Sunday 14 May 2017

Time to inhabit space

Last Saturday afternoon I was out with friends, it was my day off and we wandered together around Dunham Massey, a place I love. I wasn’t quite myself. I could feel it in the core of me. I was not enjoying this time with friends in such a beautiful space. Something just didn’t feel right, my heart wasn’t in it. Not that it showed in how I was with them, but in the core of me I wasn’t quite myself. I was not connecting with them or the nature in which we walked. In fact if truth be told I could feel myself getting increasingly irritated as time went on. So much so that I was half relieved to get home and be on my own. Things got worse there though and I had an awful night’s sleep. I discovered that night what the problem was. I had obviously picked up some kind of bug and spent the whole night up and down to toilet.

I was not happy when the alarm went off next morning as I had such a busy day ahead. It was not just caused by the lack of sleep, I felt lousy, I felt weak. On top the services I had to lead I had appointments all afternoon too. I could have cancelled, of course I could, but I felt duty bound to continue on. I got through the day and did a decent, job as tough as it was. So many people were kind and loving and something carried me through. Love is such a powerful and gentle force. Human love and kindness and the love of God is comforting and sustaining. It kept me going all day, although I can’t claim to have truly experienced the day. I was not fully present.

That evening I went for a short walk with a friend just around Altrincham. We walked through the deserted town which just a few hours earlier would have been buzzing with activity, just around the corner the bars and eateries were crowded and full of life as people enjoyed the beautiful evening. I was just grateful for loving company, the ground at my feet and air to breathe. I smiled to myself as I thought that peace is always available to us if we allow it to be, if we allow ourselves to occupy the space. It’s amazing what a little bit of quiet time in any space can do for the soul. There is even peace to be found in the centre of town, although only on a Sunday evening these days; we no longer observe Sabbath, Sunday rest, these days. I wonder how often in life we find the time to truly experience the space in which we inhabit.

I went to bed that night, exhausted, feeling delicate, but with a sense that I would feel better in the morning.

I was wrong, very wrong. If anything I felt worse. I ate a good breakfast and thought I just need to get going, I know I’ll go to the gym. That didn’t work. I lasted less than half an hour before I gave in. So I came home showered and ate and thought, I’ll do some work. I’ve got so much to do this week I’ve got to make a start. I’ve not got the time to be ill this week, but I couldn’t work either. I just felt exhausted, I felt utterly bankrupt, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. So I went to sleep. All I could do was rest and sleep and find peace in the silence. I dreamed too which is something I rarely am aware of doing. Wow! They were some wild and wacky dreams.

I did nothing that day and nothing that evening. I spent the next few hours in dreamtime. It was a day and night of rest and eating. Did I feel better the next day? No not really. My stomach still felt very delicate, but again I made myself eat. I also went to my usual meditation and in the silence, shared with others, I began to finally revive and reconnect to life. In that time and space I felt held by that all sustaining love and it nourished me. All I had to do was surrender to it. I then returned home and these words just started flowing out of me. I felt alive once again. Not so much physically but most certainly spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

We all need a time for rest, it is vital to living an active life. We all need time to receive love too. I know I’ve been running near to empty recently. I’ve been told off several times for not taking my day off, let alone the two I’m meant to take. I seem to have an increasingly busy life, which I am grateful for, but I do need to find time to rest, in order to truly inhabit the space in which I live. My body told me that last the weekend, it refused to continue on. It was having none of it and I had to obey. It’s interesting that it was in my stomach, the physical home of both love and fear, that it manifested itself. It always seems to be so with me. I remembered the last time this happened a couple of years ago when I got gastric flu. I also remembered another time over ten years ago when I was coming to terms with an intense and heart-breaking grief, around the time of the first anniversary of Ethan’s death when my body just gave in in the middle of Albert Square in Manchester and I had to stop completely. I could not move. I sat down on a bench, for over an hour and wept. This was the last time I suffered a bout of depression in my life, thank God. I was utterly exhausted and my body just refused to move any more. My body forced me to fully experience the time I found myself in. It forced me to stop trying to run from the space of grief. Thank God I obeyed it, because it was in this time and space of surrender that my journey into ministry began.

Last weekend was a warning to me and one I need to take heed of. You cannot run from time. 

Everyone needs a time of rest, a time to fill themselves with love, a time to take in order to give back to life. This is no doubt why a time of rest is so enshrined within the great religious traditions. We cannot live without rest, for without rest we will not appreciate the lives we have, we will not feel the love present and we will be like zombies, live a slow meaningless living death. In Exodus 31 it is said that if a person works on the day of rest they should be put to death. Now this is a bit strong, extreme beyond reason I know, but if you think about, if you don’t read it literally and instead metaphorically, if we live without a time of rest are we not living as if we were dead? Life quickly becomes meaningless and we live like zombies. This seems like a living hell, a fate worse than death, to me.

According to Jewish teaching the seventh day is a time for rest and refreshment, for even God rested on the seventh day and was “refreshed”. The time of rest is needed in order to love whatever it is we create in our lives. For without a time of rest we will not see what we create as good, we will not love those we share our lives with and the world in which we live and breathe and share our being. Such time allows us to live in the space in which we inhabit.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel claimed that “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”

We need to take time to rest, to connect to life. This doesn’t have to be a particular day though. I feel frustrated by having to have Friday’s as mine, which to be honest I rarely take these days. My work and life doesn’t allow for this kind of rigidity. In fact I find that such rigidity ends up destroying the spirit of time. It is so easy to find ourselves becoming slaves to such rigidity and resenting the time as a kind of function. This is the problem of prescribed religion in many ways, it kind of destroys the spirit at the soul of the teaching. What I feel Sabbath is really about is a time for sinking into the heart and soul, a time to let go absolutely of all rigidity. It is often called free time, I see good reason for this.

Why are we so afraid to let go of rigidity?  Why are we so afraid to be set free? So many of us are.

During the early years of the twentieth century Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, discovered a phenomenon that he described as “Sunday Neurosis”. He noticed that seemingly normal healthy successful people would experience extreme mental and physical distress on the Sabbath. Ferenczi believed that these people, having been deprived of their normal busy routine by Sunday began to panic, as they feared that they would lose their usual self-censoring mechanism and therefore their wild impulses would reign. They felt out of control and this terrified them. Therefore this extreme pain and or mental anguish developed as a way of staving off the anxiety.

I see real wisdom in Ferenczi’s discoveries. I suspect that the fear of stopping is somehow rooted in the fear of our humanity, the fear of our animal heart, the fear of the soul, the fear of the spirit and this is why so many of us live in our heads and become slaves to rules. I’m not just speaking of the religiously inclined here either, actually I suspect that this is more of a symptom of secularism and modernism and the worship of the mind. It is a symptom of functionality of not valuing time and space. Time is sacred I have discovered. Life is not just about what we do but the spirit in which we do it. While you may be able to purchase a lifestyle, you cannot buy a life.

Again in “Sabbath” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote

“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”

Sabbath is a celebration of life, of love, of our part of the creation. It is a time of liberation and appreciation. Jesus recognised this in the Gospel accounts. He was critical of the way his own tradition was practiced and it’s slavishness to the rules, not because he was opposed to a time of rest of spiritual sustenance, far from it in fact. No he was critical because he witnessed that by slavishly following the rules the pious had lost the spirit and the love at the core of the tradition. Sabbath you see is about Love, the love of life, for it is Sabbath time that allows humanity to bring the spirit of love alive in life. Again as Heschell wrote in the 20th century “The Jewish contribution to the idea of love is the conception of love of the Sabbath, the love of a day, of spirit in the form of time.” In Mark's Gospel (Ch 2) Jesus remarks “‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” This is the Love that is at the core of Jesus’s teachings, the love of God, the love of life, the love of other and the love of self. I believe that this same spirit is at the core of all the great spiritual teachings, it’s just that at times it gets lost. The spiritual life is as much about the love of time as it is a love of space and place. It’s an appreciation of the sacredness of every moment of time; the love that allows the space in which we find ourselves come alive.

This to me is our religious task, to bring alive the space in which we find ourselves. This is the whole point of Sabbath time

We need Sabbath time. We need to learn to live in the space in which we find ourselves, this a lesson I’ve once again been taught this last week or so. We need to breath in the air all around us, we need to take in life. We need to feel our feet on the ground. We need to allow our senses to awaken to all that is, we need feel the love in our own bellies and those we share our lives with. We need to appreciate the preciousness of this moment and the sacredness of all life. We need to learn to be people of time and not only of place. We need Sabbath time.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Words Fail Me

From “How then Shall I live” by Wayne Muller

“What we love becomes our language. For Anne Morrow Lindbergh, it was the sea. For Heminway, it was the bulls; for Melville the whale; for Matisse, colour and shape. The things we love hold our experience of grace. They give voice to our heart and spirit. They provide tangible shapes for those things that, deep inside, are formless...

Any language – whether it be spiritual, emotional, artistic, or political – forms a paradigm that shows us where to look, teaches us what to listen for, helps us decide what is most important. Our language affects our orientation, our alliances and our assumptions. It directs all our senses to watch especially carefully for those things that our language holds dear...

If we undertake a journey of spiritual unfolding, we quickly realize it is difficult to find language that will accurately reveal, portray, or reflect the intricate depth of feeling and experience at the core of our being...We all struggle to name what cannot be named the universal force that makes the grass improbably push its way through concrete...the energy that blesses all life...

How can we begin to develop a spiritual language that feels accurate and precise in naming what we love? Perhaps it is only the essential qualities of the divine – wisdom, grace, fertility, compassion – that can even be approximated in words...”

by Wayne Muller

...I am glad I am not the only one for whom words fail to adequately describe those immensely powerful experiences...

I am often asked questions, many of which I struggle to answer. In fact when I think of it most of what I do as a Unitarian minister is in some way an engagement with struggle. I think that is probably a good thing as it keeps me humble. If it was easy it might go to my head, I might begin to think I have all the answer to mine and to other people’s problems. If truth be told the only thing I can claim to know with certainty is that I do not have the answer to the problems of others. This keeps me humble and it’s this very humility that opens me up to infinite possibility.

Each morning when I rise once more from slumber and enter into life I ask that what ever I think I know does not block from the possibility of some new truth and new experience...

Now while I can’t give people definite answers about so much I can offer them my company. I will walk with them and I will listen, the ears of my heart are always open.

At this time of year I always have to focus more on listening. This is because I struggle to hear. It’s due to the pollen it seems which effects my hearing. So I’ve been struggling more than usual to listen to people as they speak. I noticed the other day how badly I was doing so, how much I was mishearing people. It was kind of funny, but also frustrating.

Now I know that none of us ever hear exactly what is being said, or at least meant by what is being said. We all filter, we all judge from our own perspective,  what we hear. I know it happens every Sunday as I share worship and the congregations listen to me going on with myelf. I know that no one will hear exactly what I am saying. No one will hear every word, if they were to do so it would mean that they wouldn’t be truly engaging in the creative interchange that is worship. What is shared is  meant to touch the deeper aspects of the being of those listening and to cause them to  delve deeper within themselves.

I love listening to people, to connect with what they are sharing, what they are struggling with. I love to identify with others, to connect. What I identify the most with is the struggle; the struggle to put into words the questions and the experiences. What I identify the most with is the faithful uncertainty, the humility which leads to the openness. The truth I have learnt is that this is the key true spiritual growth.

I have enjoyed listening to people I serve in recent weeks, in one on one conversations, as they have talked with one another, and the comments they have shared with me following worship. I have been moved by it all, particularly the responses to the worship we share. Each unique and personal. Each being inspired and moved but also struggling with certain aspects, none of which are the same by the way…So beautifully human…Gosh I identify strongly with this. I am with them in the struggle; I am with them in the faithful uncertainty.

I am asked many questions, which I struggle to answer adequately. I am not being evasive when I struggle I am merely being honest. One question I am constantly asked is what it means to be Unitarian? I’ve been asked by several people over the last few days.

Every time I have paused and attempted to find the right words and every time I have felt that my answer was inadequate. The best I can come up with is that we are an open tradition and that we do not subscribe to any particular set in stone beliefs, we are without a creed. That we engage with faithful uncertainty; that the struggle is faithful; that we not only accept but celebrate difference; that authority lays with the conscience of the individual; that no one has authority over another and that we are a community of people, we congregate, we are not private in our faith; that whatever we experience only really comes alive in the company of others.

That’s quite a bit really and yet it never feels wholly adequate. It still seems to say more what we are not rather than what this tradition is. Oh so often words fail me...

When it comes to matters of faith, belief and disbelief language is frustrating in its limitations. It is tough to articulate our inner feelings and beliefs to others. How do any of us express those deep and meaningful experiences? Certainly this is difficult especially when it comes to spiritual matters. The words almost get in the way. And yet so often when people have shared their experiences with me, when we have spoken heart to heart, I feel I have understood on a deeper level.

Now part of the problem stems from how we use words. When as individuals we speak of God, spirituality, soul, religion, prayer, worship do we mean exactly the same thing? I’m not sure anybody really does. I think that perhaps the fundamentalists both of religion and atheism do but they are just a small proportion of the population. It seems that the rest of us are using these words in different contexts and different ways. Personally I see nothing wrong in that. It is honest no two people see the same thing in exactly the same way. I do not believe that anyone has the right to claim ownership of language. I personally want to reclaim the language of faith from the fundamentalists of both religion and atheism.

I find myself constantly saying to folk (and no doubt to myself) "Never be afraid to express what is true to you." And usually add "Just do not expect anyone to fully understand something that is so personal to you. They may identify, but whether they will fully understand I doubt it. Such things are beyond the limit of language."

It is said that the language of faith is the language of poetry. I see truth in this. For poetry is more than the sum of its parts more than the words written or spoken, they attempt to open us up in deeper ways and to help us connect heart to heart. I love the humble honesty of the language of poetry, I didn’t use to. As a younger man I preferred directness and I preferred certainty. Today I see how deluded I was by this, how enslaved I was by these delusions of uncertainty; a kind of faithless certainty.

Poetry is the language of honesty, the language of humility and I believe the language of faith. It is so honest that it can be unbearably so at times. As W.S. Merwin described it, poetry is “the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination”. Poetry is a deep truth, in the way that each writer expresses their own truth, but it is a truth spoken from a faithful uncertainty. It is true humility. It is the opposite of what the writer of Ecclesiates described as “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

Any honest seeker will struggle to put into words what is happening to them on their personal spiritual journey. I want to celebrate this. I know it may go against the grain, but I want to celebrate this faithful uncertainty. We need to attempt to do so because we need one another to do so. Somehow in this courageous conversation, in the struggle, moments of magic, moments of transformation can happen as we connect beneath the words we speak, as we find the language of the heart.

By the way silence is ok too, it is ok to not have formed opinions about things. This is perhaps the most faithful uncertainty of them all. Words will fail us all someday. They do me. How many times have I felt lost for words, tongue-tied, utterly dumfounded and desperately longing to find a way to express what my heart cries out to speak. I feel it often, particularly when I attempt to express what has formed within me during the week and as I attempt to create worship I share with the people I serve. This is truly faithful uncertainty. A truth and faith that can set us free.

Let us be seekers of the truth, but lets us do so in humility, in faithful uncertainty.

"To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

Taken from Anthony de Mello's, from his little book One Minute Wisdom

Faithful uncertainty, humility and openness are the key to true truth seeking; or as DeMello put it an un-remitting willingness to admit you may be wrong. For without these we will become blinded by what we think we know, our hearts will be closed and we will we never hear the truth that speaks only really through the language of the heart.

I will continue to practice faithful uncertainty; I will continue to lay aside each morning hat I think I know.  I encourage all to join with me, to share with me in faithful uncertainty that somewhere in that courageous conversation ne truths and deeper experiences will be revealed.

So the next time I am asked “What exactly is a Unitarian” I will attempt to open the conversation in humility and in faithful uncertainty for I believe that this is the key. I will attempt to engage in the courageous conversation, I will listen and hope that in this space, heart to heart, something beautiful will arise. In so doing space and community opens as we share experiences with one another. This I believe is the key to spiritual intimacy and spiritual literacy. This is what it means to be Unitarian to me. This is my truth as I speak it in this moment and in this space.

I invite you to join with me. I invite you to join in the courageous conversation, in true humility, in openness, in faithful uncertainty.

Will you join in with me?