Sunday 14 August 2016

Belong Here

“Talking Heads once sang “you may find yourself in a beautiful house
with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?”

How did I get here? The song was of course “Once in a lifetime.” And how did I get here? Is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. I’ve been experiencing a few once in a lifetime moments recently.

Another question I’ve been asking myself too is “What have I done to deserve this?

Another one has been, do I really belong here?

I recently won “Slimming World Man of the Year 2016”, something I had to keep under my hat for a couple of weeks. It has been quite a ride ever since, especially once the news came out.

Now as part of winning the competition I spent a night in luxury suite at the Ritz. I took my mum along and she loved it. On arrival there was a knock on the door. I answered it and there before me stood two men in uniform who walked in and introduced themselves as our butlers and that whatever we required they would provide.

How did I get here? Do I belong here? Well I did win.

It was an amazing, if somewhat surreal, couple of days, in which I was worked to be fair. I spent one afternoon trying on outfits with a stylist and a whole host of women. It was fun and I got into it and in the end chose something I could wear for the "Press Call" that followed the next day. That night we ate at Savini at Criterion at Piccadilly Circus. A place I doubt I will ever eat in again. The next day came the "Press Call" and then home to prepare to lead worship the following day. The next day the news came out and over the next week it spread. No doubt in the coming months more will come out and hopefully a great deal of good will come from it. So far there has been a very positive response to it all.

So yes a truly once in a lifetime experience. It was wonderful to find myself in such places and the truth is I did deserve it and do you know what I didn’t feel like a fish out of water. After all I had earned it. I belonged there. I rarely feel that I don’t belong anywhere these days. I belong anywhere because I have learnt to be at home within my own skin within myself. I know who I am and I am at ease with who I am. I know who I am warts and all and beauty spots too. I am at ease with myself, imperfections and all. I can be myself anywhere and in the company of anyone because I no longer have to strive to fit in, to be a part of someone or someplace else, to seek the approval of others.

To belong you need to be yourself, while paradoxically in order to be yourself you must first of all feel that you belong. When you feel that you belong you will no longer feel the need to fit in, because you will be at ease with yourself.

Brene Brown once said

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

I like Brene Brown, I particularly like what she has to say about the difference between “Belonging” and “Fitting in” that they are not the same thing although they are often mistaken for one another.

Brene Brown explains that “Fitting in” is really about assessing situations and becoming the person that you believe you need to be in order to be accepted and acceptable. Whereas “Belonging” does not require us to change who we are, but to be who we really are.

Belonging is an innate desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. This is a primal yearning, deep within the soul of us and thus we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval from others. Now not only does this not satisfy this yearning it actually becomes a barrier to it. In so doing we lose our identity and feel even more lost and lonely. True belonging you see only happens when we present our true, authentic, imperfect selves to the world, “warts and all” and beauty spots too. Unless we are at home within ourselves we will never feel that we belong anywhere.

John O’Donohue in his wonderful book “Anam Cara”, relates belonging to longing and yearning. He suggests that we need to find a balance in belonging and that often our problems stem from not being truly at home with ourselves; that we should be our own longing; that the key is to be-long within ourselves. If we belong within ourselves then we will feel at ease and belong wherever we are. Therefore the sense of who we are, our identity will not be ruled by the need to fit in, to belong, externally.

The problem of trying to fit in and not belonging stems from a sense of being different, something I know I’ve experienced at times. This can be a real barrier. Now of course sometimes these barriers are put up by those who would exclude certain types of people for being different. We have seen horrific examples of this throughout human history. People excluded for racial, political, religious, gender and sexual identity reasons. There still are barriers that exist, although thankfully many have come down, although far too many still remain.

It can be difficult to join a group where you feel that you are different from the others. I experienced it myself when I began my Slimming World journey. Such groups are seen as the domain of women, only 3% of members are men in the UK, that is still nearly 50,000 men, but it is a minority. Being concerned about your weight and joining such groups is not considered a manly activity and therefore getting through the door and beginning the journey can be doubly daunting for men. I certainly experienced this when I first joined. I remember looking round the room, feeling very self-conscious at the time and just seeing a room full of women. It would have been easy to use this as an excuse to just run, but thank God I didn’t. One thing I will be endeavouring to do over the next twelve months is to encourage as many men as possible to live healthier happier lives. There are after all more over weight men in this country than women, probably because we feel it is unmanly to face up to the problem.

Most people find it difficult to join something, to belong to something, when they feel different to those already present. It’s the same with any group or community, including church and chapel communities. It is hard to walk into anything you have never been to before. I know it took me some time to pluck up the courage and explore religions community all those years ago

We Unitarians say that all are welcome, to come as you are regardless of who you are, where ever you have been and where ever you are going. You are welcome as you are exactly as you are in this moment. That said people are still reluctant to walk through the door of our places of worship and when they do they often find it hard to belong there, even amongst we who offer religious freedom. The reasons for this is many and varied and how we resolve it is not easy to answer either. I think that the key is to be as open and welcoming as we can be. They key is to cultivate a true sense of belonging, which begins within ourselves. For if we belong we will not need to try to fit in and hopefully the stranger will more easily feel like the neighbour. As Philip L Bermoan wrote in “The Journey Home”

“Truly spiritual people are in the habit of cultivating the nearly forgotten art of basic hospitality, perhaps because they realize that when we are able to make others feel comfortable, the pleasures of belonging are close at hand.”

They key is to cultivate the pleasure of belonging.

The key is to bless one another with our presence and they will fell that they belong amongst we people who belong here as they are exactly as they are in this moment. For as Rachel Naomi Remen wrote in "My Grandfather's Blessings".

"A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. By making a place for wholeness within our relationships, we offer others the opportunity to be whole without shame and become a place of refuge from everything in them that are not genuine. We enable people to remember who they are."

A sense of belonging is a deeply precious thing. It is belonging that helps us become who we are meant to be. It is a sense of belonging that allows us to find ourselves in beautiful place and feel that we are home. It is a sense of belonging that enables us to be ourselves, in whatever company we find ourselves without feeling the need to fit in. It is a sense of belonging that enables us to truly make every moment a once in lifetime experience. It is a sense of belonging that allows us to become good neighbours and to the bless the whole world with our welcome….

May you find a place where you belong…May you find a house of belonging…

Saturday 6 August 2016

No Pain No Gain


A man went to a tattooist to have a lion tattooed on his back. He’d always wanted a picture of a lion on his body, because he thought himself to be fierce and brave like a lion.

The tattooist hadn’t been working for long before the man shouted, “Ouch! You’re hurting me! Which part of the lion are you doing now?”

“I’m doing his tail,” said the tattoo artist.

“Well you’d better leave the tail off, I don’t want a lion with a tail.”

The tattoo artist continued, but not for long. No sooner had he felt a few more needle pricks than the man shouted again, “This is killing me! Which part of the lion are you doing now?”

“I’m just getting started on the mane,” replied the tattooist.

“don’t bother with the mane,” I don’t want a lion with a mane!”

The tattooist complied with the man’s wishes, and began work on another part of his back. Once again, after a few moments, the man shouted, almost weeping. “This is intolerable! I can’t bear the pain! Which bit of the lion are doing now?”

“I’m doing the belly.”

“Then stop doing the belly! I don’t want a lion with a belly!”

The tattoo artist put down his equipment. “You want a lion with no tail, no main, and no belly! Who could draw such a creature? Even God couldn’t do it! I think you should leave and come back when you are a bit braver.”

from "The Shortest Distance" by Bill Darlison

My personal trainer works me really hard. It is tough at times but I do stick at it no matter what. The results we are getting together are quite amazing. He told me recently that he had never worked with anyone so determined. I smiled at this. If there is one thing that has grown in me these last few years it is the capacity to stick at things no matter what. To me this is the essential ingredient of the faith I have found. The God of my understanding enables me to do things and stick at things no matter what. In the past this is the one thing that was probably lacking in my life. God doesn’t do it for me, God enables me to do what life asks of me. I have faith to stick at anything despite the pain and suffering involved, whether that be mental, emotional, physical or spiritual.

Well the other day he came to our session in some obvious pain and discomfort. He had recently had a new tattoo done, on his scalp. As he described the process, he had gone through, I found myself wincing at the pain of it all. It has only just begun as well. He will be going through even more pain before it is fully completed. I said to him “No pain, no gain” and he grinned knowingly and then spent the next hour putting me through a gruelling regime. As he did so and as I have continued my daily exercises that little mantra has kept on ringing in my ears. I am continuing to gain in health and fitness and flexibility day by day. I’ve even grown about an inch as my posture has improved and spine has straightened, something I never thought would be possible. The work we are doing is relieving me of some deep rooted pain and shame dating right back to childhood.

Facebook reminded me of a pain I went through last year. only the other day. It was right at the beginning of my weight loss journey. I used to spend a great deal of time in coffee shops. Often meeting and talking with people but also writing. I still do quite often but my habits have changed. Just over a year ago I would probably consume at least a dozen full fat CafĂ© Lattes a week. I used to drink an awful lot of milk and it was one of many contributing factors to my weight problem. Well a year ago I decided that I would, at least for a short time, give them up. I thought I’d go the whole hog and give up caffeine completely. Well I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. The first few days were agony. It began with the headaches but then the pain spread to my whole lower body, the symptoms were very similar to a severe bout of flu as my lower back and upper legs were in agony. Historically the two areas of physical weakness and shame in my body. This lasted about five days but eventually subsided and I was soon reaping the benefits of becoming more energised and sleeping beautifully. I have stuck with being caffeine free and am loving it. Yes I had to go through pain to get there, but my word the results have been wonderful. Yes the gain was most certainly worth the pain.

I remember a few years ago, early in my ministry, a colleague telling that when they were a student a senior colleague had warned then to be careful not to reveal to much about themselves to the people they serve, especially when creating worship. I don’t know if they were attempting to subtly warn me about being too open. If they were I ignored them. I don’t think I could do this work without bringing my whole self into the worship I create. How can others relate to something unless you put human flesh on the words. I have not been afraid to show my pain and joy and struggle and confusion at times, to reveal all that I have gained and learned too. Hopefully this has not been in a self-indulgent way, but in an attempt to show to others that I am as human as they are and to encourage faith in them. If I can anyone can I am as human as the next person.

I don’t pour out my pain on the people I serve. Instead I have people to turn to to in my pain and confusion and joy and suffering. In fact in recent times I have noticed that I can do this more easily than perhaps in the past. I thank God for this. The worst kind of pain is the pain of loneliness and isolation. There are many blessings of ministry but one of its curses is the loneliness that can be experienced at times. This I know is caused by not owning and coming to terms with your own suffering.

These thoughts bring to mind some beautiful hard earned words of advice from Henri J. M. Nouwen in his beautiful book “The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom” written as he reflected on his various struggles. In his meditation “Own Your Pain” he wrote:

“The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. When you speak to others about your pain without fully owning it, you expect something from them that they cannot give. As a result, you will feel frustrated, and those you wanted to help will feel confused, disappointed, or even further burdened….

…For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart. You will always need people who do not need you but who can receive you and give you back to yourself. You will always need people who can help you own your pain and claim your struggle.

Thus the core question in your ministry is, “Is my sharing of my struggle in the service of the one who seeks my help? This question can only be answered yes when you truly own your pain and expect nothing from those who seek your ministry.”

I believe that I can answer yes to this. I have learnt to own my pain.

No one can escape the pain of life. It is as much a part of living a full life as joy. In trying to avoid pain all we ever succeed in doing is cutting ourselves off from the joy that accompanies the pain of life. In fact there are times in life when we must walk faithfully through the pain to fully experience the joy. . Herman Hesse saw the truth in this when he said:

“Love your suffering. Do not resist it; do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”
It is this aversion that causes the suffering within the suffering. It is this that causes much of what so many people describe as the loneliness of modern life. In trying to suppress our pain all we succeed in doing is to cut ourselves off from the joy of life.

While life does involve pain and suffering, it does not have to involve “the suffering within the suffering”.

Life itself is not suffering.

We need not be identified by our suffering.

Eckhart Tolle suggest that we create needless suffering when we blame others for all our personal pain. He claims that the habit of blaming and cultivating outrage, anger, resentment and other negative emotions, what he has termed our “pathological ego” is what blocks us from knowing the truth about ourselves and the human condition.

He explains that although we do suffer, we are not our suffering, it is not our whole identity. The trouble is that we can become trapped in it and then it identifies all that we are. He calls this the “pain body”. He claims that we can step outside of this and become children of love with worth and dignity. This though is not achieved by simply ignoring the pain and hoping it will just go away.

That said we do not need to go looking for it and it does not justify receiving unnecessary pain and or abuse. There are forms of suffering that cannot to be justified. There are times when passive acceptance of all forms of suffering is not the answer. Dorothy Soelle , amongst others, criticised the claim that suffering is justified because it was the only way to achieve Salvation or Nirvana. As she said

“No heaven can rectify Auschwitz”.

She did not believe that suffering was ordained by God. Instead she saw God within the suffering. For her God suffered with humanity. For her salvation was achieved through experiencing God within humanities suffering, not as a result of it. She saw God as being in solidarity with the victims of oppression in human society. Therefore in her view to fully experience salvation is to work for liberation of the oppressed and to end man made suffering, not passively endure it.

That said we cannot escape all suffering it is a part of life. In fact perhaps it is through our shared suffering that we can come closer together and develop compassion for one another and all living beings, as the Buddhist suggest.

May Sarton saw the truth in this when in “Recovering, A Journal” she wrote

“I woke before dawn with this thought. Joy, happiness, are what we take and do not question. They are beyond question, maybe. A matter of being. But pain forces us to think, and to make connections, to sort out what is what, to discover what has been happening to cause it. And, curiously enough, pain draws us to other human beings in a significant way, whereas joy or happiness to some extent, isolates.”

It is through owning our pain and suffering, growing through it faithfully and passing on what it has taught us that compassion grows and we can truly serve, minister, to one another and the wider world. In many ways this the purpose of a spiritual community. A religious community has to be one of compassion.

Compassion means to suffer with. We can learn to be with others in their suffering and with ourselves in our own. Interestingly the opposite of compassion is apathy.. To be apathetic to the suffering not only of ourselves but to the pain of others is the worst kind of hell any one can suffer from, it’s inhuman, it creates our loneliness and it creates our isolation.

To suffer with is to experience compassion it is the gateway to love and service.

So let us stand in solidarity with ourselves and with one another in our pain and suffering. In doing so we will know the full meaning of compassionate living and in doing so we will fully experience the joy that life offers to us.

And when we do we will know God, we will know love.

Amen and blessed be.