Saturday 30 April 2016

The Gift of Inspiration

“Inspiration” by Bernie S. Siegel from “365 Prescriptions for the Soul”

When I speak to respiratory therapists the words inspiration and inspire relate to the act of breathing, mechanical movements of the chest and diaphragm which pull air into our lungs. Yet these words carry a much more significant meaning as well.

In many languages the word for breath or inspiration relates to our spirit and spark of life. I do not think it is an accident that this meaning is shared. After all, God breathed life into Adam through his nostrils. That first inspiration brought life into a piece of clay. Dust became alive.

We are all dust and clay until we find inspiration in our lives. When we are inspired, we change the world, not by changing others, but by changing ourselves. If everyone on this planet felt inspired and breathed life into each other, we would have a world of companionship and love."

...Inspiring words me thinks...

The other Saturday was a rare gift for me. I got to spend the day with my brother. I had rung him the weekend before to wish him a Happy Birthday and during the chat he asked me what I was doing the Saturday afterwards. I checked my diary and said I am free from about 11am onwards. He then asked if I lived near Cheadle Hulme, which of course I do. He then proceeded to tell me that his daughter Scarlet and he would travelling up to Cheadle Hulme School as she was competing in the national under 11 girl’s chess championship. When I heard this news I instantly said “I will be there,” cheering her on. (I realised a little later that cheering someone on while playing chess might not be entirely appropriate...Tee, hee, hee...)

I rarely get the chance to spend time with my brother, one of the few people who have known me and who I have known all my life, so it was a real treat. It was a proud moment for him too. His daughter was captaining her county team Hertfordshire, on the top table and at eight years old in an under 11 tournament. My only concern was whether she would be competing against someone from Yorkshire, in which case my loyalties would be split. Thankfully this did not happen as Yorkshire do not compete in this competition. Apparently they like to do things their own way…something’s never change in the “Great County”.

My brother had a love and talent for chess as a child too, so I know how excited he was for his daughter and how her love for chess and her talent had reawakened a passion in him. He recounted how he had taught me as a child, but I had no real interest. I also remembering him telling me how he himself had been taught by our older step brother, “Our Allen”, who had sadly died a couple of years ago. The gift and inspiration Al passed on to him is living on.

It was a lovely day spending time with family, sharing in something that they loved. It was also a real blessing, a beautiful gift to witness these young people applying and enjoying themselves through the gift of a game that I have no understanding of. Chess is not a game for me. I know how to play, how the pieces work etc but I have no understanding of the game at all, my mind is just not wired up and tuned in that way. My mind, my heart and my soul work in very different ways. That said it was a beautiful gift, to witness them making use of what they have been given. I left inspired by these young people.

We all have our gifts, our different abilities. No two people are exactly alike. We are all born with certain aptitudes and innate ability. We all have something to offer the world, to share with life, but they are not all the same. Thank God. I myself have always been a communicator, but never an athlete. My mum often tells me I could talk long before I could walk. That you could hold a conversation with me as toddler long before I took my first steps. There were two reasons for this. My mind is wired for communication and also because I was born with underdeveloped nerve endings in the base of my spine. This made physical activities difficult as a child. There was even a time when I was not allowed to engage in sport during childhood, something I hated as I watched the other children run and play. I have been re-feeling these memories in recent weeks as I have been attempting to get fit and work with a personal trainer. The old problems are still there, only I’m much older now. That said the shame is no longer there and I am determined to make the most of my body, despite its limitations. While never being athletic and never being wired up for chess I have always been a determined person. I do try to make the most of what I have been given, no matter how limited and not only for myself, but for the good of all. Whatever we have been given, what life has been gifted to us is not for ourselves alone, but to share and for the good of all.

2016 has been a strange year so. One phenomenon I have noticed has been the high rate of “celebrity” deaths. Many icons of my age and my parents age have died this year, an unprecedented number in fact. From David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan in January to Victoria Wood and Prince in the last week and many many more. The Daily Telegraph, who maintain a gallery of famous people’s deaths, have recorded more famous deaths already in 2016 (75) than 2014 (38) and 2015 (30) combined.

Now this could just be put down as a one off, an unfortunate year, but it seems that actually this is a trend that is likely to continue. According to Nick Serpell the BBC’s obituary editor this is because “People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die.” He also suggested that it will continue to rise because of the increasing phenomenon of celebrity. Stating that: “There are also more famous people than there used to be…In my father or grandfather’s generation, the only famous people really were from cinema – there was no television.”

Many of these celebrities, who have died this year, are from the baby boom generation, meaning that they were the first generation to experience fame in the era of TV. This is when the cult of celebrity began to take off, when people first began to be swept up by it and it has continued to grow ever since, even more so in this mass social media age. The trend will continue, we will lose more and more. This is because as Nick Serpell has explained: “Over the next 10 years, these people will get into their 80s and it is going to continue at this level…And that doesn’t count the surprise deaths, when people die that shouldn’t.”

It seems it’s something that we are all going to have to get used to.

Now of course this not something we should get too sad about. People like Bowie, Prince, Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman shone and inspired us in their own unique ways, making the most of their gifts and sharing them with us, bringing us joy and excitement along the way. Just as the people closer to us, ordinary people, have done so by sharing their lives and their loves with us. Just as we do when we do the same. There are many people who we have known in our lives who have no doubt inspired us to be all that we can be, as we have inspired others to be all that they can be.

Just think of the lives that you have touched and the lives that have touched yours…so many moments…Far too many to mention…

By making best use of the gifts we have been given we can inspire others to do the very same.

Inspire is one of those words, like so many in common usage, that has been reduced in meaning as time as gone by. We have reduced its power as our lives have become secularised. It originally meant “immediate influence of God”, especially with reference to the writing of a Holy book. Coming from the French “inspiracion meaning “inhaling, breathing in inspiration”, coming from the Latin “inspirare” meaning to breath in, to inflame. To inspire means to breath upon, to blow into, to excite, to inflame, to affect, to arouse, but do so through spirit or soul, it is a Divine activity. Therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that when we inspire others we are engaging in Divine activity. To inspire others is to engage in one of the highest form of love, as it is Divine love in human action.

Now such figures such as David Bowie and Prince have been called geniuses. It is often an overused word but I think it is fair to apply it to those greats who have inspired us. For it has been through their ability to inspire that their genius came alive; their genius breathed its life into the lives of others.

They are not the only ones though. We all have the genius seed within us. We are all born, we are all graced, with certain gifts. The real genius of course is the one who can give birth to theirs and inspire others to do the same with theirs.

Now throughout human history this genius within us has been understood in different ways. Many, beginning with Plato, talked of each of us being born with a companion, what some might describe as a spirit that remembers our true nature and therefore "calling" and which can guide us back to our greatest animation. It is this that truly brings us alive, that animates our very being that enthuses us. This inner spirit animates our soul, this is the genius within each and every one of us. It has been called by many names such as muse, inner voice, still small voice, higher self, guardian angel or what the ancient Greeks referred to as Daemon. It breathes its life into us and inspires us and through acting from it we too inspire others.

The gifts life has bestowed upon us, our genii are not meant to be kept or selfishly horded. They are meant to be given away, they are meant to be shared with others. Our task is to make the most of these gifts, to enjoy them and to share them with others, thus inspiring them to make the most of what life has given them. This I believe is the point the epistle Paul was making in is first letter to the Corinthians chapter twelve.

Paul wrote the letter because each member of the congregation, in their struggle to be the perfect congregational leader, was getting in the way of the others. Each one of them wanted to possess all the good qualities that make up a good leader, to become the perfect leader and to leave the others in their shadow. Each one was an actor trying to play the director and run the whole show. How often in life does this occur?

Paul taught that the spirit does not allow even the possibility that one person can possess all the talents. That said if people come together in love, live interdependently and inspire one another with their gifts they will create a community for the good of all.

We all have gifts, talents that have been bestowed upon us and I believe we have a responsibility to learn to use these gifts well and to recognise that the same spirit that gave us these gifts requires us to use them cooperatively with those who have different gifts to us. They are not to be used lightly and selfishly, neither are they to be despised or loathed. In so doing we will inspire others to do the same, to make the most of what they have been freely given.

Let us be grateful for the gifts that have been bestowed upon us. Let us make the most of these aspects of our humanity that have been given us. Let us learn to share them with one another. Let us be inspired by one another’s gifts and create a true kin-ship of love right here, right now.

Let’s breathe our inspiration into one another.


Saturday 23 April 2016

Embodied Spiritual Beings, Or Merely Meat That Thinks?

Please watch this video before reading this blogspot

“The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business
The body says: I am a fiesta”

Eduardo Galeano from “Walking Words"

The body and our relationship with it are many and varied. So many people live with deep shame about their physical being, their bodies. I know I have at times in my life. It is something I have turned away from, something I have tried to hide from. In recent months this has changed significantly. I am finally addressing and coming to terms with my all too human body and am attempting to make the most of this beautiful vessel that is the home to my being.

The body is something that we don’t really like to talk about. People are often comfortable talking about the mind, their thoughts, and their opinions about things. We are even able to talk about emotions, our feelings, these days. That said so many of us are still uncomfortable talking about the body, the home of our thoughts and feelings. Without the body we have nothing, we have no life.

Now I suspect that one of the reasons we do not talk about the body is that it isn’t so easy. So many of us live in our minds; but we do not experience the body with our minds; we experience the body in much more subtle and perhaps non-verbal ways. To experience the body we need to turn off the brain for a moment, to stop analysing and just be. You see to inhabit the space fully that we find ourselves in, to truly come alive in the moment we have to do so through our bodies, through our senses. We have to embody the moment.

This brings to mind an interesting phrase that I have become more consciously aware of in recent times. The phrase is “embodied spirituality”. Jorge N. Ferrer, professor of religious psychology wrote:

“Embodied spirituality regards the body as subject, as the home of the complete human being, as a source of spiritual insight, as a microcosm of the universe and the Mystery, and as pivotal for enduring spiritual transformation.

The body is not an “It” to be objectified and used for the goals or even spiritual ecstasies of the conscious mind, but a “Thou,” an intimate partner with whom the other human dimensions can collaborate in the pursuit of ever-increasing forms of liberating wisdom.”

For Ferrer the body is the home of the complete human being. It is the physical reality in which we live. It is through the body that we both literally and metaphorically walk our own unique path. The mistake that so many religious understandings have made is that they have seen the body as the prison of the soul. He suggest that the mystery of incarnation never suggested that spirit entered into the body but that the spirit became flesh. This is clearly stated in the following words from the beginning of John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh.” Through our bodies, our lives, the way we live our lives the spirit comes to life. We are here for a reason, life truly means something and it is our task to bring that something to life, through our lives. Through our bodily existence.

Embodied spirituality is about fully inhabiting our lives, our thoughts, our feelings our relationships with ourselves, our lives, each other and the mystery that connects all life. It’s about being fully present in our bodies and lives and therefore fully experiencing our potential and being fully alive. The body is not just a suit that clothes our being. It is through the body that we experience what it is to be fully alive. They say “listen to your body”, sage wisdom indeed. “Sacred the body” is a hymn I love to sing and sacred the body is indeed. I no longer see the body as a separate entity to spirit, it seems to me that it is through the body that spirit comes alive and further through the body that the spirit is fed.

Here are the words to one of my favourite hymn "Sacred the body" by Ruth C. Duck

Sacred the body
God has created,
Temple of spirit that dwells deep inside.
Cherish each person,
Nurture relation,
Treat flesh has holy that love may abide.

Bodies are varied,
Made of all sizes,
Pale, full of colour, both fragile and strong.
Holy the difference,
Gift of the Maker,
So let us honour each story and song.

Love respects persons,
Bodies and boundaries;
Love does not batter, neglect or abuse.
Love touches gently,
Never coercing;
Love leaves the other with power to choose.

Holy of holies,
God ever loving,
Make us your temples; indwell all we do.
May we be careful,
Tender and caring,
So may our bodies give honour to you.

...Sacred the body...

Embodied spirituality views every aspect of our humanity, whether that be body, spirit, heart, mind and consciousness as equal partners in bringing the self, community and world into a fuller alignment with the mystery that brings into being all life, while at the same time connects all life. I suspect it’s a kind of panentheism, that sees all life as being in God and that God is in all life. It sees the full engagement of the body as being vital to spiritual growth and transformation.

Sadly the spiritual and religious traditions have not always recognised the sacredness of the body; they have not always recognised that it is through the body that that the spirit comes to life. In fact they have seen it as quite the opposite. Plato and Aristotle taught that the physical can never be the ideal. That the spirit or soul was better than the real, fleshly body that contains it. The physical, Plato argued, was only an imperfect shadow of the realm of the spirit. Other traditions placed the cultivation of the spirit as something to be nurtured separate from the body. What Ferrer has named as “disembodied spirituality”. Traditions of both the east and the west have seen the denial of the body as a path way to spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism Brahmanism calls for the denial of bodily comfort in order to transcend Samsara, the continual dying and rebirth of reincarnation. The ultimate aim being to transcend the body entirely. You can see similar traditions in Christianity, Taoism and Sufism.  Buddhist writings have described the body as a source of suffering and that Nirvana could only be reached through the cessation of bodily desires. Many traditions have emphasised the life beyond this physical realm as being more important than this life, thus denigrating our physical being. The flesh has also been seen as the root of human sin. That the body is the source of humanity’s spiritual fall. The classic example is Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden to suffer from bodily pain.

Sadly the body has not been seen as sacred at all. Quite the opposite actually. It has been seen as something of shame, something to escape and transcend. That said it is not only the religious and spiritual traditions that have failed to recognise the sacredness of the body. I began this "blogspot" with the following quotation by Eduardo Galeano:

“The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business
The body says: I am a fiesta”

We live in a secular materialistic age and yet we still struggle with our bodies. How many people have become obsessed with the way they look? How many of us hate our physical being? How many people prey on this too? The body is indeed big business. In many ways we have swapped the worship for the Divine, and for life itself, for the worship of the approval of others especially with regard to our bodies, the way that we look. This does not see the body as sacred, more as a commodity that can be traded on and with. It does not recognise the sacredness of life, both our own and each other’s.

Science also, or should I say bad science, merely sees the body as a machine and not an expression of the Divine manifested in life. It sees the body as meat and it sees humanity as merely meat that thinks. Hence the sharing of that wonderful science fiction story by Terry Bison “Thinking Meat” at the beginning of this "Blogspot". Are we really nothing more than machines or meat that flaps about making noises? Is there really nothing sacred in life? When you look into the eyes of your neighbour do you see no spirit, no soul? Do you really see nothing? I know I don’t.

For me life is a sacred thing. This is why I have come to believe that everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. Everything that we do do and everything that we do not do really does matter.

It seems to me that to live a full life is to truly inhabit our whole being, body, mind, heart and soul. To do so requires us to truly inhabit our bodies and to fully express our whole being through our bodies. This means we need to learn to be at home in our bodies, to bring our bodies home if you like. You see it is through our bodies that we both give and receive love. It is through our bodies that the word truly becomes flesh and comes alive in our very being. We are so much more than thinking meat. We are the body electric. Our bodies need to touch all aspects of life, while all aspects of life need to be touched gently by our bodies. We need to love life and our very being. Our bodies need not be despised, denied or repressed. Our bodies need to know love and for them to know love we need to allow that love to be expressed by our very being.

For the word to once again become flesh and dwell amongst us, we need to express that love through our very being. "Sacred the Body"!

May we bless life by our very being in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.

I will end this little "blogspot" with the following poem by Mary Oliver

“The Spirit Likes To Dress Up” by Mary Oliver

"The spirit likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers, ten toes, shoulders, and all the rest,
at night in the black branches,
in the morning in the blue branches of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs the metaphor of the body,
lime and appetite, the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body's world, instinct and imagination,
and the dark hug of time, sweetness and tangibility,
to be understood,
to be more than pure light that burns
where no one is -
so it enters us - in the morning,
shines from brute comfort like a stitch of lightning;
and at night lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body like a star."

Saturday 16 April 2016

The Spiritual Life is Like a Flower

The spiritual life is like a flower. These are words that came to me during my morning meditation last week. They came to me as I sat in the silence with others in the early hours of a cold April morning. Where they came from, well none of us knows, but I’m grateful that they did.

Now you may well ask, how is the spiritual life like a flower? It is a reasonable question to ask. Well in the following paragraphs I will attempt to explore this thoughts and feelings.

The first thing that comes to my heart and mind is that the spiritual life is about opening up, as a flower opens up. That to live spiritually is to open up and to continue opening up day after day, season after season and year after year. Just as the flower opens up to the light, so do we. How many times do we open up and reach for the morning light? Well an infinite number of times it would seem.

That said we not only open many times we close down and shrivel up many times too. We seemingly close in, shrivel up and fade away many times in our lives only to rise and open once again in a new spring time. The spiritual life is about opening up and closing back in before opening once again, over and over and over again...

The dance goes on…We dance together over and over again, in the garden of delights, the garden of life…

We are all of us like flowers in the garden of life. Each unique and yet similar. Each with something to offer if we grow and flower and be all that were born to be. Yes a flower looks beautiful when it stands alone. It has its own beauty and own unique qualities but it only truly becomes all that it is when it grows together with other flowers in the garden. It only truly becomes all that it is when it shares all that it is with all the other flowers in the garden of life.

It is the same with us and our lives. Yes we are all uniquely beautiful and we all have our own qualities but we only truly express them and experience them when we come together in love and share them with others, encouraging them to do likewise. The spiritual life is never truly experienced or expressed alone. These things only really come alive in company and communion with others. Each of us have something uniquely beautiful to offer one another, things that only truly flower when we share them with each other.

The spiritual life is not only like a flower, but like a flower garden…The spiritual life comes alive in the garden of life…The garden of delights…

The spiritual life is not experienced alone, it does not exist alone. It only comes alive when we share it with others. No one life is an island. We cannot thrive or survive alone. We are interconnected, much like life in a garden is interconnected.

Margaret Silf captured this thought near perfectly in “The Way of Wisdom”. She wrote:

"We belong, not merely to the created order of things, but in a great web of relationship, and interconnectedness, in which every particle is intimately interwoven with every other, and in which, in some mysterious way, each particle holds and reflects something of the totality. This makes a huge difference to the way we live. Every choice we make, every response we offer, every reaction we reveal has an effect on that web of being. We are made for relationship. The Wisdom of creation insists on it. No single creature can disengage from the dance of creation without jeopardizing the eternal beauty of that dance. We are indeed created to be 'we'. To opt for merely being 'I' is to opt out of the creative process itself. It is only in interrelationship that we have our being and our meaning."

In my eyes the beauty of this interconnectedness is portrayed near perfectly in the observation of flowers growing together with all that makes up the nature of a garden. Our lives and all life is like those flowers in the garden.

You see nothing in life is separate, everything is interconnected. If we damage one aspect of life we damage all life, just as if we begin to heal one aspect of life we begin to heal all life. Or to paraphrase Jesus “What you do to the least of them, you do to me.” Everything is interconnected, nothing lives separately from all life and I believe that is all connected by a Great Universal thread from which all life exists. I call this thread God.

True reverential spiritual living, an awareness of the sacred in everything helps us to recognise the importance of everything. It helps us see that everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. It helps us recognise the intrinsic value of our own lives too. It reveals how we see life and how we live in life impacts on everything, including our own souls, our own beings. I am recognising this more and more as I live and breathe and enjoy my own being and that in which I live and breathe and share my being. In recent months as I have simply enjoyed walking round where I live I have felt more connected to the people and the nature that I pass and interact with. As my reverence and love for life has grown, so has my love for my own being too. This has helped to heal me in so many ways. It has allowed me to thrive and live and dance in the garden of life.

By observing flowers in a garden we can see clearly the interdependence of all life…The life in which we live and breathe and share our being…

Flowers can become and expression of spiritual practice. Below are two observations that show how flowers can help us to develop and grow spiritually.

Tom Cowan suggest a way to develop forgiveness and healing through flowers. He says:

“Buy a special vase and name it your "Forgiveness Vase." Whenever someone offends or insults you, buy or pick some flowers and place them in the vase. Every day that the flowers are still fresh, say a prayer of forgiveness for the person who hurt you. When the flowers have died, let your own desire for revenge die with them.”

By Tom Cowan in "The Way of the Saints"

Jose Hobday made this rather lovely observation about flowers, stating…

“Every time I saw the flower, I could see it giving its life for me and I could imagine my prayer being carried to God. That was true even when I was elsewhere and was just thinking about the flower. Either way, I had a strong sense my prayer was being heard. My flower and I were in union.

Sometimes it took a few days, sometimes a couple of weeks. When the flower finally died, I would take it outside, say good-bye to it, and thank it for giving its life for me and for delivering my prayer. Then I would bury it so it would have a chance at a new life, and I always hoped it would come back as an even nicer flower.

Taken from "Stories of Awe and Abundance" by Jose Hobday

So the next time you get a cut flower, imagine that it is carrying a prayer for you and for all those in whom you share this life, those others who live in this beautiful garden of life, the garden of delights.

The spiritual life is like a flower. I do not know where that thought came from, what its source was, who or what planted the seed and allowed it to nurture and grow, but I am glad that it came to me in the silence, that I shared with others that cold April morning. I have my thoughts on its origins as I am sure you who read this little "blogspot" do too, but none of us really know and I’m pretty sure none of us ever will. I don’t think that it matters really. The key is, I have come to believe, that I accept this gift, nurture and love it and allow it grow and of course share it with others so that we can all grow together in the garden of life, the garden of delights.

I will end with this prayer poem by June Cotner.

"I believe in Gaia the Mother All-tender,
Earth Spirit, maker of gardens,
and in her sons and daughters,
the trees and plants of four seasons.
I believe in the white lilies
and red ranunculus of summer,
and in their seeds.
I believe in the pears and apples of autumn,
the pumpkins, the blue-gray squashes
that nourish our bodies with their meat,
our spirits with their beauty.
I believe in the holly of winter
whose needling leaves and red berries
unite the green of Gaia to the blood of Christ.
I believe in the crocus and tulips of spring
whose petals open like sacred chalices
from which all may drink the joy of the garden."


Saturday 9 April 2016

What would you have me "Be"?

During a recent conversation with colleagues there was much talk about what it means to be a minister. Not so much the specific aspects of our role, more the way that we should “Be” in the world. It got me thinking about how I am in the world. How I should be in the world? During the conversation there was also talk about what it meant to be a “Holy Presence”. We were asked to ponder the following quote:

“Whenever I meet a Buddhist I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader – I meet a manager.”

We were then asked to substitute the word “Unitarian” into the quotation and asked which one rings truest?

It really got me thinking about my role as a minister and how I am in the world. What presence do I project into the world? What do people experience in my company. While I may not be a holy man I hope to goodness I do not come across as a manager.

I am a minister and I know that to minister is to serve. This is not only a physical duty, the things I do. It is as much the way that these very things are done. It is about bringing the holy into the things I do.

It is not just about what I do singularly though. It is about what the communities I serve do together. For I do not minister alone. In my eyes a Unitarian community serves together as a whole. Ministry is something that the community does together.

The key I suspect is how we are in the world, actually it’s probably more about how we “Be”. I suspect it begins by being an authentic presence in the world in which we live. By being “Who” we really are. By doing so we become a source of light in our world.

Now being “Who” we really are is about authenticity. It’s about avoiding pretence, dropping the masks and being sincere. It’s not just about doing the right thing, but being the right thing. It’s not just about what we do, but how we “Be”.

Parker Palmer captures what I am trying to say near perfectly in the following quotation.

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks; we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

This got me thinking about a prayer that I use constantly throughout my daily life. It is a prayer associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step fellowships. It is known as “The Fear Prayer” and goes as follows.

“We ask Him to remove our fear and direct our attention to what He would have us be.”

Now I adapt the wording to fit with my own theology and the situation I find myself in during the day. The key to it for me is that it is not so much seeking what I ought to be doing in a given situation, but how I should “Be”. The person I ought to “Be” in life. I do not personally believe that God maps out every intricate detail of life and will direct me to what I should do in every tiny situation of life. That said I have found that if and when I open myself up in any given situation I know exactly how I should “Be”. I believe that this applies to all of us. We can all be the open, loving, authentic, holy presence in life. In so doing we will serve life and the people around us. I believe that this is our gift to the world. which we can give and share in the way that we “Be”. In so doing we do indeed become holy men and women.

Now of course some of you who are reading this are doubt feeling uncomfortable with the thought of being holy, or being a holy person. You may well be asking what it means to be holy. You may feel deeply uncomfortable. Well please do not be. We can indeed all “Be” holy if we live authentic and open lives. We sanctify life and the people we share life with when we do so.

The word “Holy”, rather like the word “Salvation” and many others are often misunderstood. They are both linked to health and wholeness, they are really about how we live in the world, in the real world in which we find ourselves and not some distant realm or a way of being that is beyond humanity. At least it is if we explore the etymology of these words.

The Latin root “Salve” from which Salvation is formed means health. The Teutonic cognates (shared roots) for health, hale, whole and holy are the same. All these words share the same roots.

For me holiness is about salvation in the here and now, it is about being truly whole in the way that we live and breathe and share our being. It is about the way that we “Be”. It is about living with integrity and in so doing we will serve the world simply in the way that we “Be” It is the way that leads to authentic service in the world. It is the way to minister to ourselves, one another and the world around us. In so doing we become holy and we sanctify life.

During our recent denomination annual meetings at Birmingham many people spoke to me about my column in the “Inquirer”, which goes by the title “From Nothing to Everything”. I was deeply moved by what everyone said to me about how it touched them deeply. I do not seek approval in my writing but it is encouraging to be told by so many people that you have a positive impact on their lives. Several people mentioned their admiration for my openness. This led to several conversations about openness and wholeness actually. I suspect that the key to being whole and therefore holy is openness.

Openness is no easy thing. It truly is a process. I am far more open than I ever was and I am becoming more open as time goes by. That said there is always room for improvement. After all isn’t the “room for improvement” the largest room in our lives. Another subject of conversation were the physical changes in me. Now one rather astute person commented on the changes in the way I am, in my being. I have to say that this comment touched me the most deeply. They noticed that my persona was more open than it had been in the past.

This is so true and is something I am becoming increasingly aware of. It is something I’ve been working on these last few months. How we are, how we “Be” is not just about the words we speak or the spirit in which we live, it shows in our deportment too, in how we carry ourselves. Yes there has been many physical changes in my life this last year, but it is not just about the weight loss. I am working on becoming more physically open. I am learning to become freer in my physical being. It is helping me to become all that I can “Be”.

Oscar Wilde said, “Be who you are (because) everyone else is already taken”. If only it was as easy as it appears to simply be, in this quotation. How many of us waste so much of our lives trying to be something we are not, instead of trying to “Be” who we truly are. Now all this brought to mind a poem that recently came to my attention by May Sarton "Now I Become Myself”.

“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"Hurry, you will be dead before—"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

To “Be” who we truly are, who we were born to be, is no easy task. Sarton wrote this poem when she was 83 years old. It would seem that it took her a long time to truly “Be” who she really was, something she wrote of in her memoirs and journals. I commend them to you, they are worthy of exploration.

It is no easy task to “Be” who we truly are, to live openly, to live whole and holy lives. To “find our path of authentic service in the world.” You see we learn by following others from the day we are born. We learn to “Be Like” rather than to simply “Be”. It takes a long time to let go of the stabilisers of others and become wholly ourselves. For May Sarton it only really began after the death of her parents during middle age, actually about the age I am now.

Forrest Church had similar experiences it was only when he stopped living in his father’s shadow that he found the courage to truly “Be”. As he said:

"I found my calling. I answered a call that was mine, and not someone else’s." And went on to say "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are."

The key he said of course was to always “be who you are.”

This is the key of course. This is what it means to live holy lives. This is how we become a holy, an authentic presence in the world. This is how we serve the world by our presence and you know what it is never too later. It can begin right here right now. May Sarton was 83 years old when she wrote “Now I become myself”. Maybe, we only truly become our true selves at the end of our physical being. That said we need to begin some where and the only place to begin is right here right now. Right here, right now is the only place we can “Be”

Saturday 2 April 2016

The Power of Tears

“Tears” by Frederick Buechner

"They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears."

The old saying goes “Early to bed, early to rise, makes all men healthy, wealthy and wise.” Well over the last few months I have become an early riser. I certainly feel healthier for this. I’m not sure I am any wealthier, well certainly not in the material sense, although my life does indeed feel much richer. Am I any wiser? Well I think that others will have to be the judge of that.

I do though rise very early in the morning these days, usually between 5 and 6am. I have to do so in order to exercise before beginning my usual day. Now each day I go through a simple exercise routine before going out for my daily walk. Except on Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Sunday’s. On Tuesday’s and Thursday’s I attend an early morning meditation after exercising and will go for my walk later in the day and on Sunday’s I get ready for leading worship and will again usually go walking later in the day.

While I am exercising I usually listen to the radio. The stations I listen to are often varied, from Talk Sport to Radio 4. It’s strange but I do not seem to want to listen to music while going through my exercise regime. These days I to listen to music while driving and not really while doing anything else.

…I digress…

Well one Sunday, a little while ago, I turned on the Radio at about 6am and began to exercise. The program I listened to was titled “Something Understood”, it was mesmerising and caught me right in the heart of me and I have listened to this program about every other week since. Each week they explore a subject through poetry, prose, music and personal anecdotal reflection. A few weeks ago I listened to a beautifully moving piece titled “I sat down and wept” by Samira Ahmed. It was a reflection on the ambiguous power of tears and it awakened by homiletic consciousness on that cold late winter morning. The program looked specifically at our attitudes to people who weep and weeping in general. It was fascinating.

While listening there was one poem, by the contemporary British poet Andrew McMillan, that caught me deep in the heart of me. It was titled “The Men are Weeping in the Gym”

It struck me powerfully as I considered myself exercising at this ungodly hour.

Below is a recording of Andrew sharing the poem and a written version...

“The men are weeping in the gym” by Andrew McMillan

The men are weeping in the gym
Using the hand dryer to cover their sobs
Their hearts have grown too big for their chests
Their chests have grown too big for their shirts
They are dressed like kids who have forgotten their games kits
They are crying in the toilets
And because they have built themselves as statues
This must mean that God has entered them
They are ringing their faces like sweat towels in the sink
Their veins are about to burst their banks
They are flooding out of themselves onto the tiles
They have turned water into protein shakes
They have got too close to the mirrors
They have got too close to the glass
And now they are laying in the broken pools of own their faces
The lines of them at the decline press
The bicep curl
Waiting, staring straight ahead
Swearing that the wetness on their cheeks is perspiration
That the words they mutter as they lift are meaningless
That they feel nothing when the muscle tears itself from itself
That they don’t hear the thousands of tiny fracturing’s needed to build something stronger.

The men are weeping in the gym

Andrew McMillan is a gay man from the north of England and the poem is partly inspired by his fascination with heterosexual masculinity and the way that men attempt to impress other men. I get the impression that he sees a sadness in it all.

As I listened it made me pause and think as I exercised before getting ready to lead worship. He captured one of the reasons why I have had a phobia about gyms, something I am beginning to overcome. I exercise to be as healthy as I can be. I am certainly not attempting to impress anyone. Thankfully I rarely look to others for approval.

McMillan suggests that many modern young men feel they no longer have a real emotional outlet. That actually the concept of the modern man is not as real as some suggest and that young men are struggling for identity and going more deeply into themselves and into what he calls masculine activity, that they feel fragile, scared and weak. He suggests that many young men have reacted against the idea of the modern man and that they feel under a new pressure to be something that they cannot be, to behave in a way they should behave, to look a way they should look. Modern man can cry, but do they really know who they are? Are they really free?

Yes modern men can cry publicly, can show tears. Think of Obama who cried following another tragic school shooting, British politicians too as well as many celebrities can express tears publicly. Something that perhaps they couldn’t have done in the past and yet there is a deeper sense of repression in there. It is suggested that when men cry it is actually controlled, where as in women that this is viewed as losing control and a sign of weakness. So there is still a sense of needing to be strong and in control involved when showing emotion publicly.

There is something deeply sad in all of this…I suspect that we men are missing out of something deeply sacred…There is something deeply sacred in tears…

This got me thinking about how and where we cry. In recent times I have heard several people say that they cannot cry alone; that they need other people to be there so that they can feel safe enough to cry. I suspect that this has something to do with the fear of being out of control and being unable to get back to what they perceive as normality. I may well be wrong, but I don’t think so. If you cry in public you will of course be heard and there will usually be someone or even several people who will respond and help you to put things back together again. Sometimes though I think it best just to let someone fall apart and cry. To not put them back together again, just to be with them and to let them let it go.

One thing I have noticed about myself is that I rarely cry in public, not in an utterly out of control way. I think the last time I did so in an utterly uncontrolled way was when I carried Ethan’s coffin out of the church as his funeral. I broke completely in that moment. Nothing could have held that flood back. That said even then I had to maintain some control, even if it was just of my arms and legs.

I do shed tears often, sometimes while leading worship. I don’t fear it. I know these tears are sacred and it is my soul responding to something greater than myself…

...But do I ever lose complete control?

Well I do at times fight back my tears. Not as much as I used to, but I do. I remember going to see my granddad just days before he died at Kirkwood Hospice. As I saw him there asleep I had to fight back the tears as I began to speak to him and he awoke. I somehow managed to get myself back together and spend a little time with him in those last days. I kind of knew somewhere deep within me that if my granddad saw me crying it would hurt him and that was the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. As I drove home all I could do was weep, but there was no one else there while I did so. It was similar with “our Allen” and other friends and loved ones. It has been the same with loving members of the congregation and friends too. I shed tears, but I don’t seem to lose control utterly. I allow the tears to sooth both myself and others but I rarely lose complete control.

…Yes I am open to shedding tears, but I do not weep uncontrollably, well at least not publicly…

And yet I know that there is a strength in tears. We weep with gratitude over all the amazing gifts that life offers to us. We weep communally when we share moments of great joy with others. These tears enable us to connect to our deepest feelings. They help us express our grief at endings and the loss of those who are precious to us.

As Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat remind us

“Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He also wept over the city of Jerusalem and in our time, we weep over Jerusalem and Baghdad and Kabul and the refugee cities in Palestine and the Sudan and elsewhere. A Yiddish proverb says, "What soap is for the baby, tears are for the soul."

The early Christian desert fathers and mothers had the highest regard for what they called "the gift of tears." According to Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, these drops "are like the breaking of the waters of the womb before the birth of a child." That's a wonderful way to describe the connection between pain and joy!”

Ancient Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures recognised the sacredness of tears. During their funeral rites they would cry into lacrimatories or tear cups. These small veils, filled with tears and sealed would often be buried with the deceased. In one sense these buried the griever’s feelings but they were also a way of offering a tribute to the lost loved one. In this sense the tears were the final gift to the life that had been lost.

So even though I know that weeping, that crying is a deep sacrament of love, I still do not want to let go absolutely and I know I am not alone. I feel that many of us still find this difficult. I suspect in so doing we are missing out on really hitting the depths of our human experience and transcending absolutely our human created limits. You see when we weep tears our experiences stretch beyond what the mind can comprehend, for tears truly tear open our hearts. Something so many of us, myself included, are afraid of, or so it would seem.

Tears are sacraments of love. Crying is a true spiritual experience that connects us to our deeper selves, one another, all life and that power that both creates and connects all life.

May we fear no more to shed our tears.

...I will end this little "spot" with the following reflection by David O. Rankin

“A Time to Cry” by David O. Rankin

The mother waited for her child at the bus stop. The bus arrived on time, depositing the passengers on the other side of the highway.

The eight-year-old boy broke from the group and began running across the four lanes of concrete.
The blue Cadillac crushed him like a plastic doll.

In the living-room that day:
You tell her to speak to God.
You tell her to eat and sleep.
You tell her to look to the future.
You tell her to walk in cool air.
You tell her to bear the pain and sorrow.
You tell her to think of the other children.

But your face is wet with tears; and your heart is gripped with fear; and your mind is lost in darkness; and your soul plunges wildly into the desolation of the valley – where all words are symbols of absurdity.

Yes there will be another day. But today-there is nothing to do but share the tragedy. There is nothing to do but cry!

Taken from “Portraits from the Cross”