams” by Edwin Markham.


He drew a circle that shut me out--

Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

There is something here that speaks to me about what true religion ought to be about; true religion ought to be about ever widening those circles so that all are included within God’s Love. Love is there at the core ever empowering us to widen the circle so as to include all. Sadly too often religion fails to do this as it draws its circles to exclude so many for a variety of reasons.

This is not to say that the exclusion is limited to religion, no you will find this occurring in all aspects of human society. If we look at our own lives surely we will see our own personal circle, our family circle, our community circle, our political circle, our social circle, moving ever onwards. Now while each circle includes ever more people, while doing so it also excludes many others too.

You know it came to me while I was wrestling with the sermon that this "blogspot" was created from, why circles are on my mind. The reason is that I am seeing division all around me. It seems that we are once again seeing the circles being sealed. Lines seem to be increasingly drawn in society. Suspicions of those outside our circles are growing and as a result there seems to be less trust. This cannot be a good thing. It is happening within nations and between nations; it is happening within cultures and between cultures; it is happening within the faith traditions and between the faith traditions, as well as those who wish to see an end to faith. It is happening within ourselves too. I often wonder if we are expanding our circles of experience and understanding or whether are we are in actual fact retreating into what we think we know.

So what can we do? Well I believe we can do much. Where does it begin? Well I believe it begins in our own hearts and souls, in our own homes and in our own communities. We need to begin to expand our own circles. How do we do this? Well I believe that we need to reach deep within ourselves to the ultimate source of love and in doing so we can begin to reach beyond our own human created limits and begin to ever widen our circles. It begins by seeing where and how we exclude ourselves and others from our circles. Now of course this will not stop others from limiting their circles but then that should not matter if we expand our circles of love to include all, even those who wish to keep others out.

Now this is no easy task, of course it is not. That said I believe that it is one that is worth undertaking. I believe it is the challenge of our age. I believe that maybe it is the task and the challenge of my own open faith tradition. I believe that it is our task to ever widen our circle so as include all, for there can be no limit to love. This begins by putting love at the core of the circle and to understand that if we see love as the circumference we will see there is no limit, for no one can be excluded from love. For if they are, it is not love.

For love is eternal and love is perfect and love knows no limits.

I would like to end this little blogspot with the following beautiful words by the Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Belletini entitled “Communion Circle”. Please read and then spend a few moments in silence before listening the song that follows...

So I ask you to please still yourselves in meditative silence…

The earth.

One planet.

Round, global,

so that when you trace its shape

with your finger,

you end up where you started. It’s one. It’s whole.

All the dotted lines we draw on our maps

of this globe are just that, dotted lines.

They smear easily.

Oceans can be crossed.

Mountains can be crossed.

Even the desert can be crossed.

The grain that grows on one side of the border

tastes just as good as the grain on the other side.

Moreover, bread made from rice is just as nourishing

to body and spirit as bread made from corn,

or spelt or teff or wheat or barley.

There is no superior land, no chosen site,

no divine destiny falling on any one nation

who draws those dotted lines just so.

There is only one earth we all share,

we, the living, with all else that lives

and does not live. Virus, granite, wave,

city, cornfield, prophet, beggar, child,

slum, tower, mine, robin, eel, grandfather,

rose, olive branch, bayonet, and this poem

and moment are all within the circle,

undivided by dotted lines or final certainties.


everything, for good or ill,

is part of the shared whole:

sky, earth, song, words and now, this silence.

"The Beautiful Game"

Saturday 21 June 2014

Radical Amazement

Every Sunday when I wake and prepare myself for leading worship I never know exactly what I’m letting myself in for, that said I have a better idea than the congregations I serve. As I take my seat in the worship space and quietly prepare myself I often look at those present and wonder what they have brought with themselves; I wonder what has been occurring in their lives, what joys and struggles are presently with them; I wonder what they are expecting from me that morning and if it will help them in anyway. I always hope that when they leave and return to their lives and the world outside of our windows, that they do so enriched in some way. My hope is that in some way a part of us all has been opened up to what it is to be alive and awake and fully human. That in some we have deepened our connection to ourselves, to one another, to life itself and to that eternal spirit that runs through it all, that I name God. It’s a risky business creating and leading worship, although I know it’s an even riskier one entrusting someone each week to lead you in it. I offer thanks and praise each week that people come and join and engage in this risky business with me…I offer thanks and praise that people open their hearts and minds and souls with me.

I’m often amazed by the feelings that life brings. They are always a mixed bag. The blessings and curses of “choosing life”, to paraphrase Moses. I felt some changes towards the end of last week, like something had shifted once again. I had taken a few days off and I suspect that my soul and body had once again re-aligned. Never a comfortable process, but always a beautiful one.

To be alive, to be human really is an amazing thing; to be alive to be here, is an amazing thing. We can go all over the world, we can blast off into space and look at all that is life and explore millions of galaxies and gaze at the wonder of it all and yet still miss the truly amazing thing, that we as people truly exist at all. Now some might call that the eighth wonder, but I say to you that it is the one true wonder and the one from which all other wonder extends from. How often do we stop and sense and truly feel that we are alive. Isn’t it amazing that we exist at all.

I feel like a child again; I feel amazed by it all again; I feel awake once again.

Life amazes me, constantly. Despite all the darkness and destruction that is present, that can overwhelm it all, life and love always seems to find a way through. Like that little shoot that finds its way back to life every spring time, finding its way through all the obstacles in its way, insisting on reaching out beyond and finding life. That amazes me; I find that utterly amazing.

Last week I was chatting away with a friend on facebook messenger when suddenly on my news feed a “Meme” appeared with a beautiful picture and a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel that read

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Now it’s one of those quotes that I’ve heard before, it does the rounds every now and again, but that day it really struck me. I paused and I listened to the words as they ran through my mind, my heart and my soul…especially the phrases “to be spiritual is to be amazed” and “Our goal should be to live in radical amazement.”

Now what on earth could that mean?

Well before I explore "Radical Amazement"I would like to just briefly tell you a little bit about the author of the quote. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a rabbi and a leading theologian in post war America. He was a contemporary and friend of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and marched arm in arm with him during the civil rights protests in Selma Alabama, which he described as “praying with his legs” . I have a wonderful little book of his titled “I Asked for Wonder” and I have shared extracts from it in worship over the years. He writes beautifully about the nature of God and Man and the religious life. There is something about his writing that touches soul and spirit in a real “earthy” way. It is deeply spiritual and yet firmly grounded in reality. The concept of “Radical Amazement” is a classic example of this.

“Radical Amazement” captures those moments, those deeply human moments when we find ourselves intensely connected to the mystery and the majesty of existence. Now Heschel is not really talking about the big moments here when we mark life’s achievements. Instead what he is speaking of is what he himself describes as “the common and the simple” those small things that reveal “the infinite significance” of existence. In many ways “radical amazement” is about paying attention and looking deeply at the routine moments of our lives and experiencing just how incredible they are. There are parallels to mindfulness here, but I think there is more to it than that, there is a sense of eye popping awe and wonder in looking through radically amazed eyes. It’s about seeing the miracle in existence. How many of us truly recognise and acknowledge just how amazing it is that we exist at all?

“Radical Amazement” is about looking into the familiar with what Rumi called “fresh eyes”, it’s about recognising that even the most routine moments are in actual fact outrageous. Just think about our existence here on this spinning planet rushing through a universe some 13 billion years old, or so they tell us. We are formed from stardust and yet made from flesh that are homes to entire eco-systems and billions of cells that are neatly balanced so as to allows us to exist, that are constantly altering and changing and adjusting to all that we experience. We who are made from stardust are more than merely stardust though, we are made up of complex thoughts, emotions and experiences and there is a spirit within each of us. We are more than merely our biology; we are more than merely thinking meat. It is amazing and marvellous to truly be who we are.

And when we see life through “fresh eyes” all this that we are made from reacts in positive and powerful ways, something we can feel it with real intensity at times. I strongly believe that there are times when our whole make up responds to the whole of the make-up of the universe and that this occurs every time that we see the miracle in existence, in a new way. Sometimes this blows me away. It is amazing that we exist at all; it’s amazing that everything came from the same nothing.

Bang…and here we are in a fabulous place…what are you gunna do here…in this sacred place, in this sacred time, in these are sacred bodies, in these are sacred lives…

“Radical Amazement” is about looking into life with truly open eyes, it is an ethical act and an intentional decision, it is the ultimate spiritual practise and as such it is one that involves great risk. This is because it opens us up to all that is, as it truly is. This requires courage, because to see the beauty also requires us to see the horror too. This may seem too awful for some, but it is the awe that accompanies vulnerability that is required to be awakened to radical amazement.

Victoria Safford in the meditation “Open Eyes” asks us to

“Think of yourself as a prism made of glass, reflecting everything as it is, unable to exists dishonestly – reflecting beauty where there’s beauty, violence where there’s violence, loveliness and unexpected joy where there is joy, violation where there’s violation.”

To see the world with awakened eyes, fresh eyes, open eyes is look into the life in “Radical Amazement”. It is life as it truly is in its awe filled beauty. It is to truly let life in and to fill us to the brim.

Victoria Safford sees this as refraction, taking in all that is life and thus allowing it to transform us so that we can begin again anew. She calls it holy work as once we are transformed by it we can let is shine out of us in the prism of our ordinary daily actions as we live in life.

She says that

“To see clearly is an act of will and conscience. It will make you very vulnerable. It is persistent, holy, world transforming work."

It seems to me that “Radical Amazement” is how to live and breathe our human spirituality. At its essence spirituality is about being amazed it is about cultivating greater openness and deeper awareness of the beauty, blessing and mystery of life. Now to me this is the essence of my chosen Unitarian faith.

Openness is at the core of my understanding of the Unitarian spiritual tradition. At our best we encourage and celebrate the kind of openness and intentionality that enables “Radical Amazement” to be possible. When I lead worship each week my hope is to encourage, to challenge and to inspire those who join with me to not get stuck in a frame work of belief or un-belief but instead to cultivate their own experiences and see deep within them so as to bring meaning into each of our lives and thus to bring about transformation both within each of us and the world in which we interact and have our being.

Yes it’s a risky business we enter into each week, but one worth engaging in.

I’m going to end this little blogspot with a short anecdote from the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Whenever he gave an evening lecture he would begin with the following words.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!"

As the audience began to stir in puzzlement, the great theologian would elaborate…

"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just take place...the sun has gone down."

How often in life do we even take the time to pay attention to the wondrous workings of the Sun and the Earth that sustains all life that enables our existence?

Never mind anything else, isn’t this amazing in and of itself?

Let’s open our eyes and look into the magnificent mystery of life. Let us live with “Radical Amazement”. Let us not lose our sense of wonder at the miracle that is sheer being.

For it truly is a risk worth taking.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Are we the religious animal? A Pentecost reflection

I was recently sent the following bit of wisdom by Robert Fulghum. It got me thinking about that often heard phrase about humanity "We are the religious animal"...anyhow here is the the little chip of wisdom...


To be human is to be religious.

To be religious is to be mindful.

To be mindful is to pay attention.

To pay attention is to sanctify existence.

Rituals are one way in which attention is paid.

Rituals arise from the stages and ages of life.

Rituals transform the ordinary into the holy.

Rituals may be public, private, or secret.

Rituals are in constant evolution and reformation.
Ritual refers to two kinds of acts: those things we do for the first time that, in fact, have been done by the human race again and again forever – and those patterns that we ourselves repeat again and again because they bring structure and meaning to our individual and collective lives. A consideration of human and personal history will remind us that rituals are not set in concrete – that public forms, private celebrations, and even secret acts get modified over time to more nearly satisfy changing needs.

Today is Pentecost one of the most important days in the Christian Calendar. Not that many will have noticed, it certainly does not come with the same fuss as Christmas and Easter and yet it is deeply significant.

The word Pentecost means the 50th day. Pentecost, within the Christian tradition, falls 50 days after Easter. The original Pentecost though was the Jewish holy day known as Shavuot, which comes 50 days after the Passover. Now Passover marked the Exodus from Pharoah’s enslavement. Remember the Last Supper was Jesus calling his disciples to commemorate this. So 50 days later those very same disciples and many other Jews gathered once again to mark the Jewish Pentecost, Shavuot.

Shavuot marks the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and was observed for centuries before the account recorded in the book of Acts when the presence of the Spirit is understood to have descended. Both Pentecost’s marked the dawning of a new era. For the Hebrews it was the receiving of the “Law of God”, which an observant Jew has to follow; for Christians it was the receiving of the Holy Spirit. They both came at a time when the people were lost and frightened and squabbling amongst themselves; they both offered the people a sense of unity across their differences; they both offered the people a sense of identity and understanding, a narrative to follow; they both were about creating a new religious identity and purpose.

Pentecost commemorates the beginning of a new revelation, a new step forward in religious understanding and practise. This it would appear, continues on and on. Religion, as does all life, continues to evolve, it has to or it will whither away and die. I wonder if ours might be a time for a new Pentecost.

Now there are those who will say that is the last thing that we need; there are those who will say that what we really need is an end to religion all together. Many see religion as the cause of most of humanities troubles and that really it’s for the weak, the feeble and mindless. It has been seen as a pill or an opiate or a crutch to keep us upright and moving forward. It’s not just the "New Atheists" either that hold this view, such thoughts have been around for some time, for all time to be honest. Sigmund Freud didn’t think much of religion. In 1927 he authored a book titled “The Future of an Illusion”. In it he argued that the belief in an almighty personal God who set everything in motion and authored the rules and who human beings depended on was like an obsessional childlike neurosis that humanity would one day outgrow as we developed and matured through scientific understandings of ourselves and nature.

Now what Freud failed to recognise was the capacity for religious understanding to evolve. He had a model for religion and he stuck to it, a bit like many of the "New Atheists" do today. I suspect that in doing so they are committing a fundamental error; I believe that even if we did do away with all religion that currently exists in our world today that a new form would eventually emerge. Why you may well ask? Well because I believe that we human beings are by our very nature religious animals. There is something within us that needs to celebrate life itself in all its pain and all its glory; there is something within us that wants to dance and to sing and re-enact the drama of what it is be; there is something within us that wants to acknowledge the mystery within and way beyond scientific knowledge and insight; there is something within us that wants to offer gratitude for what inspires us to be all that we can be; there is something within us that wants to offer hope, consolation, courage and endurance in the face of the fear and the many disappointments of life; there is something within us that asks the question why, when we consider the mysteries of life and death? These I believe are religious and spiritual needs and they are ones that humanity will never outgrow, because they cannot be outgrown.

Do you have these needs? I do and I believe that I always will. The darkest emptiest days of my life were when I tried to suppress and deny them.

Forrest Church in an interview shortly before he died said

“I have long believed that religion itself is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are the religious animal. We asked, “Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? What is life’s meaning? What is life’s purpose?” Now, we don’t always come out with religious answers. But these are religious questions we ask. We’re not the animal with advanced tools or advanced language. We’re the religious animal, and so at some point death requires our search for meaning. Without death, we would not have to search for meaning, and we would not have to search for purpose. My own sense of the purpose of life, it’s to live in such a way that your lives will prove to be worth dying for. And that puts an enormous moral, ethical impetus behind our work in this world. I take it one world at a time. I’m agnostic about the afterlife. I haven’t gone there. It could not be, though, any stranger than this. There’s no afterlife that could be stranger than life itself. And we need, first and foremost, even as we’re dying, to celebrate the miracle of this day.

I agree with Forrest in nearly every sentiment expressed here. Human beings will never stop asking these questions re the mystery of life and death, they are at their essence religious questions. This is why religion will always emerge and re-emerge even if it were completely done away with tomorrow.

We human beings are meaning makers and meaning seekers. We must not underestimate this innate desire within us. We have this need for connection to things both in and of this world; we have this need to feel loved and held too, by things that are beyond our understanding. We need a relationship to life. We need to love something. Most of us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to help create a world that is more filled with possibility and hope than when we arrived. So we pay attention to what is going on all around us. We acknowledge it. We make meaning out of it. As we do so we make rituals out of the meaning. We make rituals to mark the stages of life from birth to death and all the stages in between. These rituals come in many and varied styles and forms and come from many sources, but they are there in every human culture and society. These rituals help us connect to a greater reality from which we belong, that we finite creatures are dependent upon.

We human beings are the religious animal. Therefore we need religion in order to live fully human lives. This is why I believe that even if we were to do away with all forms of religion it would once again emerge, although perhaps in a different form or forms.

Now maybe that’s what we need. Not so much an end to religion, but a new kind of religion, one that incorporates the best of the past but is not a slave to it, one that is not shackled by what has been.

I think that now, perhaps more than at any other time in human history we need a new Pentecost; I think now more than at any other time in human history we need the dawning of a new religion, something that will perhaps unite the whole human family.

Now I know there are many who will say, oh you are just a dreamer. Well maybe I am, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I believe that the fire of unity and hope can be lit once again.

The symbol of Pentecost is the flame. Every Sunday at the commencement of worship I light a flame. When I do so I believe that I am lighting a symbol of new hope, of what might be of what humanity can become if we live in unity and love.

If we light the flame of unity and love within our own hearts and carry that out into our wounded world I believe that we can begin the dawning of a new Pentecost. Instead of despairing at this our age, let us instead bring forth new hope, let us become symbols of new hope.

Our world needs a new Pentecost that will unite it and bring humanity out of its wilderness into the Promised Land. This must grow from within our own hearts and souls. It is a fire that grows from humility and leads to connection and interconnection and inter-dependence. The first Pentecost brought the Law, the one language. The second Pentecost brought love which called humanity to understand diverse languages. This new Pentecost, I believe, is needed to bring us together through our shared humanity through a genuine sense of humility that will allow us to see our interdependence.

We need a new Pentecost, a new beginning that will enable us to fully acknowledge our interdependence on one another, all life and that spirit that runs through all of life. For it is this that can bind us together if we would but let it.

Now there are those who say that in order to achieve this that the first thing we must do is bring an end to religion, that this is the cause of all of humanities ills, but I am not one of them. I say what we need is a new religion or at least a new approach to religion that can set us free from the chains that bind us; what we need is a way to join us in a unity with all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been. It begins within each and everyone of our hearts.

We need a new Pentecost, a new beginning that will bind us together in unity. We need it and our world needs it. We need to recognise the oneness, the unity of everything. We are all part of a vast and yet mysterious living system. By recognising this we begin to participate consciously in this vast oneness. The mystics of every faith tradition have proclaimed this divine unity. It is known as Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Brahman-Atman synthesis in Hinduism, when Jesus declares “I and the father are one” he is talking of divine oneness. We are all part of the one undivided whole. We are bound together in the ship of life.

Howard Thurman described this near perfectly in “Creative Encounter”, when he said "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God."

How though do we bring about that “Creative Encounter”? Well I believe it has to begin in our own hearts and minds and souls. We need to open ourselves to it in our daily lives and to carry it out into our world that so desperately needs it.

We need to light the flame within us and we need to carry this spirit of a new Pentecost into our divided world and begin to bind up the broken.

Let us be lights in our world…let us be the new beginning…Let us bring a new Pentecost here in our time and place…our world needs it...We all need it...let us make it so...