Saturday 31 January 2015

Somebody To Lean On

"Lean on me" Bill Withers

Where do you turn in times of trouble, who or what do you lean on? I turn to people of course I do but for me the most important place I turn in times of trouble is God. These last twelve months I have turned, turned and turned again in difficult times. By turning to that infinite source that is never not there I am then better able to be of service to others. Something I have been able to do so in some pretty dark days these last 12 months, something I have been able to do these last few years.

I have been physically very ill these last two weeks and I have to say that prayer has helped immensely as I have had to just lay down and come to terms with the being completely incapacitated by illness. I have been deeply moved by the offers of help from so many people. It is good to know that you are loved. I have let people help me too. Perhaps this is the greatest gift you can give a person. For if I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that in that space when we give and receive, when we help one another, the Love that is God once again incarnates in life.

I am also grateful for those souls who have helped me in so many ways at different stages in my life. I have been guided during the darker times in my life. I have also been helped by people I have never even met by people who died even before I was born as everyone has. Those who passed on what they knew and helped those in their time and place that have impacted on we who live today. I noticed last week that 24th January was the 44th anniversary of Bill Wilson’s death. He died nine months before I was even born. He was one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and the legacy that he has left behind have brought new life to millions of the lost and hopeless. That simple message of love and service that transformed his life and millions of others including me.

I have been carried in so many ways by so many people, often without noticing it. I offer eternal thanks and praise for this.

This brings to mind one of my favourite stories. Ir goes by the name "Heaven and Hell" or sometimes "Chopsticks"...

What are the differences between Heaven and Hell?, a young Zen monk asked an aged Buddhist priest who was renowned for his wisdom.

“There are no material difference,” replied the old monk.

“None at all?” asked the puzzled young monk.

“That’s right. Both Heaven and Hell have a spacious hall with a big pot in the centre in which noodles are boiled, giving off a delicious scent,” said the old priest. “The size of the huge pan, the number of people sitting around the pot and the bowl of sauce placed in front of each diner are the same in both places.”

“The odd thing is that each diner is given a pair of meter-long chopsticks and must use them to eat the noodles.”

“To eat the noodles, you must hold the chopsticks properly at their ends,” the old monk told the young Zen monk.

“In the case of Hell’s kitchen, people are always hungry because no matter how hard they try, they can’t get the noodles into their mouths,” said the old priest.

“But isn’t it the same for the people in Heaven? The junior monk inquired.

“No. They can eat because they each feed the person sitting opposite them at the table. That’s the difference between Heaven and Hell,” explained the old monk.

I love this story, one of my all-time favourites. I have come across several other versions of it from other traditions too. There is an almost identical version that is told from a Jewish perspective. In this tale the chopsticks are replaced with spoons.

In the story Heaven and Hell appear exactly the same and yet they are experienced oh so differently. In Hell all go hungry because everyone tries to feed themselves only, they are purely self reliant. And yet in heaven they attempt to feed one another and are therefore fed in abundance. To me this is as much about the relationships as the food going into one another’s mouths. I believe that we all possess an innate need to serve one another that if we do not do this part of our natural humanity withers away and dies off. By not serving one another we starve our souls.

I think that one of the greatest delusions of the modern era is the myth of self reliance, this idea that as individuals we have all that we need and that we do not need one another. Jeffrey Lockwood in his meditation “to ask is to give” claims that:

“...One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please help me.”...In our society, self-sufficiency is heralded as a virtue, and chronic dependence on others can be degrading. But never being asked to help another person is isolating, even dehumanizing. In a culture that exalts autonomy, asking for help may be one of the greatest gifts we offer. So much of life has become a calculation of costs and benefits; to ask assistance is to create the opportunity for unconditional giving in raw, spiritual defiance of economic rationality. We become mutually indebted without expectation of repayment. Each person in the relationship becomes a giver and receiver. Each one becomes more human. Each one has something to be thankful for.”

There are several slightly different accounts in the Gospels of Jesus feeding crowds of people. Now there is a real danger of losing the meaning behind these tales by engaging in winding arguments about their factual accuracy; to get hung up on a debate as to whether or not Jesus could feed the thousands of people present with just a few fish and loaves. Is this really what these stories are about? I do not think so. To get hung up on the factual accuracy is to miss the whole point of the teaching behind the story. Mythological tales are not about fact they are about revealing deeper universal truths.

There is a line in one account from Mark’s gospel (Ch 8 vv 1-9) where we hear the words “They ate and were filled”. During a conversation I had with Rev Brian Jackson a sadly recently deceased Methodist minister, this account really came to life. He explained that the story is really about the encounter that goes on between the disciples and the crowd that by feeding them face to face they are serving them, they are ministering to them. Yes the crowd’s physical hunger is met, while at the same time everyone’s spiritual hunger is met. Seemingly everyone ate and everyone was filled, abundantly, to overflowing.

"From you I receive to you I give, together we share and from this we live."

It is not always easy asking for help and not always because of pride. In order to sincerely ask for help we have to trust who or what's hands we are putting our lives in.

I recently came across the following extract taken from “Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner


I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter's illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany. The owner of the car turned out to be, as I'd suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.

...what a beautiful story...

I passed it on to a friend of mine and in reply she sent me the following message...

"Wow!! My mum & sister often see licence plates in the states too, in the traffic or on cars just cruising along in front of them & only yday my sister sent me this......! & this is the license plate they see often."

The name that they see is "Alf", the name of her brother who sadly is no surprise to me that this is the sign they see most often...

“Trust” an interesting word. In whom or what do we trust? What does it mean to trust? I believe that trust is about the heart, more than the head. In many ways it is a matter of faith. James Fowler taught that faith is really about what we trust, pointing out that the word “credo” which one normally translates as “I believe” really means “I trust”. He claims that belief is of the mind but faith and trust is of the heart. Claiming that "Trust" is about passion it’s about embracing life whole heartedly. It’s about awe and humility. It’s an active thing too. It is a way of being and living and breathing and doing. In some ways it resembles hope in that it is something that with give birth to through our own hearts. We gain trust, because we trust wholeheartedly.

Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” We become more trusting by living in a trusting way. It’s about having faith in life and ourselves. That said it does not mean that everything will work out as we want it to just because we trust. Sometimes it won’t.

Trust grows like faith if we live with it in our hearts. It grows through trial and error, by reaching out; like love and hope and anything else that really matters. We develop trust by simply trusting. It takes real courage to trust. And of course to have courage is to live whole heartedly.

Trust is not the expectation that everything will work out as we want it too. Trust is more about how we are in any given situation, how we behave in any given situation. Trust is not just about expecting things to work out immediately but that things will come good someday.

Steve Jobs the creature of Apple, who died a couple of years ago said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Trust is a risk; it is a reaching out without knowing what will come next.

Trust is about something more than ourselves of course. Trust is about relying on more than just our own resources; trust is about learning to rely on the whole of life. It is about leaning on others at times and allowing them to lean on you. It is about more than self. It’s about opening ourselves to one another and to that greater reality that permeates all life. To put it another way. It’s about letting go and letting God.

So in who or what do you trust? In times of trouble who or what do you lean on? Do you trust? Can others trust in you? Something to ponder perhaps...

I’m going to end with a few thoughts by Gunilla Norris titled “Flying with equals” taken from "Journeying in Place: Reflections from a country Garden"

I get a rush of hopeful feeling when I hear geese honking. I have never completely understood why. At first I thought it was because they had the freedom of the skyways . . . something high and romantic . . . something in contrast to my earthbound existence. But lately I have learned more about geese through an article a friend brought to share. This new information has fleshed out that spontaneous inner feeling of mine.

What I learned is that of all the creatures that I can see in this landscape, the geese best represent the communion of saints. They depend on one another. The lead goose does the most work, but when it is tired, it falls back and another takes its place. To be able to rely on others is a deep trust that does not come easy.

The geese fly in the wake of one another’s wings. They literally get a lift from one another. I want to be with others this way. Geese tell me that it is, indeed, possible to fly with equals.

The high honking I hear when I stand on the ground and look up is the sound of encouragement the geese make to keep on flying. It is a loud and happy sound in my ears. I want to honk with others on the journey.

Saturday 17 January 2015

There are tears of laughter too

Last Friday I attended the funeral of Sheila Jones at the crematorium at Southern Cemetery Manchester. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place so full. It was a deeply moving service that spoke powerfully of the woman that she was.

 I first got to know Sheila properly when I was a student minister and over the years we have had many deep and meaningful conversations, shared our personal struggles and tragedies and shared so much of our personal experiences. We also laughed many times together at the absurdities of life, both our own and that of others. Sheila was the last, of a long list of people, who have touched my life in so many ways who died last year.

Now during the service they read these beautiful words from Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 3 vv 1-8

3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Words that whenever I hear them, more than when I read them, always touch that special place deep in the soul of me. They are words that are fitting for any season and any emotion and speak powerfully to me of the year that has passed and no doubt every year that I will be fortunate enough to experience in the future. Ecclesiastes speaks that truth of truths that whatever we are feeling or experiencing at the moment is always fleeting and that “this too shall pass” that nothing is permanent in life, it is forever changing and however you feel about a situation right now, you will feel differently soon. This is both good and bad news, well actually it is just reality.

Last week was the first anniversary of my granddad’s death. His was the first of so many losses last year. In a couple of weeks it will be the first anniversary of my brother, our Allen’s death. I shed my tears last week as I remembered the old lad and re-felt the pain of his loss, I also spoke with a few folk and remembered the man that he was and all that he meant to me, the gifts he had given me. My granddad had a wonderful sense of humour and could find the funniness in most situations, no matter how difficult. He was very funny, sometimes inappropriately so, but my word was he funny. Such a sharp wit, with little quips. Never told jokes, but never needed to, really funny people don’t need to tell jokes. He still had the capacity to make me laugh, just days before he died as he lay there in the hospice and all I could do was weep. He wasn’t trying to keep his spirits up, he was doing it for me and today I understand why. That is a true act of love. He was more concerned about how I felt in that situation than himself. He had accepted that his life was ending and was at peace with it.

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” And the seasons turn and pass and come again. Last year one line “A time to weep and a time to laugh” took on a whole new and deeper meaning. Last year I wept more than I have ever done and by the same token I suspect I laughed more than I have ever done. I know for a fact I felt more than I ever done. I have never been more alive. I lived with an un-defended heart and saw the truth that this truly is the only way to live. I felt every breath, I did not turn away. I have never felt the presence of God more deeply.

Now I’ve not always been the kind of man who was easily moved to tears. I was as a boy, but not always as a man. There have been seasons of my life where there were few if any tears, those times when nothing touched me. I can hardly remember those seasons sadly, sometimes trying to remember those soulless days can bring tears to my eyes today.

The seasons of my life that I remember by heart and not merely head are the ones in which I have shed tears. Whether they were tears of joy; tears of sorrow; tears of awe; tears of pain; tears of frustration; tears of relief; tears of laughter. These are the thick seasons when the most profound experiences of life have occurred and deeper understanding has usually followed. During these moments I have learnt what it means to be alive. These moments have shaped my soul and built my character.

I wonder what this season will bring? Let’s not wish it away.

When I was a younger man one thing that always disturbed me about funerals was how much laughter I would hear at them. At that time in my life it was something I didn’t really understand. In those days all I could feel was the sadness. Now while I may not fully understand it today, I do experience it. I understand that just like tears laughter is a communal experience, just as we bind together in our tears and suffering we are also bound together in our joy and laughter. When people laugh together there is nothing more beautiful, it can be infectious too.

Now I’m not talking about the kind of laughter and humour that is simply mocking, especially of those weaker in society, I’m not sure this is humour at all. It certainly isn’t inspired by joyousness, more cynicism, which no one is immune from,

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Spiritual freedom brings with it the ability to laugh and not to take yourself too seriously, but it’s not about picking at other people’s perceived faults and inadequacies. This does not bring people together it just aids a sense of superiority at the expense of another. There is nothing liberating or freeing in this.

Now religion and spirituality are not often arenas where humour is obviously found and yet I have come to know that the more spiritually liberated I have become, and the more religious in its truest sense I have become, the more I have discovered my own funny bones. When I saw life as a tragedy I never felt more alone and yet when I began to see life more as kind of divine comedy with tragic elements I began to feel a part of life once more.

The ancient Greeks understood this. From their religious rituals grew two forms of theatre. One was tragedy and the other was comedy, the rituals of Dionysius incorporated both elements. The tragedies motto was “woe is me”, they portrayed situations in which the people, due to their natures, were fated to focus on their own suffering. Whereas the comedies motto was “Get over yourself”, they too expressed situations that included suffering but in these tales the people were enabled to discover ways out of these situations.

Comedy is there in the Abrahamic faiths too. There is a rich tradition of humour in Judaism, but humour is also a part of both Christian and Islamic traditions. Mulla Nasrudin is the archetype of the holy fool. found in virtually every tradition. The early Christian Desert Father’s found humour within their spirituality too. You will also find humour in the parables and stories from the eastern traditions as well. You can find many of these tales in "Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from round the Word" edited by Christina Fieldman and Jack Kornfield It saddens me that in the modern age so much of this seems to have got lost as the poe faced and more puritanical factions have become the dominant elements in religion. And yet as Karl Barth has claimed “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” "

“laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”

Why is this you might well ask? Well because laughter brings us together, it takes us beyond the confines of our narrow selves. It takes us beyond the confines of our own thinking minds, it helps not to take ourselves too seriously and opens our hearts beyond the confines of our own egos, there is a reason that it is said to be the best medicine. As J.B. Priestly claimed “There is in happiness an element of self-forgetfulness. You lose yourself in something outside yourself when you are happy; just as when you are desperately miserable you are intensely conscious of yourself, you are a solid little lump of ego weighing a ton.”

There is a place for silliness, especially in the most difficult of times. Last week as I was leaving what they called the “get together” after Sheila’s funeral I spoke to one of my favourite and naturally funny people Peter Sampson, I acted the goat and then for some reason apologised for being silly. Peter just smiled and laughed and then rather lovingly said you weren’t being silly, you were being you. I walked away smiling and chuckling to myself. It was one of those lovely moments of connection that lifted both of us up in what was a rather difficult time.

It brought to mind some rather lovely words by the Bendictine nun and author Joan Chittister, that a friend recently posted on facebook

“Humor gives a people dignity in situations that denigrate them. Laughter gives us relief from the burden of dailiness. No amount of coercion can break an unbreakable spirit, humor teaches us.. . . Humor cuts oppressors down to size, takes their sting away, renders them powerless to destroy us. Don't give in to what diminishes you. Learn to laugh at it and reduce its power over you.”

Now these words led me to the following by the great pre-war American theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick, he wrote “Happiness at its deepest and best is not the portion of a cushioned life which never struggled,...bore hardships, or adventured in sacrifice for costly aims. A heart of joy is never found in luxuriously coddled lives, but in men and women who achieve and dare, who have tried their powers against antagonisms, who have met even sickness and bereavement and have tempered their souls in fire…”

An undefended heart is one that both gives and receives laughter.

As John O’Donohue claimed "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."

In the face of the difficulties that we all face it is laughter and the sharing of it that helps us to stay open hearted and fully engaged. Laughter can hold us together when all around us can appear to be falling apart and it can also connect us once again when we are tempted to retreat back into ourselves. Laughter is the greatest medicine and maybe it truly is the closest thing to the grace of God.

None of us knows what this season will bring. There will be tears, but not always of sorrow, there will be joy and laughter too, if we can but stay open hearted and refuse to retreat back into those shells of self-protection. Let’s not be afraid of our tears, for there are tears of laughter too. Let’s enjoy this season for none of us know how many seasons we have left; let’s not forget, in the words of Conrad Hyers "The first and last word belong to God and therefore not to death but life, not to sorrow but joy, not to weeping but laughter. For surely it is God who has the last laugh."

Saturday 10 January 2015

Spiritual Well-Being

Often at the beginning of a new year people resolve to live more healthily. Gym membership sores at this time of the year in an attempt to improve our physical lives. I know I would certainly benefit from getting physically healthier.

Physical well-being is of course on many of our minds this winter for other reasons too, there does seem to have been more than the average number of nasty viruses about that have ruined the Christmas and New Year festivities of many.

Yes physical well-being is on our minds at this time of the year.

Now while there is a great deal of talk of improving our physical well-being, which is of course important, there seems to be less talk of taking care of our spiritual well-being, which actually may well be more vital. If I have learnt anything in life I know that my emotional, mental and physical well-being rests on my spiritual health.

I remember that wise man from Oldham saying to me ten or more years ago, “If you are spiritually well, the rest will be taken care of.” How true this is. I learnt many years ago not to put the horse before the cart, a lesson I have never forgotten.

Spiritual well-being is vital. How do I know this? Well for many years it was something I lacked and as a result my life was devoid of all meaning and connection. I was just an empty vessel blown about in the storms of life. I was lonely, I was lost and I was ruled by fear of pretty much everything. This is no longer the case and the reason for this is that I found both an anchor and rudder as well as the ability to set my sails accordingly when the winds really blow. The key to this is spiritual well-being.

Medical practioners are increasingly recognising the potential benefits that spiritual well-being can bring. A spiritually healthy person tends to be at ease with themselves and comfortable in their own skin and surroundings. They have a developing awareness of themselves and those around them; they tend to act with patience, honesty, kindness, hope, wisdom, joy and creativity; they have a healthy relationships with the people they share their lives with as well as a hope filled view of life and a sense of inner peace and acceptance of problems we all face in life. While their recovery from both illness and bereavement tend to be less problematic.

Spiritual well-being is vital to a life of meaning and purpose and yet so many people in our increasing secularised age neglect this. Yes many folks may have a near perfect buffed body and a sharp mind and yet they can still feel empty, lonely and utterly disconnected.

Why is this? Well I suspect it is because increasingly we neglect our souls.

So how do we take better care of our spiritual well-being? Well it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that Forrest Church offered some thoughts on this. In his book “Freedom from Fear” he offers a simple 10 step regime that was designed initially to overcome self-created fear but as he has suggested in subsequent articles can work just as easily on developing our general spiritual well-being and help get our souls in shape.

I will share and reflect on these ideas with you.

The first thing that he suggest is to breathe, that by simply taking deep cleansing breaths we will quickly discover that the “breath of life communicates the secret to relaxation (that blessed state in which all other spiritual exercises suddenly become possible).”

Experience has shown to me how vital this is. I used to suffer terribly from anxiety and connecting through breath was one way that I overcame that a decade ago. All meditation begins by simply connecting to the breath.

His second suggestion is to “lighten up” Stating that “"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly," wrote the English author G. K. Chesterton. By the same token, surely the devil fell on account of his gravity. What works for angels can’t help but be good for us. Levity addresses worry’s tendency to obsess; scoffs at the demon of perfectionism; and exposes (as our enemy, not our friend) the self-absorption that lies at the root of insecurity and unhappiness. When we laugh—especially at ourselves—we fill the present with instant joy.”

I learnt a long time ago that “life is far too serious a business to be taken too seriously. I remember at school an old biology teacher telling me that a man who cannot laugh at himself will always struggle. It is something I have never forgotten. I hated him for it at the time, because I knew I took myself far too seriously and just couldn’t free myself from this blight. I just took everything so personally. Thankfully I learnt a long time ago that if ever I want a good laugh I just have to listen to myself.

His third suggestion is “Pray for someone you hate” claiming that we should choose our enemies with care as it is likely we could easily become like them. Hatred is a real burden to carry although according to Church it is surprisingly simple to be set free from. He suggests that all we have to do is close our eyes imagine the face of our enemies and simply pray, "May so and so find peace within his or her soul."

My word does this work. I have experienced the reality that it is impossible to both hate and pray for a person at the same time. The key is in seeing our shared humanity. This begins with real empathy. Once I recognised my own imperfections it became easier for me to accept those in others and to therefore wish for them what I would wish for myself and those I love the most. I have been set free from so much of the hatred and anger that used to weigh me down, like Marley’s ghost.

His next suggestion is to “Pray for the right miracle. If healthy, pray for health. Anyone who is ailing will remind you what a blessing health is. Then pray for sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—whichever of these senses you are blessed with; millions of people aren’t, you know. Finally, pray for the sympathy of those who are concerned about your plight, whatever it may be. The love of those who love you is a gift. Say "Thank you." Miracles happen.”

Thank you truly is the perfect prayer. I remember many years ago hearing a man share that when he went swimming he would say “thank you” with every breath. This really touched me and helped me to truly understand the meaning of gratitude.

His fifth suggestion is “Pool your tears”. Suggesting that our tears whether of joy or sorrows are precious and that we should follow the example of the ancient Hebrews and collect them and share them communally.

I learnt a long time ago that spirituality at its core is about increasing our sensitivity to life. I have shed more tears this last twelve months than any other year of my life. Materially speaking it has been a tough one, I have lost so many people I have loved deeply, and yet in many ways spiritually speaking I have never felt more liberated. I suspect that the reason for this is that I have honoured rather than been ashamed of my tears. I have not hid them away I have shared them communally and thus I have never felt more alive.

His sixth suggestion is “Hang up your troubles”, suggesting that we follow the example set in the following story, “The Worry Tree”

"The Carpenter I hired to help me restore and old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.

On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His face wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

"Oh, that's my trouble tree", he replied. "I know I can't help having troubles on the job, but one thing for sure, troubles don't belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again."

"Funny thing is", he smiled, "when I come out in the morning to pick 'em up, there ain't nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.""

Forrest suggests that instead of bringing our troubles home with us and infecting everything that we do and engage with at home that we hang them on our worry trees and thus give those we love the attention they both deserve and require. If we do we may just find, as in the story, that when we come to pick them up in the morning there aren’t as many as there was when you left them there the night before.

Gosh how true is this. I learnt a long time I ago that if I deal with each day and put my troubles to bed before I settle down for the evening that not only do I sleep better - I have not suffered insomnia for 10 years and yet for 20 I hardly ever slept naturally – I have also discovered that come the next day the problems are less weighty and as if by magic many of them have blown away in the night.

His seventh suggestion is to “Unwrap the present”. As he states “You may remember the magic mirror in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It reflects the fondest dreams of anyone who gazes into it. For instance, Ron sees himself being crowned the Quiddich champion. Harry imagines himself reunited with his parents, both of whom are dead. The wizard tells Harry, "It is bad for you to spend so much time in front of that mirror." He explains that only when we look into the magic mirror and see ourselves as we actually are can we be accounted truly happy. Why? Because the past is over and the future uncertain. Nostalgia dwells on loss; and expectation is often nothing more than premeditated resentment. Rejecting both—by wanting what we have, doing what we can, and being who we are—the gift of time is ours to savor and to save”

When I began to learn to love myself warts and all and beauty spots too, to learn to be who I truly I was, I was better able to live a life of good use and purpose and truly live in the present moment. That said that in order to do this I first of all had to come to peace with my past, my whole past. I think of all of Forrest’s suggestions that this one has proved and continues to prove the greatest challenge.

His eighth suggestion is to “Remember the Secret to Everything” that it’s not all about you, that as Rev Bill Coffin said "There is no smaller package in the world than someone who is all wrapped up in himself." That the over examined life is not worth living. That we must not spend too much time lost in our own underwear.

Now this may well be the secret of all secrets. The greatest danger in trying to improve our own lives as how easy it is to become wrapped up in this venture and actually decrease our spiritual well-being. I know above everything that self absorption and self obsession have been the greatest barriers to my spiritual well-being. As the song goes "You do it to yourself, you do and that's why it really hurts."

His ninth suggestion is to “Wish on a star” pointing out that by the latest reckoning there are some two trillion stars in the universe for every single human being. That we should contemplate the incredible odds that we should even exist at all and the fact that we live at all is miraculous in and of itself. While at the same time recognising that we are all connected too by a single incredible unbroken thread that goes back to the moment of creation. He states that “The universe was pregnant with you when it was born. So how about a quick and simple cosmic move. Go out this very evening. Wish on one of your two trillion stars.”

As I began to understand the reality of this that existential angst that plagued my life seemed to disappear and it helped me to understand that everything matters, every feeling, every thought, every breath matters. We are all a part of this one amazing thing that is life.

Forrest’s final suggestion is that we “Let go for dear life.” He asks “ What do you worry about most? Is it your children? Or maybe your parents, suddenly like children in their dependency on you? Is it your health—a disease or condition you have now or fear contracting? How about death—or does the pain and possible bondage associated with dying worry you more? After doing what we can to shape our destiny, the best response to life’s slings and arrows lies in ceding power that was never ours to exercise in the first place. We can do this begrudgingly or with grace, one day at a time, wanting what we have, not lamenting what we lack. The results will be almost the same in either case. Our parents will pass on; our children will leave home in pursuit of their own lives and dreams. The only difference is that fear will not preside over each departure, and love will be free to reign in its stead.”

Of all the things I have learnt in life I have learnt that by letting go of the need to control everything and accepting reality as it is I have been set free to enjoy life as it actually is. It doesn’t take away any of the pain or suffering present in all life, but it does set me free to experience the joy that accompanies that very same suffering.

So these are Forrest's 10 suggestions on how to improve our spiritual well-being. It sounds like quite a task. My suggestion to you is to try implementing perhaps one or two of them. Maybe simply begin with your breath and the sense of connection that we a part of something much greater than our singular selves, but a part that matters, really matters. Know that you are loved and recognise that love that you are formed from both within yourselves and your brothers and sisters, even those you consider to be your enemies.

As we step into the future let’s wish for something we can have, something upon which everything else hangs. Let us wish for improved spiritual well-being. This is not merely wishful thinking, but thoughtful wishing for it is something that is within our breath. And where does this begin? Well it begins with our next breath.

So let’s breathe in life and breathe out love.

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with a few words by John O'Donohue offering us a way to reclaim the sacred in your everyday moments, by suggesting some questions we might ask ourselves at the end of the day...

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions" by John O’ Donohue

What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel most myself?
What reached me today? How deeply did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence – why was I given this day?

Saturday 3 January 2015

Do not fear the future: It is unwritten

We all stand at the beginning of a new year, none of us knowing what the future will hold, it truly is unwritten. The book of life is open waiting for us to mark it with our stories and when it is written to look back on it and give it whatever meaning we find. Yes the pages truly are blank and for some this can appear a scary proposition, but should we fear the unknown? Surely the excitement and the energy of life is in the unknown and the unknowing?

I have had time to take stock on the year now gone these last few days. On a purely material scale it has been a bad year, one filled with loss. There are several people I have loved deeply and who have loved me who are no longer in my life and I have felt and noticed this gap in recent weeks, especially around Christmas. Right from the beginning of the year up until Christmas I received sad news at the loss of people who have touched my life and I theirs. I have stood and wept at too many bedsides this last twelve months and attended and dare I say conducted more funerals than I would have wanted. I have probably shed more tears these last 12 months than during any other year of my life.

I attended the funeral of a dear sweet old friend only two days before Christmas. A young woman who died of an illness I thank God I found merciful release from, she was only 41. After the funeral myself and three old mates spent some time together and talked of old days, happier days and as we remembered laughter came forth. It was lovely to spend time with old friends. I only wish it could have been in happier circumstances. I drove back that afternoon, in the pouring rain with tears rolling down my cheeks as I thought of other friends, sadly no longer with us. About half way across the Pennines at that wonderful spot, Stott Hall Farm, my thoughts turned to friends I have got to know in more recent times, especially these last 12 emotional months. Thoughts of a young woman I have got to know in recent months came into my mind. It has been a real joy watching her grow spiritually and really come alive, following a difficult time in her life. What came to my mind was how much she reminded me of my friend Cath, whose funeral I had just attended. It was not so much that they looked alike, more how much they were alike in spirit, almost the very same personality. As I continued to drive in the pouring rain and the howling wind I found I just couldn’t get the image of her out of my mind.

Eventually I arrived back in Altrincham. Now for some reason before going home I decided to go to Tesco’s as I needed one or two things for a party I was attending that evening. A party I wasn’t sure I really had the stomach for at that precise moment in time. I drove around the car park trying desperately to find a space, feeling increasingly frustrated. Finally I did and then I headed into the store, tears still forming in my eyes. As I got to the top of the escalator I looked up and almost walked straight into a friend (a man who too had found merciful release from the same illness) who I had last seen at dear old Geoffrey Head’s funeral only a couple of weeks before. I had only discovered at the funeral that this man had lived next door to Geoffrey for many years. We spoke for a few minutes and as I walked away my friend said "the last thing you need on a day like this is the mayhem of a packed supermarket, why don’t you just go home." I thought for a moment that maybe I should, but said to myself. "no I need to get this shopping done." I wandered about in a bit of daze and picked up a few items and then headed for the check out. I stood there for a few moments and then something in me stirred me to go get something from another aisle and so I turned around and carried on shopping. And then I saw a sight that turned my face upside down…

There she was the very same young woman who had come into my mind, who so much had the same spirit as my dearly departed friend Cath. I approached her, said hi and we talked for quite some time. As we did I could feel myself once again coming back to life. I’m sure I was a bit odd, I’m sure she thought so as I recounted what had happened that day. By the way she too was buying supplies for the same party we were both going to that evening.

As I walked away I just smiled and laughed to myself and offered thanks and praise for this beautiful moment of synchronicity. As I walked away that beautiful poem by Wordsworth came to mind, words I always think of as I pass Stott Hall Farm, the very same place where images of that young woman had wandered into my mind.

“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

“Spots of time” are moments in our lives that have the potential to change us forever. Moments when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary; moments when we experience reality on a deeper level.

These “spots of time” are sacred moments that are made holy by their mysterious ability to nourish us and perhaps even repair us in body, mind, heart and soul. These moments are so special because they seem so rare. I suspect that they are a kind of grace; they seemingly come to us, from a place somewhere beyond ourselves.

As I reflect back on the last twelve months of my life such moments have become less rare. Now is this because they have happened more frequently or is it because I am just far more aware of them than I ever was before? All I know is that people, places and things that have lifted me up when I have seemingly fallen. All I can say is thank you for the blessings, despite the sadness.

So as I stand here at the beginning of a new year it would be easy to do so with a sense of fear, but I do not. Instead I stand here with a sense of anticipation of what might be if I continue to “Choose Life”, with all its blessings and curses and stay open and awake, with an undefended heart, as to what might just be.

It is so easy to take the opposite view, to look at the year just gone, to see all that has gone wrong and to therefore face the future in fear and or dread of how things might turn out. We really do not know, the future truly is unwritten.

Fear comes in many forms, but we need not live in fear of fear itself. Fear is a vital part of our makeup, of our animal heart. It sets the pulses racing and heightens our awareness. Fright is a vital instinct. It points to danger, it’s a warning signal. That said there are other forms of fear which are not so useful. Perhaps the most debilitating of all is dread.

Dread and other forms of debilitating fear can overwhelm us and lead to crippling forms of anxiety which can inhibit us from simply living and being. When we are overcome by such emotions everything can appear bleak; our senses become dulled; it drains all the colour and taste from life. This leads to us projecting our anxiety and worry onto everything that we do in life; it takes the very life out of living and leads to abject misery. It drags us into pits of depression and traps us in the very things that we believe protect us from present dangers. As a result we go deeper into ourselves and get lost and trapped in our black holes of doom and gloom. It can be very difficult to find our way out of these black holes. It sucks the life out of us and stops us being who we really are, all that we can be.

So how do we overcome the power of this debilitating fear? How do we find the courage to continue to “choose life”?

Well it takes just a little faith and a little love to create the courage to "choose life", to accept what is in front of us. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Which of course it is, but it is far from easy. I believe in love and I believe in life and through living in love and remaining open to life, despite its difficulties I find the courage to “choose life”, to overcome the power of unnatural fear. Love will always overcome fear; love will always enable us to find the courage to truly be all that we can be.

We will always know the emotion of fear, we will always feel it. We need it, it is a natural instinct. That said we need not be enslaved by it. We need not live in fear of fear itself. To be free all we need do is live with integrity, live in love and to continue to “choose life”. In doing so not only do we liberate ourselves, we will be a light to others who in turn may be inspired to liberate themselves and others too.

We cannot escape the pain and suffering that accompanies the joy of living. If we want to know the love present in life we also have to accept the pain and suffering we all experience in life too, no one is exempt from this. As we all know only too well.

As we all look back at the last 12 months of our lives I’m certain we have all experienced success and failure this year; that we have all known the joy of new life and experiences, I know that I have. I am certain too that we have all known the pain and suffering of illness and death, if not in our lives, then in the lives of those we hold most dear. Life truly is awry. It humbles me every day.

When the difficulties come we all cry out in pain and ask why is this happening to me? We ask for our own cup of suffering to be removed, but eventually most of us accept reality, we surrender to it and in our own ways cry out “Thy will, not mine, be done”. We get what we get in life, whether we deserve it or not, we certainly can’t avoid some things and if we try to all we really avoid is life’s beauty. No one can escape the suffering that is present in life. If we attempt to all that we succeed in doing is blocking ourselves off from life’s beauty and then we experience the worst kind of suffering; the suffering within the suffering, the ache of loneliness.

So my message to you as we step out into this New Year, this blank page, full of new possibilities is to continue to “choose life”, it is to live with your senses wide open to the love present in those many unexpected moments. If we do life will touch us and bless us even when it really hurts. If we keep our senses open we will be blessed by “spots of time”, that will truly lift us up when fallen.

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with these beautiful thoughts...

“Beginning again on the continuous Journey” by Marta I Valentin

By the grace of the Divine Power,
which is larger hearted than we can ever imagine
we are constantly given the opportunity
to begin again
as the signposts along the continuous journey
suggest twists and turns we had not brought into view,
for the focus was on the mountain just up ahead
beyond the ridge….

By the faith of the Divine Power
that lives through the trust of our human ability
we are constantly offered the challenge to test the waters,
not just smooth the inevitable ripples
to a satiny gloss finish as if
that were the goal in life,
losing all character by not realizing:
the swells are what make life
interesting, intriguing, and indescribable.

By the law of the Divine Power,
whose very core is compassion
for our earthly missteps on this journey,
we are constantly given an opening
to remember that we each have a place
in the kin-dom* of humanity,
and the knowledge”
and courage to begin again toward a faith-filled,
loving grace that is our birthright.

*from Ana Maria Isasi-Diaz