Saturday 31 December 2016

New Years Day

Happy New Year. 

Today is the first of January, the beginning of a new year, New Years Day.It is a day on which traditionally we are meant to pause and evaluate our lives, the state of our own being, and perhaps the state of the world in which we live. A day when we are meant to assess what can be done better and also perhaps what needs to change, what needs to be let go of. Perhaps today, more than any other day, we are meant to practice discernment, to sift through our lives, like prospectors panning for gold, we are meant to separate what is of use and what is not. We are meant to sort the wheat from the chaff. In so doing we may well find the most precious gem stones of our lives.

On this day, as we sift through our lives, we may note the size of our waistlines or other measures of our physical well-being? We may well assess our bank balances, how expensive has Christmas been this year? We may well take a look at our wardrobes. Perhaps we will look at the state of our relationships, with lovers and spouses, with families and with friends. We may also look at the state of our employment.

This time of year is often one when people commit to make changes. I know my gym will be over populated this week, no doubt groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Slimming World and other organisations I know intimately, will have much higher attendance rates over the next few weeks. I also know that by February things will have returned back to their normal rate.

Yes this time of year, for so many of us, is a time of assessment, a time when people often feel dissatisfied with aspects of their lives and as a result commit to change, believing that if they change certain aspects of their lives, their troubles will come to an end and everything will suddenly magically be different.

For better or for worse today is a day of measurement; today is a day where we assess where we have been and perhaps where we are going. In Ancient Rome it was the day of worship of the God Janus, the God with two faces, one looking into the future and the other into the past. The God of gateways, of thresholds of the space of change. Today is meant to be the one when we make decisions about what needs to change. The truth is though, that it is a day just like any other day and every day, just like every in moment, everything changes and yet somehow everything stays the same.

Life has taught me many lessons One of the most important being that the only thing permanent in life is change. “Nothing ever lasts for ever” as Echo and the Bunnymen once sang. Life is impermanent. We are all guests in life. We cannot cling to anything. Whatever we are feeling or experiencing right now, “This too shall pass”.

Impermanence is the beauty and the energy of life. Life is forever changing and transforming and turning into something new. Nothing ever stays exactly the same and nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way again. This was wonderfully expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago. Who said, among many other things, “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” “No one ever steps into the same river twice.” And “Nothing endures but change.” He was saying that the only constant in life was and is change, that life was constantly in flux and that everything is impermanent.

So often in life we try to cling to things, to hold on to things to maintain things exactly as they are. This seems to be going against life and the nature of things. Nothing stays exactly as it is in its current nature, everything changes from moment to moment and to resist this is to resist life. Yes everything changes but life goes on.

The mistake we often make is to try to cling onto things, whatever that might be, in fear. In so doing we fail to experience life itself. We resist the beauty and the power of life.

 As I look back at the year, that has passed, so much seems different and yet if truth be told much is still the same. Much has changed in regard to my own experiences of my personal life. 2016 may well, on a personal level, have been the greatest of my life. If you had told me what was to come at the beginning of last year I would not have believed you. I’m not talking about my personal awards and achievements either, what I’m really talking about is my own experience of my own physical being and how this has opened me up to new and exciting experiences I would never have dreamed possible. I have been set free from so many shame filled chains that for so many years had bound me. So personally speaking 2016 was one of unimagined wonder. I could not be more grateful. I also know if I continue the way I have lived for the last 13 or more years that greater personal freedom will come. Many years ago I learnt the power of living by faith and hope and love and I will continue to do so; I will continue to follow this simple and beautiful way of living.

That is not to say that 2016 was all beautiful and wonderful. As I look around at the world in which I live I witness much that disturbs me. Division and fear does seem to be on the increase as does instability. The political landscape has changed these last 12 months and has left an increasing sense of fear for many of us. And yet as I walk around the town in which I live everyday, life is much the same. People are much the same as they have always been. Yes everything changes and yet somehow everything still seems much the same. People are the same as they have always, let us not become victims of our own bad dreams.

Life is constantly changing, nothing ever stays exactly the same and no moment is exactly like any other. We all experience these moments differently too; we each bring our pasts with us into each moment and this always impacts on the present.

That said despite the changing nature of our material lives there are things that do seem permanent, that do not change. There are some things that hold us and sustain us despite the constant changing nature of life. The last thirteen years of my life has proven this to me, there have been three unchanging things that have held and sustained me and kept me open to life despite its uncertainty. Things that have held me even during some deeply painful experiences. The three are faith, hope and love.

It was Paul of Tarsus, in the 13th Chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians who named these three that have held me and led me these last thirteen years. I have seen many others held by them too, through many storms in their lives. There is something eternal about them, something universal and they were at work long before he wrote about them. We can rely upon these three, but only if we nurture and strengthen them. We can depend upon these three faith, hope and love. But what do these three mean?

Faith is about trusting in life itself; it is about living as openly and honestly as possible; it is about accepting that there is pain in life, but that there is also so much joy; it is realising that the mere fact that we exist at all is life’s greatest gift. This allows us to sing the joy of living, in all its mystery. It is also about seeing that we are all in this together, that we all live in the one lifeboat. We need to connect as much as possible to the boat of life in which we share. We need to ensure that our lifelines are secure and not worn or frayed at the edges. This is something we need to hold onto and not let go of. Why, you may well ask? Well because it sustains us through the vicissitudes of life. Life does not offer much certainty, but we need not despair at this, or at least not stay in despair.

Hope is the second of those eternal, universal truths. Hope is rooted in despair; it grows from the same place. To live in hope is to believe that if we live with conviction and compassion that we can effect positive change in our world, even if we ourselves do not get see to see its full fruition. Hope is about planting those seeds when and where ever we can.

To live with hope is to live with the attitude that the future is genuinely open. The God of my understanding works with us and guides us but leaves life open, it is not pre-ordained. “The Lure of Divine Love” draws us out of ourselves, but it also allows life to develop freely. I accept that the past does have power, I have a strong sense of history, this is very important. That said I do not believe that the past defines the future, not everything is inevitable. The future is unwritten.

Life is definitely a journey worth taking, even during its toughest moments. Yes we all despair at times and we all live with uncertainty, but the beacon of hope is always there. The writer of the book of proverbs reminds us “Where there is no vision (no hope) the people perish.” Hope is a vital lifeline it both holds and sustains us. It is an eternal and universal principle and one that also requires nurture.

What about love? How can it sustain us? By the way I am not talking of romance here, I am talking of spiritual love. Spiritual love is that power that connects us to our true selves, one another, the life we share and whatever it is that connects all life. What I myself call God; that power that is greater than all and yet present in each. It is love that powers the lifeboat, that puts wind in its sails. Love is about caring deeply and passionately about life itself. This of course requires attention; it is a life line that requires nurture. Love reminds me that we do not live for ourselves alone or by ourselves alone. “no man is an island” or as Kurt Vonnegut once put it “one human being is no human being”. The universal and eternal truth is that we need the love, the care, the companionship of others in order to fully experience what it is to be alive. By ourselves we are never fully alive.

If we live by these three faith, hope and love we will know what it means to truly live and experience the joy of living, even in the dark days.

Today, New Year’s Day, is a day of new beginnings; today is a day when if we want to commit to anything perhaps we ought to commit to beginning again in love.

New Years Day is a time for new beginnings, a time for hope of what might be and a time to reflect on what has been before us. And yet it is just a day, much like any other day really. The sun has risen, as it has always risen and in a few hours time it will set, as it has always set.

So let’s look forward with new eyes, with fresh eyes. Let’s look back and commit to learn from our pasts. Let’s learn to live with increased faith, hope and love.

Whatever this year brings us, let us resolve to build lives of faith, hope and love.

 Let’s begin again this day and every day in love.

I will end with some words of beginning by Edward Searl

Always there is a beginning —
a new day,
a new month,
a new season,
a new year.

Forever the old passes away 
and newness emerges
from the richness that was.

Nothing is ever lost
in the many changes
time brings.

What was, in some way,
will be,
though changed in form.

Know this:
This moment is a beginning;
and your lives,
individually and together,
are full of richness, of freshness,
of hope and of promise.

From “We Pledge Our Hearts” by Edward Searl

Sunday 11 December 2016

The Strange Arithmetic of Christmas

The following reflection has been growing in my heart and soul for a couple of weeks now and has inspired my own little relfection that follows...

"The Strange Arithmetic of Christmas” by Jeremiah Jenkins

I deliberately requested your minister to allow me to write to you about Christmas. I was a teacher of arithmetic for fifteen years in a preparatory school, so I want to write about the inverted arithmetic of Christmas.

Christmas differs from figures and sums and dollars and crowds-at-a football game. You can add these together and get more. But with Christmas, you can add all the Santa Clauses on earth and there is still only one Santa Claus. Or all the trees and there is still only one Tree. Or perhaps all the births of children but there is still only one Bethlehem story. Or all the families, and there is still one family – yours!

It is when you start dividing Christmas that it begins to grow. It multiplies with division. It defies the rules. If you have six TV sets and give two or three away, you have less. But when it comes to the richness of love, the currency of gratitude or the document of faith, the more you give the more you possess. To teach is to learn. To encourage someone and give them your faith is to strengthen your own faith. To love is to know love.

Christmas is like a lot of things; it can be misused. I think it was never meant for raucous public displays. Its carols were not intended to be blared into the streets. Its colors probably were not meant to be emblazoned like advertising – or even associated with advertising. Christmas is the artistry of the world; it is the subtle touch, the gentle word, the endearing act, the loving gift. Share these qualities, divide them, and you will find miraculously that they have grown with division. This is the strange arithmetic of Christmas.

"The Strange Arithmetic of Christmas" I've been thinking about this for quite some time now, it has been growing, nay multiplying in my heart an soul...

Social media is full of quotations and Meme’s proclaiming little bits of wisdom. Some make sense to me, others do not. Many seem to contradict one another and depending on my mood, or the status of my soul, I can find myself agreeing and disagreeing with them. The one thing that is consistent about me is my very inconsistency. Or maybe the truth is that contradictions are true, depending on certain aspects of our humanity; two opposing truths can actually be true, depending on what parts of our our lives they are speaking of.

I recently came across the following quotation from that great medieval heretical mystic Meister Eckhart:

“God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

It instantly brought to my mind “The Strange Arithmetic of Christmas.” Particularly the following sentences:

"It is when you start dividing Christmas that it begins to grow. It multiplies with division. It defies the rules. If you have six TV sets and give two or three away, you have less. But when it comes to the richness of love, the currency of gratitude or the document of faith, the more you give the more you possess. To teach is to learn. To encourage someone and give them your faith is to strengthen your own faith. To love is to know love…”

“…Christmas is the artistry of the world; it is the subtle touch, the gentle word, the endearing act, the loving gift. Share these qualities, divide them, and you will find miraculously that they have grown with division. This is the strange arithmetic of Christmas.”

Gosh I love this…What beautiful un-common sense!!! Makes sense to me…

Now before I continue an apology. I’m talking here about a subject I cannot claim to be an expert in, mathematics. I say this although I was a champion at mental arithmetic at primary school, my cousin told me it was because I was the most mental in my school. She may well be right. Arithmetic wasn’t a problem for me, it was mathematics I just couldn’t fathom, algebra and trigonometry etc. just made no sense at all to my brain.

So apologies if what I write is difficult to make sense of. This is because what I am attempting to share is un-commonsense. What I have come to believe is that what we lack today is not really common sense, we have perhaps too much of that. What I believe we need more of is the un-commonsense that lies at the heart of everything. What I’m attempting to share with you is, what I have come to believe, a beautiful and essential paradox. It is the true gift at the heart of the spirit of the season, the strange arithmetic of Christmas. How the spiritual life does indeed defy the perceived laws of nature as we understand them. How by giving away a particular commodity not only does the person receiving gain, but so does the giver and all who are caught up in this activity. You see what I have learnt, what the strange arithmetic of Christmas has taught me, is that the more love you give away the more love you experience. In fact if you want to fill the cup of love, that you hold in your heart, the first thing you must do is empty it and pour it out on all who you share this world with you.

Unfortunately many of us lack the courage, the heart, to empty our cups…

Through living spiritually I have leant that it is through the process of subtraction, rather than addition, that my soul grows and it is through division rather than multiplication that my heart is filled.

This to me is the heart of Christmas, this giving from the heart to others. This is the key message of Christianity as I see it, self-giving love. By the way I am not suggesting that it is unique to Christianity. I find it at the heart of all the faith traditions I have come to know too.

Self-giving love is a love that grows the more that we give it away. A love that is at the core of each and every one of us if we would but nurture it in the mangers of our own hearts and give birth to it in our living and breathing.

This is what Christmas means to me and why as the years have gone by I have come to believe in Christmas more and more.

I believe in Christmas, the soul of Christmas, the spirit of Christmas, the heart of Christmas the religion of Christmas more today than I ever did at any moment in my life. Today I believe everything about Christmas and a whole lot more than everything that we think we know.

Now don’t get me wrong here I am not suggesting that I believe that everything that the Gospel accounts recounted actually happened. I really can’t answer that, I wasn’t there. Were any of us who argue about it actually there? No of course not. What I mean when I say I believe in Christmas more today than I have ever done before is that I believe in the universal mythos that lies in the soul of the story. I believe in the story and what it has to teach humanity regardless of time and or space.

I also believe we need Christmas more today than at any other time before, for we mock the bells at Christmas time probably more today than we ever did before. The problem I suspect is that we do not hear the message at the heart of Christmas…Maybe we have forgotten how to listen or perhaps we have forgotten how to deliver the message.

So how do we hear the message of Christmas and perhaps most importantly how do we ourselves become Father Christmas, become Santa Claus, how do we deliver Christmas ourselves into everyone’s home?

Well here is where the contradiction comes in. We need both emptiness and fullness. We need clarity of mind and abundance of love. We need an empty mind and a full heart; we need both an empty cup and at the same time one that is full to overflowing. Now this probably doesn’t sound like sense to most, but then Christmas isn’t about common sense it is about un-common sense.

I will try to explain what I mean, beginning with the following story:

There is a story of a university professor who visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The professor began to ask questions while the master just sat quietly, listening. After a while the master began to pour tea into the professor’s cup. The cup soon filled up, but the master did not stop pouring. The tea soon began to spill over on to the table. Initially the professor just sat there in stunned silence, he did not know what to do. Eventually he could take no more and shouted out “It’s overfull. No more will go in!” The master stopped pouring and simply said “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

To bring this spirit of Christmas to life in our lives requires a certain kind of emptiness. A certain kind of stillness. We need this to hear the still small voice, to hear the angels calling, to be like little children to learn all that this season has to offer us. You see the problem for so many of us is that we think that we know so much, we think we are so clever, but all we have done is killed the spirit of the season. Our so called common sense, our rejection of the spirit of the season, “our glad tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact, glad tidings of reason and fact” has filled our minds to overflowing and as a result there is no room for the spirit of the season.

We also live such busy and full lives, that paradoxically can feel so empty. We never seem to have a minute to simply be still and to feel the season. To truly know the spirit of the season we need time for silence and stillness, we need spiritual practice. We need time for prayer and meditation, a time to empty the mind so as to hear the cries of those in need and the songs of the angels and to let the love present in all of us to fill our hearts.

We need to empty our minds so that we can once again begin to fill our hearts.

And how do we fill our hearts? Well it’s quite simple really. We become like Father Christmas, like Santa Claus. We fill our hearts, like his sacks and stockings, by giving our hearts away. By practising this strange arithmetic of Christmas. We multiply by division. By giving our hearts away we receive all the love and a whole lot more than we could ever wish for. Of course we cannot measure this in the way that we can measure other commodities of life, except through our own lived human experiences. This is the strange paradox of giving though, the strange arithmetic of love that multiplies by division. It can only be measured by taking the time to reflect on our own lived experience and this requires stillness and silence.

This is how we deliver the gift at the heart of Christmas. This is how we bring the spirit to life not only for a day, or even a season, but for the rest of our lives. It is quite simple really, but it aint easy. It requires courage, it requires heart, it requires us to truly live from our hearts and to go against the grain of conventional truth. It requires that most priceless of commodities un-common sense.

It requires us to still ourselves in silence so as to hear the call of Christmas, isn’t that what this time of Advent, of preparation is about. To make ready those mangers in our own hearts and then to simply fill our hearts with the love we have been yearning for, by pouring out that love on all we share our lives with.

In so doing we will bring the spirit, the heart of the season to life. Christ will truly be born again. Love will be incarnated in and through our very lives…

For when our hearts are opened Christ is born again…

Sunday 4 December 2016

The Greatest Gift of All

We are now fully into the Advent Season, the days that lead to Christmas Day. These are the days of waiting of preparation. The music is playing, we can hear all the familiar songs in every shop as we no doubt begin the process of selecting presents for our loved ones. 

Have you done all your shopping yet? I’ve not even begun. I will soon, but not just yet. I’ve got too much to do.
This is the season for giving and forgetting, but not just one of wanton consumerism is not just about giving and getting things. It is a time set aside to forgive and forget, to heal old wounds, surely this is the spirit of the season ahead. Sadly though the spirit of the season is so often lost.

A classic example of missing out on the spirit and just getting lost in the pure materialism of the season is the “Black Friday” phenomenon that has come to our culture in recent years. It is another example of we British partially importing and acquiring culture from our friends in America. Sadly though we have only taken on board the material aspects. Yes we have “Black Friday” or more accurately “Black Fortnight” but without the spiritual element that accompanies it. “Thanksgiving”, a festival of coming together in love and an offering of thanks for the gifts that life has offered to us, we have not acquired…Oh we do live in such a reductionist age, we have squeezed the spirit out of everything. In so doing we run the risk of reducing our lives to nothingness, to meaninglessness. This is a dangerous game. In reducing everything to a purely material level we reduce everything eventually to nothing, until life itself becomes nothing but a meaningless soulless activity.

We need to find the spirit and soul of everything, to sanctify life once again…We need to rediscover the spirit of the seasons, to once again find the religion in the ribbons and the wrapping paper.

Strangely enough we can begin to discover the spirit of the season in those very gifts as we select them for our loved ones and wrap them up with our care and attention. These are acts of connection and thanks giving in and of themselves. This is the spirit coming alive, oh yes there is true religion in the ribbons and wrapping paper and the time we take to select and prepare the gifts…Through such simple acts we can begin once again to sanctify life…

 In “Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life” Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat offer examples of spiritually literate gifts that offer a way to combine spiritual practice and gift giving.

 They write:

 “Spiritually literate gifts have meanings attached to them. They might be symbolic of God's presence in daily life; they might reflect how we are connected through time and across the miles with others; or they might encourage us in a spiritual practice such as play, wonder, and hope. Here are some examples of spiritually literate gifts to give this holiday season, based on the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy.

 • Something handmade which expresses your creativity. (Creativity is a gift of God, and a handmade gift reflects our role as co-creators of the universe.)

• A toy, game, joke book, or something whimsical that makes you laugh. (According to the some of the mystics, God created the world in play and loves laughter. There is an Apache myth of the Creator giving human beings the ability to talk, to run, and to look. But God was not satisfied until God also gave them the ability to laugh. Only then did the Creator say, "Now you are fit to live.")

 • Something you have used and appreciated, such as a book you have read or a piece of clothing. (Everything has value, even old and used things, and recycled gifts often have added value because stories go along with them.)

 • A journal into which you have copied meaningful poems and passages from books you like, or a CD of your favorite songs. (By making your own holy books and hymnals, you are sharing your spiritual understanding of the world. You are also introducing others to your teachers.)

• A DVD that has touched you. (This is another way to share meanings and teachers with others. It also encourages hospitality, imagination, enthusiasm, gratitude, joy, and play.)

• A food basket, arranged to accent the variety of colors and shapes of food. Or an aromatherapy candle. (Beautiful sights, touches, and smells evoke wonder and reverence for life's bounties.)

• Copies of recipes, perhaps family favorites or dishes served on a special occasion. (In addition to sparking memories of shared experiences, recipes reflect our connections with others over time and space.)

• A donation in someone's name to a charity or nonprofit organization. (Money given to an environmental organization or an animal shelter testifies to our reverence for the Creation; money to groups working for conflict resolution advances the cause of peace; money to a community food bank or an organization working with refugees demonstrates our feelings of connection to others.)

• The gift of silence, such as money and time off for a visit to a spiritual retreat house or just to stay home with the phones off. (Silence is an essential spiritual practice, valuable according to all the wisdom traditions for communing with God and nurturing, healing, and renewing the soul.)

Such gifts help to bring connection and oneness and help to bring alive the spirit. Such simple, meaningful gifts can begin to create the religion that can at times become loss in the ribbons and the wrapping paper. We can bring the spirit of the season alive in our ordinary lives; we can bring light to our lives and our relationships; we can shine some light on the “Black Fridays” or “Black Any Days” that seem to have over taken this season.

There is also something else that we can give in the season of rushing, pushing and at times resenting. That gift is simply our time and our love. We can sanctify this season by giving one another perhaps the greatest present of them all, our true presence. We just need to spend time listening and paying attention to one another. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to one another is the gift of our time. The most priceless commodity of them all.

A lovely friend of mine, who lives in a land far away, sent me the gift of a “meme”, in a message of Facebook the other day, that expresses the priceless commodity of time. It is by Thich Naht Hanh, who said:

“Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty four brand new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty four hours will bring Peace, Joy and Happiness to ourselves and others.”

What a precious gift we have been given. The gift of life, the gift of our presence. Let’s not waste it. Let’s sanctify life with our presence with our life. Let’s become the gift we have all been waiting for.

You see we’ve already received the greatest gifts we could ever have been given, the gift of life itself. It is up to us what we do with this gift. Let’s not waste them; let’s make the most of them; let’s make the most of our lives. In so doing we will encourage others to do the same and we will sanctify life with our presence. What a present we then become to life itself. Remember that life is indeed the greatest gift of them all. Life is the ultimate Grace. We did absolutely nothing to deserve it. It was freely given to us without any effort on our part.

This year has been quite a year for myself. I have received many gifts and quite a bit of recognition. At the recent Slimming World Awards night I officially received my award for “Man of the Year”. It was a wonderful night in which I shared with other prize winners. Along with the prize money I also received the gorgeous gift of cuff links and a beautiful glass trophy. It’s the first trophy I’ve ever received. These of course were not the real gifts, nor was the publicity. No the real gift is in the new life I’ve been given. Yes this began with the weight loss and led to this greater experience of the life I’ve been freely given. A life I can now make better use of in the service of others. This truly is a gift that keeps on giving as I share it with others. I offer true thanks giving for this and live with real gratitude as I make use of the gift, and I do so with no “Black Friday” in sight.

Life offers so many gifts to us, if we would just recognise them. Sadly we don’t always do so and we don’t always make the best use of this ultimate Grace. I know I’ve wasted many of the precious gifts that I have been offered. No doubt I will do so again, I am as human as I have always been. I will not beat myself up for this. I will just pledge to do my best to make use of what I have been given and to share it with those I get to share this ultimate free gift with, the gift of life itself.

I will do my utmost to give this love away beginning this Advent and moving on into Christmas and beyond. This to me is Love coming alive, Love incarnating in human form. This is what we are here for. To use the gifts we have been given, not only for ourselves but for the good of all and to share with all, therefore encouraging others to do the same. It begins by simply sharing the most precious gift of all, my time, my presence, isn’t this the ultimate present. Oh how I wish I had more of this priceless commodity to give. Oh how I wish there was more of this precious commodity for giving and for getting. Maybe there is, but more about that in the next "blogspot",

This is my suggestion for focus this Advent season, this giving of our true presence, the ultimate present. It begins right here right now in this season of selecting and wrapping presents. We can begin to bring the sacred alive in what appears to be wanton materialism. We can sanctify life with our presence in the selecting and wrapping of presents, we can begin to bring the spirit of the season alive in these most simple acts, we can unwrap the religion in the ribbons. We can also bless one another with our presence by simply spending time with one another mindfully and lovingly, in simply sharing our time and listening to one another.

 It really is that simple. We can bring the spirit of the season alive once again. We can bring Christmas alive in the presence of each and every day. We can become the greatest gift that anyone could wish for.

We no longer have to wish it could be Christmas every day, we can make it so, by simply blessing each day with our presence.