Sunday 30 October 2016

That's what friends are for

One of my favourite childhood films was “The Jungle Book”, the Walt Disney version. I loved it so much that I didn’t go and see the remake that came out last year, for fear it my ruin my memory of the original. We even had an album of the movie soundtrack which I used to love to listen to on a Sunday afternoon at my grandma’s. I loved the songs, so many classics.

One of my favourite songs came back into my memory the other day. It was sung by the quartet of vultures who had a more than passing resemblance to the “Fab Four” “The Beatles”. They sang it to Mowgli who was feeling very lost and lonely in the jungle, without any friends. The song was of course “That’s what friends are for.” Composed by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

"That's what friends are for!"

Friends and friendship have been on my mind quite a bit these last few weeks. It
was sparked off by a posting by my oldest and maybe dearest friend on Facebook. It had taken him months to pluck up the courage to do so and it touched me and many of our mutual friends deeply.

A few months previously he had been diagnosed with a form of Asperger’s Syndrome and had written this post to let his friends know. He talked about many of his struggles with certain aspects of communication throughout his life and apologised if he had ever offended anyone of us. The many responses from friends, of some 40 odd years of life, were beautifully moving. He is a deeply loved man and the reason for this is that he has always been a caring and loving friend to so many people, if a little “different”, from the so-called “norm”. He certainly has never done anything to offend me. I cannot say the same about me offending him by the way.

As I read the many loving and supportive posts I remembered our friendship and the many friends we had shared together. Going right back to second year at Batley Grammar school. I remembered going to watch Leeds United, our first terrifying encounters with the opposite sex and making music together and many other years that followed. We have not been as close for the last dozen or more years, but my goodness we shared so much together. When I think of many of the friends we shared and hung out with we were mostly misfits, never quite the norm. They say birds of a feather stick together, I think that there is a lot of truth in that.

As I remembered all the many friends I have shared over the years the quality that stands out the most is the level of acceptance of one another, despite all our peculiarities. This still stands today. Joan Chittister was so right when she said “Acceptance is the universal currency of real friendship. . . .It does not warp or shape or wrench a person to be anything other than what they are.” Acceptance is the true sign of friendship, radical acceptance of one another, exactly as we are. Perhaps that’s what a truly open religious community is, a collection of real friends. Friends who accept one another exactly as they are.

I think the greatest blessing of my life has been my friends. I have many friends, loyal friends and loving friends. Friends who have stood up for me and loved me at some pretty dark times in the past.

Friends have always stood up for me, going right back to primary school. I remember an incident when I would have been about 11 years old and had just begun to be allowed to do sport again. I was pretty useless, but very determined and others appreciated this. I remember there being an inter schools cross country event and all the schools in the district entered. Each had to pick a team and this was selected over a series of races. I wanted to compete, I don’t know why today as there was no chance of me getting into the team, on athletic ability. Each week though I ran in the race and each week I scored few points, certainly not enough to qualify, but I stuck at it. It came to the final race and I went for it. I was not doing well enough though as another lad who also wanted to run was ahead of me. Then something amazing happened. The star athlete of the school decided to help me out. He did it in a rather unsporting way by convincing this other lad to let me beat him and thus qualify at his expense. I do not know to this day why he did it, but I will never forget Darren’s gesture. Yes I felt bad for the other lad, but I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to run in the team. We ran, we didn’t win and I didn’t come last, actually about half way, better than I could ever have dreamed of. I just ran and ran as best I could across the muddy fields, lap after lap. I even lost one shoe half way round but just kept on going not daring to stop to pick it up for fear I wouldn't be able to begin again. One lad crossed the line a little after me with my shoe in his hand looking rather puzzled. I just grinned and thanked him as I claimed it back. I can think of countless other times when friends have been there for me, protected and helped me in so many ways. Other times when they have encouraged and spurred me on to be a better me. Too many to mention here today. It happened recently after something I posted on line, which irritated someone, who became quite critical of the comment and me personally. I chose not to respond to the criticism, but some of my friends did. Their responses were beautiful and touched me deeply. I am a lucky man, to have been blessed by so many good and loyal and loving friends.

Thank you

I have always been blessed with wonderful friends…What about you? Perhaps that’s something to think about…the friends who have blessed and continue to bless your life…

There is a phrase about friendship that has always irritated me, “Merely friends”, or “We are just friends”, as if being a friend wasn't important, didn't matter. Friendship matters oh so much. Friends are the people we share our lives with, who in so many ways make our lives what they are. Friends are, to quote Fredrich Buechner, the people we choose to “make part of our lives just because we feel like it.” There is no such thing as “Just friends”

Aristotle said, “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

A friend is someone you can trust, you can rely upon, someone who will be there for you. Certainly my friends have always been there for me. We have laughed and we have cried together. We have enjoyed some wild and crazy times together and we have grieved as we have lost one of our number. I have lost a lot of friends over the years, far too many.

A friend will stand by you of this I am certain, but that does not mean they will not criticise you or hold you to account. My best friends have shown this kind of love to me during my life. In fact sometimes your best friend is the one who is unafraid to call you out when you are wrong, when no one else will. This is the kind of friend who will help you learn life’s lessons.

Emerson also wrote, “Let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart.”

This brings to mind the following tale:

From "The Heart of the Enlightened A Book of Story Meditation: 250 stories from many religions and cultures on spirituality" by Anthony DeMello

"There was once a rabbi who was revered by the people as a man of God. Not a day went by when a crowd of people wasn't standing at his door seeking advice or healing or the holy man's blessing. And each time the rabbi spoke, the people would hang on his lips, drinking in his every word.

"There was, however, in the audience a disagreeable fellow who never missed a chance to contradict the master. He would observe the rabbi's weaknesses and make fun of his defects to the dismay of the disciples, who began to look on him as the devil incarnate.

"Well, one day the 'devil' took ill and died. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Outwardly they looked appropriately solemn but in their hearts they were glad for no longer would the master's inspiring talks be interrupted or his behavior criticized by this disrespectful heretic.

"So the people were surprised to see the master plunged in genuine grief at the funeral. When asked by a disciple later if he was mourning over the eternal fate of the dead man, he said, 'No, no. Why should I mourn over our friend who is now in heaven? It was for myself I was grieving. That man was the only friend I had. Here I am surrounded by people who revere me. He was the only one who challenged me. I fear that with him gone, I shall stop growing.' And as he said these words, the master burst into tears."

A friend helps you become a better person, certainly my friends have helped me to do so, they have spurred me on by their example and encouragement and occasional criticism. This was a central claim of Aristotle’s “Ethics” who envisioned an escalating competition in goodness. He suggested that people try to do their best so as to be valued and respected by their friends thus inspiring them to do likewise.

Friendship is a key component of Buddhism. This is illustrated in the following tale a friend recently sent me:

One day while the Buddha was out walking with his attendant Ananda, who declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realise that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life.” They continued walking in silence when eventually the Buddha responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

Could this be true? Is friendship the whole of the spiritual life?

Jesus said to his disciples, in John’s Gospel “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything.” To me this what a true relationship with God is about, friendship. Something that we are meant to mirror in our lives. This if you like is the Kingdom coming alive in our lives. We gain knowledge of the spiritual life through living in such an intimate relationship with God, with life and with one another.

I’m with the Buddha and Jesus, I believe that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. In fact to live spiritually is to truly be a friend to life. This is how knowledge is truly revealed. This is the kingdom of love, coming alive in our lives. This is how we make our lives a scared space. This is how we manifest love in our lives, by being a friend to life. This is what being a part of a spiritual community is. Becoming a friend to life and to all that we meet.

It begins with radical acceptance. To accept those we meet as they are, exactly as they are. This does not mean we don’t point out when someone is in the wrong, no it just means we love and accept them right or wrong. It’s also about raising one another up through our example. You see by being the best we can be, in loving friendship, we automatically encourage our friends to be the best version of themselves that they too can be.

So my friends I invite you to join with me in the sacred space of friendship. I invite you to remember the friends you have known in your lives, the ones that touched and sometimes broke your hearts, the ones who accepted you just as you are and the ones who inspired you to be the best you, you could be. I also invite you to be the best fiend you can be to life and thus inspire all that you meet on your journey through life, to be the best version of themselves that they can be too.

Let’s become good friends, not just friends, not merely friends…Let us become friends to one another and friends to life…

I'm going to with this lovely tale from a short term friendship from Kent Nerburn ...some friends are just passing through...

From "Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life" by Kent Nerburn

“A Neighbour and a Friend”

"I see her standing in her front yard, glowering. She is jabbing at a patch of offending leaves with a rake.

Myra is ornery, hard to like. Raised on the plains of North Dakota, she asks no quarter and gives none. The world as she sees it is full of fools, damn fools, and crooks. I am not sure into which category I fall. Our relationship has been an uneasy truce. Though we are neighbours, we have never become close.

“She had a hard life. She’s got a good heart,” I tell myself. “Treat her with kindness.” But it is not so easy. She turns every conversation to herself, berates people that I know to be gentle and generous, and shoots at cats with buckshot.

I would dismiss her altogether if it were not for Craig, and the lesson he taught me long ago.

Craig passed through my life briefly but intensely – much the way he did everything. He was one of those people who brought energy and life into any room he entered. He had an uncanny ability to focus his entire attention on you while you were talking, so you suddenly felt more important and more responsible than you had before he was listening. He made you better by being around him. People loved him.

One autumn day we were sitting together; half talking and half working on some now forgotten projects for our graduate degrees. I was staring out the window when I noticed one of my professors crossing the street. He had been away all summer and we had not parted on good terms. I had taken great offence at some suggestion he had made, and had in turn given great offence in my answer. We had not seen each other since that day.

“Damn it,” I said to Craig. “I don’t want to see him.”

“Why not?” Craig asked.

“We don’t get along,” I said. “The guy just doesn’t like me.”

Craig looked down at the passing figure. “Maybe you’ve got it wrong,” he said. “Maybe you’re the one who’s turning away, and you’re just doing that because you’re afraid. He probably thinks you don’t like him, so he’s not friendly. People like people who like them. It’s that simple. Someone’s got to break the cycle.”

His words smarted. I walked hesitantly down the stairs into the parking lot. I greeted my professor warmly and asked how his summer had gone. He looked at me, genuinely surprised. He put his arm over my shoulder. We walked off together talking. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Craig at the window smiling broadly.

It was so simple, yet I had never seen it. I was coming to all my encounters with a fear that others were judging me, when in fact, they were worrying about how I would judge them. We were all living in fear of each other’s judgement, while the empty space between us was waiting to be filled by a simple gesture of honest caring.

Craig understood this. He knew that all we need is to open our hearts and show a genuine concern for others and what is important in their lives.

That was what made him so special. He basked in people like basking in sunlight. Their lives warmed him and they loved sharing themselves with him.

Myra has gathered the offending leaves and dispatched them to a pile in the corner of her yard.

“Damn leaves,” she says as I pass.
“A conspiracy between God and gravity,” I respond.
Then I think.
“That’s a pretty sweater,” I say.
She snorts.
“If I didn’t have a wife,” I continue,” we’d go out dancing.”
She snorts again. I continue on my way. But as I pass, I see her push an errant strand of hair back into place and adjust the collar on her sweater.
She looks around to make sure that no one was watching, then returns to her raking.

Sunday 23 October 2016

Inspiration: Breath it in breath it out

In a recent “Living the Questions” we explored the subject of “Legacy: What will we leave behind”. As is always the case it was a deeply rich and moving conversation. One area that we looked at was the people who have touched our lives, have inspired us and left their legacy upon us as individuals. Not so much famous and celebrated people but ordinary and seemingly nameless ones who have touched are lives and continue to touch our lives long after they have gone. People who were living breathing sources of inspiration who were incarnations of love, the word made flesh through the way that they lived. The people who have inspired us. The people who awakened something within us. Who planted seeds in our hearts and souls or who nurtured those seeds and helped them grow.

Who are the people who have inspired you? Who planted the seeds of love or who nurtured those seeds and enabled them to grow and flower. Who have been the inspirations in your lives?

Maybe your inspiration hasn’t come from living breathing flesh or perhaps not exclusively so. Maybe your inspiration has come from the arts, or from literature or perhaps even nature. Perhaps it has been through seeing life in certain ways you have been inspired to do something you previously could not. The photographer William Guion describes such an inspirational experience in the extract that follows from “Leaning Oak and Reflection New Orleans”
"On a hazy, chilly December morning, I walked, camera and tripod balanced on my shoulder, through a stand of oaks toward he edge of a pond. The water was silver-gray and still like a mirror hung in an empty, unlit hall. A thin mist fell, or more accurately, hung in the air. Rain had soaked the landscape during the night, and mud at the water’s edge sucked at my shoes. In the yawning light, I saw an oak leaning at a precarious angle over the water. The soil had eroded over time, dissolving much of the tree’s foundation, yet the oak’s roots were locked tenaciously into the receding land. Against the threat of drowning, this tree survived through an elegant dance of balance, perseverance, and heroism. Almost in praise, the pond mirrored the oak’s profile creating a beautiful mandala-like wheel with spokes of water, leaves, earth and light.

As I set up and focused the tree on my camera’s ground glass, I thought how often in my own life I have lived just on the edge of heroic acts. How I’ve operated within safe, comfortable boundaries that defined the limits of what I could accomplish. At this time in my life, I was considering leaving a comfortable, secure job to follow my heart’s urging to photograph and write. I stood on the edge of an uncertain future, mud sucking at my shoes, and stared out through the mists across silver-gray water at this leaning oak. Through its example, I saw clearly through the mists of doubt separating me from a decision. I stood for a long moment and imagined the worst that could happen if I stretched too far over the edge of my fears. Then, in that second when I snapped the shutter recording this moment on film, I stepped across an imaginary line in my mind. In the pond’s dark mirrored water I saw a face. It smiled back at me."

Public figures are of course inspirations to many. A couple of been in the news recently. One being Jessica Ennis the recently retired Heptathlete and Olympian and another Bob Dylan who was this year awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, who has inspired many through his music, particularly his lyrics. The likes of Sir  David Attenborough or Professor Brian Cox are other examples in the way that they bring a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world and universe. People like Nelson Mandella or Mala Yousafsi, the Afgani girl who was shot by the Taliban for wanting an education are other inspirational figures to many too. 
For still others inspiration comes from the great stories and parables, that reveal truths that are often hidden away deep in our hearts. Jesus and the Buddha are great examples of this. In Luke ch 13 vv 18-19 Jesus was asked:

What is the Kingdom of God like?
And to what shall I compare it?
It is like a mustard seed that someone
took and sowed in the garden;
it grew and became a tree,
and the birds of the air made nests
in its branches.

Parables like these reveal Jesus’ ability to dispel wisdom through his teaching. This parable in particular, I believe, is about connecting to that divine aspect within all of us and bringing it to life, thus creating the "Kingdom" within our own lives and within our own communities, for others to share in and enjoy. In so doing we become an inspiration to others to do the same.

Thomas Keating in "Meditations on the Parables of Jesus"expands on this.

"When rightly understood, the parables help us to see how extraordinary a wisdom teacher Jesus really was, and how revolutionary, in the best sense of the word, was the content of what he taught and to which he bore witness by his life and death.

"These insights cohere particularly well with the actual experience of people on the spiritual journey. When contemplative prayer is seriously embraced, we come upon [a] lived reality … the reversal of expectations, the gradual and often painful liberation from emotional programs for happiness, and the increasing discovery of the kingdom of God in the ordinary and everyday."

But how do we bring this seed of inspiration to life in our lives and how can it be nurtured so as to flower and be shared with others? Well I think one way is to recognise it first and foremost, not only in the lives of others but in our own lives too.
Chade-Meng Tan writes on the subject of “Deeds” in “Joy on Demand”

“Whenever you make a donation of time or labor, or do something out of altruistic intention, take a moment to think, "I am doing this out of altruistic intention. Having this intention makes me so happy."

Whenever you meet or bring to mind an admirable, inspiring person, take a moment to think, "There exists this wonderful person in this world. I'm so happy."

Whenever you see somebody performing an altruistic or heroic act, take a moment to think, "More good is being done in this world. I'm so happy."

It is so vital to recognise these moments of inspiration in others and within ourselves if we are to create the Kingdom of God, the Kin-dom of love in our lives. It matters because I believe everything matters, every thought, every word, every deed and every feeling. Everything matters because everything impacts and effects everything else. We impact on the lives of everyone and everything all the time. We are inspirations to one another, even if we are not aware of it. We need to recognise this, we need to be aware of how important we are and how we impact on life.
We are all inspirations to one another.

But what does it mean to be an inspiration? You may well ask. Well the word inspiration is an interesting one, as so many are. We have reduced its meaning in power. It’s another one of those words that we have attempted to tame. Today it means someone or something that gives you an idea for doing something, but originally it meant “immediate influence of God or a gods”. It comes from the old French word “inspiriacion” meaning “inhaling in or breathing in from the Latin “inspirare” meaning to blow into or breath upon so as to excite or inflame. This is the meaning in the following verse from Genesis Chapter 2 “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” It really meant to infuse or animate to affect to rouse to guide to put life into the human soul. As you can see it meant something much more profoundly powerful in the past that it does today.

That said I believe that we can and indeed do inspire in this way and in so doing we can bring the kin-dom to life in our own hearts and lives. We can ignite that divine spark, we do.

I believe that this is what Albert Schweitzer meant when he said:

“Sometimes our light goes out but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.”

Those who rekindle the light are the inspirers here amongst us.

How do we do this though? How do we bring this spirit alive within ourselves and how do we recognise it in others?

It is ok saying we need to recognise it, but it isn’t always easy to awaken to this. This is where spiritual discipline plays such a vital role. I remember that ordinary man from Oldham, who was one of my inspirations, who helped rekindle the flame in me. One thing he always taught me was “first things first” that if I was spiritually well the rest will follow and the key to that is spiritual discipline. My life is testimony to this. The problem of course though is that seeing evidence of its importance isn’t always obvious. 
Prayer and meditation do not bring obvious results and yet experience has taught me that they are as vital as breathing air and eating food and drinking water. This brings to mind a tale from Margaret Silf’s “One hundred more wisdom stories” from the famous author “unknown”

A disciple once asked his master, “What can I do to attain God?”
The master answered by asking the disciple another question: “What can you do to make the sun rise?”

The disciple retorted indignantly, “Nothing at all. So why are you giving us all these methods of prayer?”

And the master replied, “To make sure you’re awake when the sun rises.”

The key, I have come to believe, is to be awake to the inspiration within me and all around me. To let that spirit come alive. To let it breath onto all life and to breath in all the inspiration present in all animated life.

The key is to breath in the inspiration and to be the inspiration to bring that seed to life and then breath it out on the world all around me. To shine as you are meant to shine and to not be afraid to be all that you are meant to be.

And how do we do this? Well by simply living the life we love, By simply doing so we inspire those we meet to do the same and all life benefits and in so doing we might just bring the kin-dom alive, right here right now. Actually there is no might about it we do bring the kin-dom of love alive within us and in so doing we shine a little bit of light on all those we share our lives with.

I’m going to end this chip of a "blogspot" with a little bit of wisdom from one of my inspirations John O’Donohue. Taken from “Anam Cara”

“Live the life you love”
"If you allow yourself to be the person that you are, then everything will come into rhythm. If you live the life you love, you will receive shelter and blessings. Sometimes the great famine of blessing in and around us derives from the fact that we are not living the life we love, rather we are living the life that is expected of us. We have fallen out of rhythm with the secret signature and light of our own nature."

Sunday 16 October 2016

Falling Leaves: Lessons in Living

“Tired of Clinging” by Richard Bach

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all - young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks at the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, 'I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.'

The other creatures laughed and said, 'Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you shall die quicker than boredom!'

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, 'See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!'

And the one carried in the current said, 'I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.'

But they cried the more, 'Saviour!' all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

By Richard Bach, from "Illusions"

I was in the gym the other day going through a stretching routine, trying to loosen up my tight hamstrings. Something I do not enjoy doing as it’s painful, but something I know I need to do. As I was doing so I looked up and noticed one of the trainers I chat regularly to looking a little glum. I asked him how he was and we started to chat. He began by complaining about having to fill in for a colleague leading a class he didn’t seem prepared for. He then talked about feeling weary and not liking this time of year when everything is changing. He said he loved the summer and didn’t mind the cold of winter it’s just that he wasn’t overly keen on these days in between when everything is changing and unsettled. He then cracked on with getting himself in the mood to lead the class, which I’m sure he did a great job of doing. I have no doubt he didn’t have any trouble once it began. It was just the lead up that caused him the anxiety. I don’t think he is alone in this.

Autumn is here. I love autumn, "beautiful autumn, glorious autumn, best of the year." Well maybe not the best. It is a season like every season that has its own beauty. The beauty of autumn is symbolised in the falling leaves. When everything just seems so beautiful because it is dying. Summer is over now. We had a long summer, but it has finally come to an end and now we are in the season of the falling leaves. The season of reflection and the season of change and preparation for the coming winter when stillness reigns before the re-birth of spring.

It easy to see autumn as an inbetween time, but I believe that this is a mistake. In so doing we can miss its beauty and power; in so doing we end up just wishing this time away; in so doing we wish our lives away and fail to experience what is here right now; in so doing we fail to experience the spiritual nature of our lives; and in so doing our lives can quickly become meaningless. To live spiritually requires us to increase our sensitivity to life. This requires us to be fully alive to all that makes up our lives, whatever we are experiencing.

The mistake we can so often make is to wish our lives away. Let’s not do that this autumn; let’s experience the beauty and richness of this season; let’s learn our lessons from it too; let’s learn from those falling leaves.

The falling leaves can teach us so much about the spiritual life and spiritual living. They remind me of another mistake we often make. Yes we often want to rush through things and wish they were over therefore failing to truly experience the gift of the moment. That said we can often do something which inhibits the moment equally. How many of us want to cling on to what we are experiencing right now. David Bumbaugh captures this beautifully in the following meditative poem “Dancing in the wind”

“Dancing in the wind” David Bumbaugh

Except for a few stubborn holdouts
The tree outside my window
Is bare of leaves.
The wind,
This October morning,
Worries those few remaining leaves,
Pulling them this way,
twisting them that way,
tugging at them
until, one by one,
exhausted by the ceaseless effort to hang on,
they go dancing in the wind.
As they waltz past my window,
The stubbornness has left them
And they are finally free.
What is it about living things
That we expend so much energy resisting the inevitable,
Hanging on to what is already gone,
Hoping to sustain a season
Into times that are unreasonable,
Clinging to old habits
Despite the pain and discomfort?

Why are we so afraid to dance in the wind?

Why are we so afraid to dance in the wind? It’s a good question. By clinging to things, whether that be people, possessions, seasons, situations, prestige, appearance, beliefs, disbeliefs, feelings, we fail to experience life fully. We block ourselves from experiencing the full gift of life. We become like the creatures in the story at the beginning of this "blogspot", clinging on but not fully experiencing life. They would rather die of boredom than risk letting go and trust in the current. And then one brave one lets go and they simply mock it as it crashes against the rocks and suffers the pain of freedom until it learns the dance of the current. Still they are afraid though to let go and experience the freedom themselves. They want their messiah to do it for them or they merely want to spin stories of his journey rather than seeing him as the example and letting go themselves and experiencing the freedom of the current.

It is the same with all of life, if we truly pay attention and increase our sensitivity to it. All life can teach us to be all that we can be. We can even learn from the leaves as they fall freely and dance in the wind.

Now all this brings some questions to my mind. Why do so many of us cling to things and will not let go? Why do we want to live with the illusion of control? Or on the other hand why do we want to rush through things and not experience the moment we are in? Why are we always wishing for the end of things? What are we afraid of? Why do we not want to fully experience life? And what is the antidote.

I had several conversations with people last week. Some I have known all my life and others I’ve known for only a short time. In each conversation there was a constant theme. The theme was fear. Fear I believe is at the core the two autumn themes I’ve been speaking of…to either wish days away or to cling to something that is over. These are the fears symbolic of autumn. It is fear that is at the root of the need to cling on and or control and it is fear that causes this desire to wish certain feelings away.

I’m no different myself by the way. I can want to wish certain experiences away, especially if they are uncomfortable, even painful. I noticed myself doing it the other day when I was beginning a hard slog on the cross trainer. I didn’t want to go through the pain of it, I just wanted the results that would come from doing so, but still I stuck at it. I have learnt to develop faith. I’ve also clung onto comfortable things and painful and destructive things at times in my life, for the fear of what might be if I just let go and let the wind of life take hold. It was fear that stopped me.

But what causes the fear, what causes this lack of trust. Well I think that it is lack of faith. Faith in life itself. It comes from a belief that life is hostile, against us and something that cannot be trusted. This is why we cling to things and will not let go. The antidote is faith. Faith in life itself, but this of course is a risk. It is a risk worth taking though and certainly beats the boredom of clinging to those rocks we heard about in the earlier story. We need to learn to let go and trust in the current and trust in the wind and to trust in the ever changing nature of life.

This brings to mind a lovely excerpt from Anthony Demello’s “The song of the Bird” it goes by the title “Don’t Change”

"I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, Don't change. I love you just as you are. Those words were music to my ears: Don't change, Don't change. Don't change . . . I love you as you are. I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!

Now I know that I couldn’t really change until I found someone who would love me whether I changed or not.

Is this how you love me, God?"

Here lays both the problem and the solution. This is why I believe we cling to things or simply wish them away. This is why so many of us are afraid to fully experience the life we are experiencing right here right now. We don’t trust in life. We believe that life is untrustworthy. We fail to experience that love that is so present in life. We feel unacceptable as we are. Certainly this was my problem for so long. Thank God it is no longer the case. I do, I do, I do…every day…

And how do we learn to love life, to be a part of life? Well it begins by paying attention. By increasing our sensitivity to life. It begins perhaps by being like those falling leaves. By falling like those autumnal leaves, by not wishing away our experiences and by not clinging on…It begins by simply letting go and by learning to dance in the wind…

Let’s all learn to dance in the wind…Lets all become like falling leaves…Let’s all learn to dance the impermanence dance…


Sunday 2 October 2016

Lessons from the Animals

Every year I conduct an "Animal Blessing" service. It is held on the first Sunday in October, the nearest one to the Feast Day of St Francis. This year we looked at animals as teachers. We explored what lessons we could learn from the animals around us and in our lives. This blog includes material and thoughts that we shared in worship. The first piece is taken from “Journeying in Place” by Gunilla Norris

“What I learned is that of all the creatures that I can see in this landscape, the geese best represent the communion of saints. They depend on one another. The lead goose does the most work, but when it is tired, it falls back and another takes its place. To be able to rely on others is a deep trust that does not come easily. The geese fly in the wake of one another’s wings. They literally get a lift from one another. I want to be with others this way. Geese tell me that it is, indeed, possible to fly with equals."

Geese and the way that they fly can teach us so much about what means to live in spiritual community, what a congregation or any loving community ought to be about. One of mutual love, support and interconnection. Yes one where the individual is encouraged to be all that they can be, but who can only truly become all that they can be through living in common unity, through living in and being in love.

The following is taken from “Medicine Cards” by Jamie Sims and David Carson

"All animals are sacred, but in many traditions White Buffalo is most sacred. The appearance of White Buffalo is a sign that prayers are being heard, that the sacred pipe is being honored, and that the promises of prophesy are being fulfilled. White Buffalo signals a time of abundance and plenty.

Buffalo was the major source of sustenance for the Plains Indians. It gave meat for food, hides for clothing, warm and soft robes for long winters, and hooves for glue. The medicine of Buffalo is prayer, gratitude and praise for that which has been received. Buffalo medicine is also knowing that abundance is present when all relations are honored as sacred, and when gratitude is expressed to every living part of creation.

Because of its desire to give the gifts that its body provided, and because of its willingness to be used on Earth for the highest good before entering the hunting grounds of Spirit, Buffalo did not readily stampede and run from hunters….

Buffalo medicine is a sign that you achieve nothing without the aid of the Great Spirit and that you must be humble enough for that assistance and then be grateful for what you receive."

...In the service we offered gratitude and thanks for our animal brothers and sisters...Here are some thoughts that were shared...

It is wonderful to be here together with our fellow animals. I’m not just talking about our animal friends here by the way. It is important to recognise that we too are animals. That the animals who we share this world with are kin. We are formed from the same flesh and I believe have the same spirit animates us all. Ok we are not exactly the same, but we are formed from the same earth and are animated by the very same breath of life. In fact it is worth remembering that the word “animal” is actually from the Latin word “animalis”, which actually means having a soul and shares the same root for breath “animus”. So yes formed from the same earth with the very same spirit within us.

Now somewhere along the lines of our history we humans began to think of ourselves as far superior to other animals with the intrinsic right to make use of them in whatever way we wished. But this was not always so, in ancient times and in the so-called primitive cultures, people revered the animals as great teachers, purveyors of wisdom, possessors of souls and of spiritual qualities. There was a time when humans and animals were more closely connected. Now some of we  so called rationalists tend to look on all this as ignorance. But I wonder if actually we have forgotten something precious and obvious to them. I wonder if they knew something that we somehow managed to forget.

We can learn so much from the animals, if we have enough humility to do so. They can teach us so much about life. They can be our greatest teachers. Jesus taught his followers to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, that these were the characteristics for discipleship in a challenging world. Words that our Unitarian brothers and sisters have used as their motto, over the many trials and difficulties they have lived through. The passage in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 10 v 16 reads “Behold I am sending you forward as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be therefore wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Here Jesus is warning his disciples of the dangers that they will face in carrying their message of radical love, to a wounded world. That they will be no safer than lambs amongst wolves; he is saying that they must employ wisdom in the way they impart this message, in a hostile world.

Now the dove of course is an important image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It makes its first appearance in the story of Noah’s Arc. Noah sends out a dove to find land, eventually it returns with an olive branch. This symbolises the re-birth of life tying humanity to the earth, to the ground, to the soil and the cycles of life. It is important to remember that humanity and hummus are linguistically linked, along with humility. Something we can lose sight of in our technically advanced age. We are not above nature though, we are interdependent with the web of all existence.

We can learn so much from our animal brothers and sisters if we would pay attention. They can teach us how to live in the moment “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew ch 6 v 26). Simply watch a pet and notice how they live in the moment in which they find themselves. They are not caught up in regret about the past or fear of the future.

The animals can teach us how to listen to our bodies. When they are ill they do not push themselves beyond their limits. They are yoga masters too, just watch a cat or dog and how they stretch constantly. They can teach us about balance, for they do not take more than they need. They eat what they need and do not take more than is required for themselves or their dependants. It is only domesticated animals that become overweight, depressed and or obese. They can teach us how to be true to our natures. They can help us to see ourselves as we truly are. As a part of life, as part of the nature of everything. So many of our human problems stem from our sense of separation, that we are not a part of everything. By observing the animals we can once again see that we are a part of everything and that we belong here and that there is nothing really wrong with us. We just forget who we are from time to time.

We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters the animals, they can teach us once again what it is to be fully human and a part of life.

The following is taken from “Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life” by Bonnie Friedman

"Outside the Cathedral holding ancient relics in Valencia, a woman kissed pigeons. She saw these birds as symbols of God. Gray and white and black as discarded shells, these were creatures I'd been taught to think of as 'filthy.' They seemed filthy, in fact, with their staring orange eyes and patchy feathers. But now, while I looked, they turned into doves. Of course they always were doves, or rather, of course doves always really were a type of pigeon. But I never really believed it until this woman showed me her belief. Her kiss transformed ugliness to beauty.

So it was like a fairy tale after all. It was the old story: what is loved reveals its loveliness. Here she squatted, radiant, smiling, enrobed in life, in a dozen pairs of folded wings, in a dozen pairs of pearl gray and, as I looked, yes, even lavender, even royal purple wings — a woman in an ordinary black cotton dress who smiled as if she knew she was the luckiest person on earth, swathed in blessing."

This lovely little tale brought St Francis to my mind. St Francis was a thirteenth century monk who held animals in the highest of esteem. He would commune with animals in much the same way as he would commune with people, he saw no difference. Here is one story, of many told about him, where he was found communing with a bird:

· "Once when Saint Francis was about to eat with Brother Leo he was greatly delighted to hear a nightingale singing. So he suggested to his companion that they would also sing praise to God alternately with the bird. While Leo was pleading that he was no singer, Francis lifted up his voice and, phrase by phrase, sang his duet with the nightingale."

There is a similar concept in Judaism. In “What do Jews Believe” David S Ariel wrote “While Hasidim believed in the importance of observing the mitzvot, learning Torah, and praying with devotion, they believed that there was a deeper spiritual realm of listening to the world as the song of god. The disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, for example, noted that their teacher went to the pond every day at dawn and stayed there for a little while before returning home again. One of his students explained that he was learning the song with which the frogs praise God.”

I have a similar relationship with the blackbird that sits and sings on the top of my house. He sings sweetly and I often find myself singing back at him. To which he often responds. It seems that we are encouraging one another to sing our song of life ever more sweetly. It certainly lifts my spirit and animates my life and increases my sense of connection.

Our relationship with the animals and with all life, including one another ought to help us to develop that most vital aspect of our humanity, compassion. Compassion is at core of all the great religious traditions and it is through living compassionately that we truly live out a full spiritual life. To develop spiritually is to increase our sensitivity to life, to feel life more fully, I have learnt that this is done through compassionate living.

Karen Armstrong teaches that compassion is an act, not merely an emotion, a feeling. It is way of living and being in the world. She claims that if it were an emotion, it would not be a comfortable one, but one of discomfort. Suggesting that if we are to understand compassion for the “Other”, we must cultivate the emotions of discomfort and disturbance, we must feel their pain, we must empathise and not become detached or indifferent. We develop empathy for the “Other” by embracing the word 'umvelt,' which means honouring the world as it is experienced by different people, animals, and organisms. she believes that it is through our capacity to imagine and empathise that we will be brought into a more authentic relationship with the Earth. It is through humility in the face of our own finite humanity that allows us to see ourselves as 'one species among many' not the indomitable centre of a human centred and created world.

By increasing our sensitivity to all life, we see ourselves as part of all of life and through doing so we set ourselves free. Free to what? Well free to live and be in love. You see when we increase our sensitivity to life we widen, broaden and deepen our experience of living.

When we look into our own eyes, when we look into one another’s eyes and when we look into the eyes of every creature what do we see? When we look with intensity at all life what do we see?

I see that same spirit that animates all life. I see “animalis” I see soul and I see the “animus” running through it all, the same breath, the same spirit that animates it all.

Let us give thanks for the animals...Our brothers and sisters in body and in soul...

I will end with the following blessing, the author of which I cannot find...

You – Birds of the Air,
Hawk, Sparrow, and laughing Jay
You remind us of freedom,
delight us with your song, astound us with feats of migration...
Grant us your perspective,
for too often our horizon is limited
and we are blind to the full results of our actions.

You – Worms of the Earth,
Ants, Beetles, Spiders and Centipedes
You are an essential but often forgotten part of nature’s web.
Through you the cycle is complete;
through you new life arises from old.
Remind us of humility.
For the wheel of live does not turn around us;
we are not the axle, but merely spokes
just the same as our unseen, unknown and ignored companions

You – Animals of the field and woods and mountains and desert—
Bear and Bison, Skunk and Squirrel, Weasel and Wolf
Too often we have destroyed your homes in the name of progress,
cutting the forests to gratify our desire,
or covering the earth with tarmac, cement, and lawns.
Pray that we may remember that the earth was not given for our needs alone,
and what we do to you, in the end we do to ourselves.

You – Animals of the farm—
Horse and cow, pig and chicken
Willingly or not, you give your very lives for us,
your milk for our nourishment, your flesh for our meat,
Yet too often we forget that the food on our tables was once as alive as we are.
Forgive our willful ignorance,
and remind us constantly to give thanks for your sacrifice...

And – You – dearest Companions in our lives
Dogs and Cats, Hamsters and Goldfish
Some of you are with us here today
Some were not able to come today
and there are some who will always be present in our memories
You have enriched our lives in so many ways
put up with our failings with calm acceptance
taught us something about being a good person
taught us how to love.

May we hold you in our hearts throughout the days of our lives.
We give thanks for the joy you bring into our lives
and together we give you a blessing
We pray for you – for playful days and peaceful nights;
for lots of tummy rubs and joy in being our companions.
Gracious Creator,
Hear and bless
Thy beasts and singing birds
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words

And may we carry that unconditional love with us in all that we feel and all that we think and all that we say and all that we do