Saturday 28 May 2016


Whenever we find ourselves at another threshold of life, at one of those transitional moments when we must make a decision, I wonder if we find ourselves desperately searching weighing up all the choices with pure reason, discerning every possibility or do we “feel” our way through it, do we instead allow our gut to discover a sense of rightness. By what are we guided? Do we imagine that the universe, or a divine presence, has guidance to offer us, that we are being called down one path that we are the part of destiny in an ever unfolding universe? Or do we instead believe that we are all quite on our own in an indifferent universe, and that all things in this life unfold by some combination of human action and random chance?

I wonder what we believe. I wonder what you who read this "blogspot" believe...

Do we simply make our own meaning as we journey along making our own self sufficient and self-reliant choices with the consequences that accompany them? Or do we feel led or at least lured on in some way? Not passively of course, but as a part of the unfolding. An understanding that recognises a purpose in our lives within the larger unfolding and with a sense of communication with the Divine reality.

I wonder how we see this? Do we feel alone pushed and pulled by the randomness, just reacting or responding, while accepting responsibility; or do we feel a part of a greater un-folding and guided along.

Personally I have experienced both feelings in my life. I have felt utterly alone and blown about by randomness at stages of my life. Passages when I have longed for, prayed for, begged for guidance from God or from my own deeper wisdom, and was met by deafening silence and a deep sense of being alone with impossible decisions to make. At others I have experienced synchronicities and compelling intuitions that have led to me to believe in an intelligent, responsive and mysterious reality. Times when I have felt drawn along by a seeming great energy in a direction that felt right in every way, an undeniable lure or intuition calling me to do a particular thing. Moments of no doubt when life just opened up in front of me. This did not lead to an abdication of responsibility by the way, quite the opposite in reality. If truth be told it gave me a greater sense of responsibility and of course belonging

Today I see myself, and all creative life, as part the great co-creation. Today I feel at ease with the responsibility for the part I play in life. For me everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. Everything we do and everything we do not do, matters.

I have felt this powerfully during my ministry amongst the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston. I remember my good friend Derek turning to me, almost randomly just weeks before my ministry training began as we were attending an AA meeting in the school room at the chapel in Altrincham just saying to me, without explanation, that I would be minister here. He then just carried on going on with himself about something else. we spoke about this a couple of years ago and he simply said that the feeling just came to him that day as we walked and talked together.

Now some folk call these moments of intuition synchronicity. Something that I and the congregations I serve have a growing awareness of. So many meaningful coincidences have come to pass these last six or more years.

I have had some powerful personal experiences of synchronicity in recent weeks. I will recount a couple of recent meaningful encounters to illustrate.

I recently began receiving massage therapy. It is benefiting me greatly and I have developed a deeps sense of intuitive connection with my therapist. This is something we have both acknowledge.

Now a few weeks ago I was walking to the supermarket when I had a strong sense of her come into my being. I visualised seeing her but with someone, her boyfriend, in the supermarket and as I approached this sense grew stronger. Well guess what as I waked around the supermarket there she was and with her boyfriend. We said hello and chatted for a few moments. I though felt a little uncomfortable and kind of wanted to get away quickly. What made me feel this way was that I knew him; I knew him from my past many years ago. What was just as peculiar was that in recent weeks I had passed him several times in the street. He has lived in Altrincham for many years and yet I had only begun to notice him in recent weeks. Now when I went for the next massage therapy session we talked about the encounter. I explained that I had sensed I would see her and that she would be with someone and told her that I knew her boyfriend many years ago. I called him by his full name, which apparently no one else does. Now the reason that I knew him was that he used to go out with an very old friend of mine, someone who was an important part of my recovery journey many years ago. Now I didn’t mention my old friend by name, just that we had mutual friends. Well the next time that we met guess what had happened. Both my therapist and her boyfriend bumped into my old friend for the first time in years as they were out and about and they then realised how I knew him and what I had been talking about.

Now there was no more mention of this for a few weeks. As the weeks went by this old friend was floating about in my consciousness. Well last week I took a member of the congregation to visit his mother in St Ann’s hospice and as I was driving there I felt powerfully this sense of my old friend who I had not seen for many years. We went to the hospice and as we were leaving, walking toward the entrance, from the other wing walked a figure I recognised and who looked at me and then came rushing forward. She said “I nearly didn’t recognise you as you look so different, you look so well”. We spoke for a few moments. She told me that she was looking to get married and had been to a wedding at the Unitarian chapel in Macclesfield where I had been student minister. I told her I had this strong sense I would see her that day and she said “oh well it must be fate.” We exchanged details and agreed to meet up to discuss plans for a wedding, as she would love me to conduct the ceremony.

Now what does this all mean? Was it merely coincidence? Was something greater at play? Was it fate? Was it meant to be? For me it was a beautiful example of synchronicity. We will see what grows from it.

According to Phil Cousineau "Synchronicity is an inexplicable and profoundly meaningful coincidence that stirs the soul and offers a glimpse of one's destiny."

Most folk talk of experiencing moments of synchronicity. The anticipation of a phone call from a person just seconds before it rings; the chance meeting with someone from the past who has the answer we have been looking for; that feeling of deep connection with someone when something happens to them although they are physically miles apart, we feel their pain and or joy deeply. It is these feelings, if we pay attention to them, that will call us to engage with life in deeper more meaningful ways. If we do more meaning and intuitive connection emerges.

Mothers often talk about a connection with their children of feeling their pain, even when they are not physically in their company. I’ve heard similar experiences recounted by siblings especially twins. Can these occurrences be rationally explained, it would appear not and yet so many of us recount them.

I have felt this too. It happened to me the moment that Ethan, my friend Claire’s son died. I was sat on the bus travelling to work when suddenly I felt violently sick in my stomach. I had never felt a sensation like it before or since. I discovered sometime later this was the exact moment that the breathing apparatus in the hospital was turned off and Ethan was declared dead. Now you could just say that this was coincidence, but I believe it was due to the connection between us. It is not something I thought much about at the time, but as I have reflected upon it since it has made more sense. Of course many would say I was just feeling ill. My answer to that would be, this was not merely travel sickness it was far more violent. I had a very special connection with Ethan, throughout the few years that he lived. He taught me how to experience the Love I know as God.

The psychologist Carl Jung coined the phrase synchronicity in an attempt to explain what he called "meaningful coincidences ", that occur due to seemingly unrelated events. His concept of synchronicity came about through the many baffling coincidences his patients shared with him in his practice, especially as he began to realize that the occurrences went beyond what could be attributed to mere chance. His interest has also been attributed to a series conversations, over many years, that he had with Albert Einstein.

One example of synchronicity that really intrigued Carl Jung occurred with a patient recounting her dream of a golden scarab beetle. A young woman who Jung had been treating told him of a dream in which she had been given a golden scarab. He was sitting with his back to a closed window while she told him about the dream. Suddenly he heard a gentle tapping and turned to see a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. Jung opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. The insect closely resembled a golden scarab. It was the one closest related to such a creature in their part of the world. Normally, such insects would not come into a dark room, but at the same moment the patient mentioned the beetle she had been given in her dream, this beetle appeared at Jung’s window. He was quite astonished at the coincidental timing and admitted that nothing like it ever happened to him before or since. This was also a breakthrough moment for the patient who had become bogged down in his attempts to treat her.

Synchronicity suggests that events we experience as human beings are more than mere chance, that there is more going on; that we humans and all of life are connected and at a deeper level than would outwardly appear. Suggesting that who we are, what we think, feel, imagine, react to, are interrelated with the things going on around us in our environment; that at times who and what we are, how we appear to be to others and how, who, and what they are and how they appear to us converge together.

Could this be true?

Well maybe, maybe not...It is for each of us to decide...

All this brought to mind a poem I have recently come across, which to my mind ponders these very questions...The poem is "Love at First Sight" by Wislawa Szymborska

"Love at First Sight" by Wislawa Szymborska

They're both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is beautiful,
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.

Since they'd never met before, they're sure
that there'd been nothing between them.
But what's the word from the streets,
staircases, hallways —
perhaps they've passed by each other a
million times?

I want to ask them
if they don't remember —
a moment face to face
in some revolving door?
perhaps a "sorry" muttered in a crowd?
a curt "wrong number" caught in the receiver? —
but I know the answer.
No, they don't remember.
They'd be amazed to hear
that Chance has been toying with them
now for years.

Not quite ready yet
to become their Destiny,
it pushed them close, drove them apart,
it barred their path,
stifling a laugh,
and then leaped aside.

There were signs and signals,
even if they couldn't read them yet.
Perhaps, three years ago
or just last Tuesday
a certain leaf fluttered
from one shoulder to another?
Something was dropped and then picked up.
Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished
into childhood's thicket?

There were doorknobs and doorbells
where one touch had covered another
Suitcases, checked and standing side by side.
One night, perhaps, the same dream,
grown hazy by morning.

Every beginning
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.

“Love at first sight” describes two lovers engaged in a display of public affection. I get the impression that the author is convinced that some guiding force is at work in their interaction. What begins as “Chance”, then becomes “Destiny” which “pushed them close, drove them apart”. The poems suggests that these lives were scripted long ago in a “book of events”, which cannot be altered, try as we might. The poem suggests that the lovers have passed by one another many times before. That there were signs along the way and that one day this encounter would happen, but it was more than mere chance, something else was at work offering itself to both of them. It just took this moment for it to happen.

In many ways this is how I see life these days. So many possibilities are going on all around us. Some good, others not so good. So many joys, tragedies, triumphs, failures, frustrations, crises, endless possibilities good and bad. Life offers itself to us, but so often we close ourselves off from it. One thing I have noticed is that as I have allowed life itself to guide me I have become more open, and the more open I have become to life itself, the more connected I felt, the more aware I have become of experiencing meaning and making meaning filled decisions. As I have done so I experienced a greater sense of belonging to myself, those people I share my life with and this world in which we all live and breathe and share our being.

But that’s just me and that’s just where I stand today. I have not always felt this way.

What about you? You who read this "blogspot" What is true to you? Maybe that’s something to ponder...

Think about your own experience of coincidence and ask yourself has this helped you find meaning in life?

Perhaps ask yourselves where do you find meaning in life? And what can you do with this meaning, what can it lead you to do in order to give yourselves more fully to life.

I’m going to end this little chip of  a "blogspot" with the following meditation “We are called” by Natalie Fenimore

We are called.
Called by the wind, the rushing water, the fireflies, the summer sun.

Called by the sidewalk, the playground, the laughing children, the streetlights.
Called by our appetites and gifts – our needs and challenges.

Called by the bottle, the needle, the powder, the pill, the game, the bet, the need, the want, the pain, the cure, the love, the hope, the dream.

Called by the Spirit of Love and Hope, and visions of God’s purpose for our lives.
We are called.

What do we choose? How do we answer?

Saturday 21 May 2016

Right enough to be wrong

"You should never be ashamed to own that you have been in the wrong, which is but saying that you are wiser today than yesterday."

A quote attribute to Alexander Pope and also Jonathon Swift, Satirist better known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels

I wonder how many times I have been wrong in my life, how many times I have made mistakes, misjudgement, errors. I wonder how many times in my life I have changed my mind about something, come to a different conclusions. I wonder how many times in my life I will do so in the future. I wonder how many times I made the same mistake. I wonder how many times I will repeat those very same errors in new and subtle ways. I haven’t a clue how many. One thing I do know is that I will continue to do so.

This no longer troubles me. I am happy not always getting things right. These days I accept I will fall short of the mark, over and over again. This does not mean I no longer aim high, I do. In fact if truth be told I attempt to aim higher all the time, it’s just I accept that these days I will fall short. I do my best, but accept I cannot do anything perfectly. I am ok with being imperfect, being incomplete these days. Why is this? Some may ask. Well because these days I do not feel wrong inside. These days I feel right enough deep down in the core of me, to be wrong sometimes.

The beauty of being wrong about things, admitting you are wrong and doing what is required to put right what was once wrong is that as soon as you do you are no longer wrong, you are right once again.

I will repeat that… The beauty of being wrong about things, admitting you are wrong and doing what is required to put right what was once wrong is that as soon as you do you are no longer wrong, you are right once again.

I have not always been this way. There have been periods of my life when deep down in the core of me I felt wrong. I cannot give you adequate explanations as to why I have felt this way, I just did. I do know that as a younger person I found reasons, but the truth is it is just how I felt deep down in the core of me. Sadly so many folk do. Not that they would easily admit to it, but still they do. I offer thanks every day that deep down in the core of my being I know that these days I am a child of love, formed from love who is here to pour out that love on this our world. I still make mistakes, all too human mistakes, but these days I no longer crucify myself for them. These days I just laugh and smile and turn again in love to life, ever aiming higher.

I have had evidence in recent weeks that this change has occurred. I have seen it as I have begun to work with the personal trainer at the gym and begun to try and resolve my life long problems with flexibility and my back. Problems that they tried to address during my childhood, problems that filled me with deep shame and which I silently believed was further evidence that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, deep in the core of my being. The problems are still there, in fact they are possibly worse. The only real difference today is that the shame is no longer there, it has long gone. Today I have found the loving courage, the heart, to face what I need to face. Not perfectly, imperfectly and even faltering actually. These days I am able to correct an aspect of myself, as best I can, with the appropriate help, because deep down inside I no longer feel wrong. These days I feel right enough to be wrong.

Whatever we do in life, whatever we achieve there will always be failure involved. This thought brings to mind a story I once heard about a young man, let’s say of thirty years who had been appointed to be the president of a great bank. Now the young man had never dreamed he would be president, never mind at such a young age. So as you can imagine he was a little unsure of this new venture. So he approached the chairman of the board, a much older and wiser man and asked “Can you, please, give me some advice?”

To which the chairman uttered just two words: “Right decisions!”
The young man was a little aghast at this as he wanted something more specific. So he asked: “How do I make right decisions?”
To which the chairman answered: “Expereince!”
To which the novice bank president responded: “But I don’t have any experience. How do I get it?”
To which the chairman answered: “Wrong decisions!”

You make the right decisions by gaining the experience of making many wrong ones.

You really do have to be right enough to give things an honest go and get things wrong, over and over again before you truly make the right decisions. You’ve got to have enough faith in life itself to live successfully in this world. The only way to gain experience is to give it ago, to fall a thousand times and to keep on giving it a go. You will only do this, I have discovered, if deep down inside you can be right enough to be wrong.

This brings to mind those beautiful words of Rumi’s that are so key to my concept of ministry and what a truly free religious community ought to be about.

"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come."

Mawlan Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Come again, come again come…even if you have broken your vows a thousand times, you can come, you are welcome as you are exactly as you are in this very moment. The key is to aim higher together, never expecting to reach the summit, but always living with hope in our hearts.

You see everyone fails, everyone falls short. You see the truth is that if at first you don’t succeed, then you are about average, you are human. You are just like the rest of us. Perfectly imperfect human beings.

These thoughts bring to mind one of the better known accounts of Jesus from John’s Gospel ( John Ch8 vv 1-11) of the “woman caught in adultery” The woman is about to be stoned to death, in accordance with the law. The Pharasee’s test Jesus and ask him what should be done. He does not answer immediately and simply sits down and begins to write in the sand. They continue to press him and after a short while he stands up and utters the immortal words “Let those amongst you who is without sin, cast the first stone” and then bends down and continues to write in the sand. One by one the crowd disperses, beginning with the elders and after they have all gone, Jesus rises and asks the woman where they are? And if anyone has condemned her? She tells him that no one has. To which he replies “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

I have often wondered what Jesus wrote in the sand. Maybe he wrote the misdeed, maybe he wrote his own misdeeds, things he got wrong. Who knows?

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Can any of us truly say that at some point in our lives we have not caused harm to another? I think it is safe to say that to this extent we are all sinners, I am. Now do not get me wrong I do not believe, to quote ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ “there is no health in us”. I am not talking of original sin. I do not believe that anyone is born into this world tainted in any sense. I believe that we are all born with a clean slate and with the potential for so many things.

This brings to mind a beautiful meditation by Robert Walsh, simply titled "A Baptism"

She called to ask if I would baptize her infant son.

I said, "What we do is like a baptism, but not exactly. And we normally do it only for people who are part of the church family. The next one we have scheduled is in May."

She said, "Could we come to talk with you about it anyway?"

They came to see me, the very young woman and her child and the child's very young father. She explained that the child had been born with a heart defect. He had to have a risky heart operation soon. She had asked the clergyman of her own church if he would baptize her son, and he had refused because she was not married to the baby’s father.

I told them that their not being married would not be an impediment to anything we might do, but that our child dedication ceremony still might not be what they were looking for.

I explained that our ceremony does not wash away any sin, it does not guarantee the child a place in heaven, it doesn't even make the child a member of the church.

In fact, I said, it doesn't change the child at all. What we expect is that it will change the rest of us in our relationship with the child, and with all children.

She listened patiently. When I was through she said, "All I want is to know that God blesses my baby."

In my mind I gasped at the sudden clarity in the room. I said, with a catch in my throat, "I think I can do that." And I did.

Here Robert Walsh describes the general Unitarian approach to Baptism, which while often involving water in the ceremony is not doing so to cleanse the child or adult of sin. No instead the use of water, the most basic element of life, is to bless the child. When I conduct such a ceremony I touch their brow, their lips and their hands, to bless their thoughts, words and deeds. I carry this very same concept into the worship I create and lead. Each week, at the end of worship, I ask that we receive the blessings of God, the blessings of love in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do; that we carry this vision into all of our lives. The hope is that we go out into the world and live the best life that we can. I believe that we can change the world, just one smile at a time. I believe it is our task to bring the blessings of love alive in this world, for so many believe that there is no love. All they see is the very real suffering present and often miss the love.

Now Unitarians are sometimes criticised for not really doing sin. This is not exactly true. I certainly do sin. I fall short every day. That said I do reject the concept of “Original Sin”, I do not believe that we are fundamentally flawed at the core of our being. I am quite happy talking about sin, because I know that I sin. I sin in the sense that I fall short of the mark. Who doesn’t?

Now you may well ask what I mean when I talk of sin. First of all it is important to understand that in the original Hebrew and Greek sin meant falling short of the mark.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Frank Muir, in an attempt to explain the words etymology says that:

“The Garden story was all about cheyt, the Hebrew word meaning “to miss the mark,” which was their definition of sin-like shooting an arrow at the target and missing. After you miss, of course it’s a disappointment, but you try again, you try to hit the mark. So you see sinning is a part of life, no different than breathing, eating, or sleeping.

So you see we all sin, we all fall short, we all get things wrong from time to time. That though does not mean that we are wrong, that we are wrong at the core of our very being. Since I understood and accepted this I have found enough faith to become right enough to be wrong and to put right what needs to be put right and therefore no longer be wrong.

The key I believe is our starting point. If we believe that we are fundamentally flawed, that there is something wrong with us, deep down in the core of our being, then we will be afraid to do anything. Even if we do something every time it goes wrong, which it will from time to time, that’s one of life’s guarantees, we will see it as evidence that there is something deeply fundamentally wrong with us.

If we believe that we are wrong at the core of our being we will also be afraid to admit our mistakes. We will all make mistakes, we will all break our vows, maybe even a thousand times, that too is one of life’s guarantees.

If we believe we are wrong, at the core of our being, we will believe that everyone else is wrong and we will find ourselves throwing stones and fearing life and everyone else around us. We will point the finger, we will blame we, we will scapegoat, we will fail to take personal responsibility.

I once did. I believed I was wrong at the core of my being and as I result I feared myself and all life. Thank God I was able to see the truth about this and changed my mind. I hope that if you ever have these feeling about yourself that can see the same truth too.

I wish for you who read this "blogspot", what I wish for everyone, that they will too find the peace and freedom to become right enough to be wrong.

Saturday 14 May 2016

"Sticktooativeness": Discipline, Freedom & The Spiritual Life

For reasons way beyond my understanding there’s a word that keeps on tapping on the window of my consciousness. The word is “Discipline”. It’s one of the words that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. There’s a part of me that doesn’t like it. Especially when I think of the spiritual life. I much prefer words like freedom and love.

Oh yes “discipline” is one of the words that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I know I’m not alone. I heard a friend expressing the very same sentiment the other day. Yet strangely enough he is a disciplined man and has been for a quite a few years. Guess what as a result he enjoys greater spiritual freedom, joy and love than he has ever done before. As a result he is able to give himself fully to life, to enjoy all that blessings that come his way and to better deal with the many difficulties that also come his way. One thing about any life is that it is balanced, we all have our blessings and our curses. One day it rains and the next there is sunshine. Some days we get the perfect mixture of both and get a rainbow.

Now how is my friend able to live more fully than he has ever done before? You may well ask. Well through discipline. Through trying spiritual practices and sticking with them he has achieved freedom, joy and happiness. Simple!

One thing about my generation and those that have followed, I reckon, is that we want things easy. We want joy and love and freedom, but I am not convinced that we are always prepared to do the work required, well not consistently at least. Maybe this is one of the reasons that there is a growing spiritual vacuum in so many of our lives; maybe this is why so many of us live increasingly dissatisfied lives these days, even though we are more blessed materially than in previous generations. Maybe things come too easily these days, maybe they are not gained through striving, through effort. The truth is that all things of worth in life require effort, not just bursts of enthusiasm but consistent, daily, loving effort. What Dr Bob one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous described, when referring to what was required to achieve recovery, as “sticktooativeness”. The key was to stick with it, stick to it no matter what is going on around you.

Now of course to stick to anything requires discipline.

We want freedom, well who doesn’t. Freedom though requires discipline and also a sense of belonging. My own Unitarian tradition is often criticised as being wishy washy as lacking depth of having no real discipline. How often have I heard the critique, you Unitarians can believe whatever you want, that there is no commitment to anything, not even each other.

Is this true? No I don’t think so. We are about community, we are about commitment. We are about coming together in love.

This critique of the tradition that chose me brings to mind a story my brother loves to tell of a time when he and his wife were being driven around Dallas in a taxi and the driver pointing to a church and saying “That church is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”, my brother recounts that this was said in an utterly bemused tone. My brother’s response was oh yes “My brother is a Unitarian”. I think for the first time in his entire life the taxi driver went silent.

By the way as a kind of counter to this thought I have heard many Unitarians say "We don’t so much believe what we like, we believe what me must." I certainly believe what life compels me to believe. I once believed in nothing. These days I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything.

I remember once watching an episode of the cartoon series “The Simpsons” in which the church pastor Rev Lovejoy offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. When one of the children replies that the bowl is empty his response is that this is the point. The bowl is empty. He is saying there is nothing in it. It is an empty vessel which will not feed or sustain you.

Now I don’t believe and have certainly not found this to be true, but it is certainly how some view the Unitarian faith. They say anything goes, we lack the discipline of what some would consider a real faith. That our tradition asks so little of our members. I have not found this to be true. In many ways it is harder to be a Unitarian as we come together in love and be with people who come to faith in very different ways. I would say that this requires a special kind of loving discipline. To accept our neighbour exactly as they are and not as we would have them be, is not easy at all and yet this is what we celebrate, what we rejoice in.

One thing that we are about is “Belonging”. We say come as you are, exactly as you are. All are welcome here, you belong here. Belonging is a vital aspect of our tradition. In fact I would say that before you can be free you must first of all belong. To quote Galen Guengerich “Freedom comes when we find ourselves in a place that sustains us, and among people who nurture us. Life is, first and foremost, a collaborative endeavor.” The Unitarian tradition is about freedom of conscience and freedom of belief but is also about community and coming together in love. I know from personal experience that freedom only comes from a sense that you truly belong. To live freely you must first belong to life itself and the world and community in which you find yourself. In so doing you will truly come to belong to yourself and you will be free.

Now belonging requires discipline. I suspect that the reason people prefer to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious today is linked to this dislike of discipline and belonging of becoming too involved in something. After all discipline is linked to disciple to one who follows. Many spiritually minded people these days do not like to be followers, they want to follow their own path and not blindly follow someone else’s. It doesn’t need to be like that. You can still be disciplined, you can still belong and yet retain your own sense of self. You can still be free. Discipline and belonging are not about blindly following someone or something. It is about consciously following a simple way that will enable us to live with a sense of connection and enable us to engage in this our shared world and contribute wholeheartedly in our shared mutuality.

Discipline, I have come to believe plays a vital role in spiritual freedom and spiritual community.

I am currently attempting to get fit, I mean properly fit. The reasons for this are many fold. Yes I’ve lost weight and this certainly took “sticktooativeness” and following a suggested plan. Now I feel it is time to develop my physical well being so I can be of maximum service to the people around me, so I can truly serve.

I have joined a gym and am working out most days. I am not doing it blindly though. I am working with a personal trainer who has developed a program for me and within a month I have already improved no end. So you could say I am kind of his disciple, if only for a short while, and when I feel confident enough I will be able to go my own way. I am not leaning or depending on him though. It is up to me. The work is mine to do and I am sticking with it.

Now some of the things I am engaging in seem a little odd to me, they don’t make sense. That said I trust and am engaging. I am reminded of one of my favourite childhood films each time I arrive at the gym. The film is “The Karate Kid?”

In the film a young lad named Daniel is beaten up by a gang of bullies. An old Japanese man named Mr Miyagi saves him from them and offers to help him to learn Karate, so he can defend himself. This he does and after many trials and tribulations Daniel not only learns Karate but becomes a champion.

The path to becoming a champion is by no means an easy one though and Daniel, or Daniel-San nearly gives up many times, but he does stick with it. My sisters fond nick name for me over the years has been “Daniel-San”...there are worse things to be called.

“The Karate Kid” is the classic hero’s tale; it is full of trials and tribulations. When Daniel first goes to Mr Miyagi he expects him to teach him how to fight immediately, but this does not happen. Instead he gets him to clean and wax his car, by practising specific motions “Wax on, wax off...wax on, wax off” He then gets him to paint a fence and polish a floor, all by hand, all applying simple hand motions. He also reminds him to breathe; he continues to remind him to breathe. After several days of this Daniel is worn out and decidedly unhappy. He thinks Mr Miyagi has taken him for a mug. After an argument he storms off, but Mr Miyagi calls him back and begins to perform some Karate moves which Daniel finds he can easily block.

Finally Daniel-San sees the purpose behind what he has been doing. He can see that all those seemingly meaningless hours polishing and painting etc have equipped him to block the punches and kicks when they come. He can see some tangible results to all his hard work. Daniel-San continues with his training and at the end of the film he becomes the hero as he beats the bullies in the competition and of course he also gets the girl.

It is the same with spiritual disciplines. They may not seem like an obvious aid to growing and developing as human beings and serving one another and life itself. They may also appear restrictive to our being, but they are essential. They are the key to freedom; they are the key to living with gratitude; they are key to truly belonging and welcoming one another in love.

Now the difficulty of course is perhaps in finding what works for each of us as individuals. What works for me, may not work for you. The key is to give things a go and see what comes from doing so. Spiritual discipline is an on-going adventure. It is a conscious means by which we examine, shape and care for our own lives and then serve one another and life itself and truly find a sense of belonging which allows gratitude to develop.

The key is to choose, then embody, a spiritual discipline that brings us a greater love of self of other and of life itself; a discipline that deepens our sense of belonging and gratitude for all that is life. Whether that discipline is simply prayer, or meditation, walking in woods, or star gazing, giving of your time for one another, reading inspirational or devotional books, martial arts, yoga, whatever it may be.

Whatever spiritual discipline we choose there is one quality that is required and that is “sticktooativeness”, consistent effort. To grow spiritually requires effort. It is not merely about achieving temporary highs or a sense of relief. I suppose it’s about being the tortoise and not the hare. It is about plodding on day by day and sticking to it, “waxing off and waxing on.

There are no short cuts or quick results. It’s about “sticktooativeness”

“Sticktooativeness”, spiritual discipline is an essential ingredient to living a truly free life. It allows us to connect to our deeper selves. It develops a sense of belonging and enables us to live with gratitude. It allows us to connect to one another, to all life and to the great mystery that brings all life into being and connects it all together. It is through spiritual discipline that I have found a sense of belonging and developed gratitude. It is through discipline that regardless of my doubts and questions I arise each day and do what I can. I recommend it to all I meet. If you “sticktooit” if you continue to “wax on and wax off” you will know a new freedom, a new joy, a new sense of connection, a deeper belonging than you ever dreamed was possible and a gratitude for simply being alive, for knowing the joy of living in all its mystery.

I offer this final little tale as a final example of "sticktooativeness"

Have you heard of Pablo Casals?

Pablo Casals was born in Vendrell, Spain to a Puerto Rican mother. He was thought to be the greatest cellist who ever lived. His recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, made between 1936 and 1939, are considered unsurpassed even to this day.

Casals’ prodigious musical talent became evident at an early age. By the age of four he could play the violin, piano, and flute, having being taught in church. At the age of eleven he heard the cello for the first time and decided to dedicate himself to that instrument, By the age of fourteen he gave a solo recital in Barcelona. By the age of nineteen he was on the faculty of the renowned Municipal School of Music in Barcelona and was principal cellist of the Barcelona Opera House. He gained international acclaim in a career of such length that he performed throughout the world and to all the great heads of state and other dignitaries.

Yet even having attained such unquestionable mastery of his instrument, throughout his entire life Casals maintained a disciplined regimen of practicing for five or six hours every day. On the day he died, at the age of 96, he had already put in several hours practicing his scales. A few years earlier, when he was 93, a friend asked him why, after all he had achieved, he was still practicing as hard as ever. To which Casals replied “Because, I think I’m making progress.”

So you see it’s never too late, there’s always room for progress. So let’s sticktooit folks, lets keep on practising, let’s keep “waxing on and waxing off”

Saturday 7 May 2016

The Wisdom of Trees

“In A Tree Full of Angels” Macrina Wiederkehr wrote...

I must share with you a story about a particularly barren time in my life when I used a tree for a spiritual director. I learned so much that year because I listened in silence…

Because it was small I couldn’t lean on it but could only sit beside it. That taught me a lot about what the role of spiritual guide should be.

Even though it was small, it had the ability to give me a certain amount of shade. You don’t have to have a lot of leaves to give shade. Because it was silent I listened deeply. You don’t need a lot of words to connect with God.

When it got thirsty I watered it. The miracle of water is a little like the miracle of God’s love. That little sycamore taught me a lot about foot-washing. Watering it was a great joy. A soul-friend relationship never works only one way. There is a mutual giving and receiving.

I learned from my tree that being transplanted is possible. I can always put down roots again, connect with the Great Root, and grow on…

I wouldn’t recommend using a tree for a spiritual guide all the days of one’s life, but that sycamore got me through a long stretch of barrenness. It was only a little tree, and I didn’t know it was holy until I spent time with it. Truly, holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary."

A lovely piece I thught...It got me thinking of the wisdom of trees...

One of the many gifts of ministry is that it compels me to pay attention to the turning wheel of the year. It is a gift for which I am eternally grateful, for it brings so many delights.

Part of my annual cycle are twice yearly visits to Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, with the ministry group I am a part of. I will be there again this week. During the two days away I often go for a walk with my friend and colleague John Harley. Now the last time we were there we passed another colleague who was out walking alone. We asked how she was and she replied that she was well but had just seen a deeply upsetting sight. It was interesting that both mine and John’s initial thought was that she must have seen a dead sheep. She simply told us to pay attention and we would see what she meant. So we carried on walking and saw no dead sheep. What we did see was an ancient and once great tree that had finally succumbed to the elements and had broken apart and died. It lay there lifeless on the ground. A tree that had no doubt seen so much over the centuries.

Trees are humbling things. Their presence keep our all our too human hubris in check. They outlive most of us, they live for centuries standing still and silent throughout the changing seasons and years. Yes eventually their lifespans do come to an end, they do not live forever like no element of life does. They come from the Great Mystery and return to it too. They experience the changing seasons, but offer no commentary on it.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but the trees have remained barren a little longer this year, Spring has flowered a little slower. Why this is I do not know, but I have noticed so. Thelma Gott (a member of one of the congregations I serve)made reference to this as I visited her and her husband Malcolm last Monday, May Day. She said to me that the trees appeared barer this year and then all of a sudden they just seemed full of green and life. She said it was as if it had happened overnight, suggesting that this was probably due to the few days of sunshine we had a couple of weeks back.

I agreed with her suggesting that the spring seemed a little later blooming this year. I mentioned that the cherry blossom tree in the garden at the chapel had only just begun to flower and how it had done so several weeks earlier the year before.

Now the reason I know this is thanks to Social Media, specifically Facebook. Each day Facebook reminds me of posts I have made on that day the previous years. Well this Tuesday the day after my conversation with Thelma it reminded me of a “blogspot” I had created and posted that day the year before. In it I talked about my love for Cherry Blossom, beginning with a conversation about the very same tree in the garden at the chapel. This again proved to me that blossom was later blooming this year, as by this time last year it had been in full bloom for a couple of weeks. I smiled to myself as I re-read and posted the piece as I began to write the service that this "blogspot" has come from. Thank you!

Please click here to access Cherry Blossom Blogspot

So yes the spring has been later blooming this year…why I am not entirely sure, but I offer thanks and praise that the cherry blossom has finally arrived.

I have grown to love the way that trees celebrate the changing seasons, in silence and security. Just standing there as symbols of the changing nature of life. Yes they bend and reshape and change in colour. They look different throughout the year and yet stand there safe and secure expressing the eternal nature of life.

The trees have much to teach us. My name sake and American colleague Rev Greta W. Crosby has recognised this. In “Tree and Jubilee” she describes a silent none judgemental presence that the trees offer her, something we humans cannot give no matter how well we may think we are at listening. The trees simply stand there erect and open, never shrinking away or rejecting, offering unconditional love and acceptance. She wrote:

“I have long had a sense of fellowship with trees. Since I was a child, I have sought their company from time to time because I like the way I feel in their presence. I enjoy their beauty, but it is more than that. I used the word “presence” in a very strong sense. I felt their presence as living things. And in that presence, I often feel relaxed and centered, peaceful, restored to inner equilibrium.

For many of us, life is the meaning of the tree. But for me, perhaps the greatest thing about the tree is its silence. Whatever the tree says to us, whatever it answers to our questing, the tree gives its message without words. And the tree bears with us well. It does not judge. It does not react to our anxieties. It does not run after us. It just stands there with open arms.”

The great religious traditions have recognised the wisdom of trees. In many of them you will find "The Tree of Life". a beautiful and universal symbol, standing for so much. The ancient Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, Baylonians and Samarians all had a tree of life symbol. There is Ygdrassil, the Norse Tree of Life, The Etz Ha Hayim of the Kaballistic Jews. The Bahai's speak of it and Christians of all kinds speak of the tree of life, with healing leaves, found in the Book of Revelations. The book of Genesis tells of two trees: a Tree of Knowledge, which is the tree of good and evil, and the Tree of Life, the tree of immortality. I wonder why Adam and Eve chose knowledge over life...I’m not going there today that’s a discussion for another time and place.

The May Pole is symbolic of the barren tree, stripped of life preparing to awaken again and bare fruit once more. On May Day, - which was celebrated last Monday as I was enjoying my conversation with Thelma about the ever changing cycle of life - the May Pole dance is enacted as a symbol of rebirth and everlasting life. The bare tree is re-clothed with decorative bands and flowers, giving us the opportunity to celebrate life’s re-creation. Isn’t this another symbol of the eternal tree of life; it is a symbol of re-birth and renewal; it is a sign post to the path of enlightenment; it is revealing a timeless and eternal wisdom.

Again Thelma and myself talked of the May Day festivals that were once so popular in north of England. She and her husband Malcolm recounted dancing the May Pole up in Colne in the Pennine hills of Lancashire. I recounted the same tradition taking place in Gawthorpe where on May Day they dance the Pole and also they enjoy the coal race where the men of the village race with sacks of coal through the town. Up and down this green and pleasant land all kinds of ancient May Day traditions are re-enacted, traditions that are slowly dying off. They have not yet gone the way of the “Whit Walks" and May Queens that have virtually died off, but they are doing so. I suspect that these are further signs of the secularisation of this land. There is a deep part of me that is saddened by the fact that increasingly we fail to recognise the sacredness of life. I have a feeling that this is none too wise.

There is an eternal wisdom in the trees. The Buddha gained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree. The tree blessed him and as it did it showered him with blossom. Wisdom also comes to mind when I think of the Tree of Life, an eternal wisdom that comes with age. In “Eternal Echoes” John O’Donohue recognises the wisdom of trees. He wrote:

“A tree is a perfect presence. It is somehow able to engage and integrate its own dissolution. The tree is wise in knowing how to foster its own loss. It does not become haunted by the loss nor addicted to it. The tree shelters and minds the loss. Out of this comes the quiet dignity and poise of a tree's presence. Trees stand beautifully on the clay. They stand with dignity. A life that wishes to honour its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practises hospitality towards new forms of life. It balances the perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark. The tree is wise in the art of belonging. The tree teaches us how to journey. Too frequently our inner journeys have no depth. We move forward feverishly into new situations and experiences which neither nourish nor challenge us, because we have left our deeper selves behind. It is no wonder that the addiction to superficial novelty leaves us invariably empty and weary. Much of our experience is literally superficial; it slips deftly from surface to surface. It lacks rootage. The tree can reach towards the light, endure wind, rain, and storm, precisely because it is rooted. Each of its branches is ultimately anchored in a reliable depth of clay. The wisdom of the tree balances the path inwards with the pathway outwards.”

...Oh the wisdom of the tree...

Trees can teach us so much of how to live more deeper rooted and open lives. If we follow their example we can become the loving presence we would love to be in the world. We just need to observe their presence and stand as they stand, arms out stretched. I was thinking this last Tuesday morning as I stood in the garden at Dunham Road, reflecting on the conversation I had shared with Malcom and Thelma and the many others I have with the people I serve. I also reflected on the short time that I will be able to enjoy the cherry blossom, in the certain knowledge that it will flower again next year and will continue to do so when I am long gone. It keeps me humble, it keeps me respectful and it helps me to revere life, to worship the earth, the clay from which all life is formed and to acknowledge the universal spirit that gives birth to it all

We are all formed from the tree of life, the tree of renewal, the tree of re-birth. May we know this wisdom and may we bring it to life through our very being.