Sunday 30 July 2017

No one steps in the same river twice

No one ever steps in the same river twice. This is because the river is not the same, but then neither is the person. This little aphorism from Heraclitus has been drifting in and out of my consciousness as I have been travelling around these last two weeks. I’ve been all over England and North Wales staring out to sea on several occasions as I have enjoyed two weeks leave. One thing I’ve noticed is that even when on leave my homiletic consciousness is still awake. Every interaction I engage in still taps into it. I have noticed once again that my life, that all life, is constantly in flux, is forever changing, that nothing ever stays the same. That life truly is like a river, it is forever flowing.

A couple of Sunday’s back I as invited to the semi-final and final of “Slimming World Man of the Year 2017”. It was a wonderful day meeting the 38 finalist, listening to their stories and awaiting this year’s winner. I was moved deeply by so much of the day as I listened to stories of hope and transformation. I also relived my own experiences of the year before. How different it was standing in this very same river of the event and how much I as a person had also changed. I got to give a speech too, and to hand out the awards. So much has changed this last 12 months, since I was named "Slimming World Man of the Year 2016". I am not the same man I was 12 months ago. I see life and my purpose, my meaning, in new and wonderful ways and yet on the surface things seem mostly to be the same.

I had similar experiences last weekend too as I drove down to Bridport in Dorset to attend the wedding of John Harley and Lizzie Hornby. It was a lovely weekend in a beautiful part of England. As I drove I remembered stepping into this river almost exactly two years ago. I am certainly not the same man I was then, so much has changed. The journey was a long one, the traffic was appalling, as it had been two years before. I travelled then to my nephews wedding in nearby Devon. That weekend was beautiful, but it was also one of suffering and proved to be a breaking point in my life. It was a physical breaking point in the sense that my car broke down. That said it was also a mental, emotional and spiritual breaking point, as from that moment of my car breaking down in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere in dark nameless country lane in Devon, something new began to emerge in me. It was a moment of re-birth, as during the week that followed a new version of myself began to be born. Yes as I drove down and got stuck in traffic on the M5 around Bristol I realised the truth that I was not the same man stepping into the same river. It was a wonderful experience in a beautiful part of the country.

Oh by the way I cannot go anywhere, twice that weekend strangers came up to me and said “You are that slimmer of the year bloke aren’t you.” Funny I know, I didn’t correct them.

Yes no one steps in the same river twice. This is because the river is not the same but then neither is the person. Life is constantly in flux, is forever changing, ever flowing on.

Flux is a central theme of the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher around the 5th century BC. He was known as the “Weeping Philosopher” and “The Obscure”. He believed that the nature of life is subject to constant change and that it operates within “a unity of opposites”, also stating “the path up and down are one in the same.”

Other aphorism of Heraclitus were on the “Logos”. He stated “The idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos” and “The Logos is common” The Logos was understood to mean the reason, the word, the meaning of everything. For Heraclitus the Logos is eternal and the source of everything, the problem is though that we humans fail to fully understand the Logos because we do not fully engage with it, although he believed that we human beings are capable of doing so because we have an element of the Logos within us. The reason we do not is that we rarely fully examine our true nature.

It is also claimed that he said something like “Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.” He spoke in riddles, in paradox, but then isn’t this the nature of life? I have certainly found it to be so. That which destroys, is what ultimately creates. In losing ourselves we are found. To know the deepest truths, to the know the kingdom now, is to become almost like a child playing, didn’t Jesus say this in the passage relating to discipleship from Mark’s Gospel? Maybe this is how the meaning (The Logo’s) comes alive in human form in our very human lives.

The beginning of John’s Gospel speaks of this, of the Logos coming into being and dwelling among us and bringing light into the darkness of our lives. How many times have new truths, new meanings, new light come into being in our lives? Everything changes, everything is flux. Perhaps when we are humble enough to be as little children, to have the beginners mind that the Buddhist speak of, we enable new truths, a new word, a new meaning to emerge and in so doing the Logos once more becomes flesh in and amongst us. For this to happen though the old self has to end, to be destroyed, and this often involves suffering, although not despair as it becomes a suffering from which meaning can emerge and come into being.

It’s interesting how this homilectic consciousness comes alive, but while I was driving around thinking of change and meaning the work of Viktor Frankl came into my mind.

In “Man’s Search For Meaning” Frankl gives an account of his struggle to find meaning when held as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps of the second world war. He lost most of his family and friends in the camps and yet he never lost hope in humanity.

Frankl was the founder of what has often been referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” Freud founded the first which was based on the central role of the libido or pleasure principle in human psychology. Alfred Adler founded the second which emphasised the importance of the will to power and the significance of the superiority/inferiority complex in human behaviour, based on ideas formulated by Nietzsche. In contrast to these two schools Frankl’s psychology is based on the will to meaning which he saw as the primary motivating force in human life. He named it “Logotherapy” taken from the Greek term logos, which as stated above means “word”, “reason”, or “meaning”. For Frankl meaning had a transcendent origin.

Frankl saw a spiritual dimension beyond the biological and psychological. He saw the suppression of this spiritual dimension as the root cause of our human malady. Therefore the task of “Logotherapy” was “to remind patients of their unconscious religiousness”; to uncover the spiritual dimensions of their lives; enable them to recover the capacity to choose those values which give our lives worth and meaning.

Now this meaning is of course is different for everyone. As Frankl said himself:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” He did not suggest that there wasn’t a universal meaning, he was not a true existentialist in this sense. What he suggested was that we ourselves seemed unable to uncover it as individuals, here I believe echoing thoughts of Heraclitus.

Frankl claimed that meaning is discovered through creative and worthwhile activites, by creating something beautiful or doing good – I believe that one of the greatest sadness’s of our age is the fact that the phrase “do-gooder” has become a term of mockery, that it is somehow seen as wrong and suspicious to do good - Meaning can be found through experiencing and sharing in the beauty of art or nature or through loving or ethical encounters with others.

Even in the most horrific and terrifyingly hopeless situations we still have the capacity to choose our attitude towards whatever circumstances we are faced with. It is our response to life’s events that shapes our souls. Remember Frankl developed his theory during the utter despair and horror of the Nazi death camps.

As Frankl himself said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

My life seems to echo these ideas constantly, new meaning has often emerged through the transformative nature of walking faithfully through suffering and the belief that something beautiful and meaningful can emerge once again from the ashes of life.

Two Sunday’s ago just before the Slimming World Man of Year 2017 semi-final and final began I was asked to speak to the thirty eight men present about my experiences. I was honoured to do so, although I did not perhaps give what the Slimming World folk were expecting. Instead I returned to Heraclitus' aphorism “That no one steps in the same river twice” and the idea that everything is constantly in flux and this is where the meaning emerges from, even when brought into being by the fire of suffering. I spoke about how I had changed in the last 12 months, how my understanding of my humanity and life had changed and that I that a new meaning and mission had grown in me. That I and hoped that they would reach other men and other people and help us face up to whatever in life is holding us back, stopping us living the lives that we can live, for ourselves and the greater good of humanity itself. This was my words becoming flesh and my lived life becoming meaningful in new and wonderful ways.

This is the mission for all people I believe. This is how we build the “Kin-dom of Love” right here right now. This is how we transcend whatever suffering we experience in life and not sink into despair. The meaning emerges by giving from our own lives for the good of all. We are all part of the ever changing river of life we each of us have an aspect of eternal love within us.

So let’s keep on stepping into the eternal river of all life.

Sunday 9 July 2017

The Aliveness of Things

Last Friday I had the joy of conducting the wedding of two young women who have been attending worship with us for a while. It was a truly beautiful occasion, full of joy and full of love. At the end of the service many of those present thanked me for the service and told me how much they loved it. Some of the comments will live with me for a long time. One in particular I believe will keep me going for quite some time. I had a long and continuing conversation with one of the guests, but it was the first thing that he said that struck powerfully. He said something like “I gave up on religion 50 years ago, but something happened today. This service has awoken something in me. Thank you.” He thanked me, when in reality the thanks are all mine. It is for moments like this that I do this work. It’s why I’m here I believe. It’s why we are all here, to discover the truth that life is more than mere material processes.  We are called, I believe, to help awaken one another to the aliveness of being, to raise one another’s consciousness.

I love the aliveness of things. I feel that the last few years of my life has been all about awakening to this aliveness of things. This kind of universal consciousness at the core of all life, what the western religions might call God. I witness it in all life, I see it in human creativity too, particularly art. I love the aliveness in words, in art, in music or whatever is creative. We experience the works in the moment, whether individually or collectively and yet, especially the great works, are somehow timeless. They possess a consciousness of their own, as their aliveness is not only in the moment they were written or recorded or created, but continuing on and on into eternity. If life has revealed anything to me it has awoken me to the fact that things are much more than merely the sum of their parts, they have a power beyond the mere limits of the material they are formed from and that they grow in power and meaning beyond the limits of the creators imaginations. That aliveness of course was there before the creation grew in the creators imagination; it is vital to remember, of course. all that has occurred before those moments of creation; all the incredible aliveness that allowed them to be created. I love the aliveness of things; I love the aliveness of my mere thoughts and feelings, knowing that they come from something far more than the mere chemical reactions in my brain or even my singular consciousness; I love the aliveness of things they are so much more than the sum of their parts.

It’s not just in great works of human creation that I witness this same aliveness, I see it in the ordinary in the loving interaction, in the small gesture of loving kindness and I see it manifest in the natural world. I see powerfully a simple loving universal consciousness at work in life, it enlivens and empowers me. It gives my life meaning and makes my life worth living, hey even dying, for.

Now there are many who would dispute this truth, I would have done at one time or another and who knows I may do so again in the future. Many suggest that there is no such thing as consciousness, that it is merely a creation of the brain, a stage of the evolutionary process. What do you think? What do you think about consciousness? Is it merely a creation of the functions of the brain?

In philosophical circles consciousness is considered the “Hard Problem” as it seems impossible to solve adequately. The great minds don’t seem to have come up with a satisfactory answer to what exactly it is and or why it exists. In fact many of the great minds seem to fall out about it all the time. I’m sure that many would scoff at my unscientific conclusion about life and yet it doesn’t sound as crazy as some of the great theories of the so called great minds, who have equated we humans with “lumbering robots” and or asked why we are not just zombies or to quote that wonderful short story of science fiction, simply thinking meat. We are more than merely this though, surely we are. Reductionist world views seem to miss what is so clearly in front of its eyes.

The truth is of course that maybe, just maybe we won’t ever come up with a satisfactory answer, to what we call “consciousness”. Maybe one day we will not know the answer to everything. It is possible, I suppose, that one day we will, and it shouldn’t stop us striving for the answers. Our human consciousness after is the very thing that drives us, compels us to do so. Let’s just never forget to do what Mary Oliver suggested, let’s remember to pay attention to beauty of the daisy and all life for that matter. For I believe that same consciousness is at the heart of it all, connecting it all, bringing the aliveness to life.

Now please excuse me if this next bit is hard to follow but I am going to briefly attempt to summarise three schools of thought about consciousness that have emerged in the modern era. The three being “dualism”, “physicalism” and “pansychism”.

“ Cartesian Dualism” dates back to seventeenth century when Rene Descartes identified the problem that has tied the great minds in knots ever since. He realised, that on the one hand, that there was nothing more undeniably obvious than the fact that we are conscious beings, everything else could be an illusion but not this, as he said “I think therefore I am”. That said he suggested that this consciousness seemingly does not obey the usual rules of science of the physical realm, as it can only be observed from within and can’t really be described except from the one who is conscious of it. From this he concluded that the mind therefore must be made from some special kind of none material stuff that are not ruled by the laws of nature and thus bequeathed by God upon humanity, thus raising us above nature in some special way.

“Dualism” began to be questioned particularly by the secular scientific community that took “physicalism” – the idea that only physical things exist – as its primary principle. The problem was though that although it rejected dualism, for many years, it could not come up a convincing alternative to it. Such views concluded that the mind and consciousness are a result of processes of the brain, but no concrete answers beyond that could be unearthed. As a result the topic became virtually taboo and was referred to as “The Hard Question”. This led in 1989 to Stuart Sutherland writing in the “International Dictionary of Psychology” that with regard to consciousness “it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

There have been developments since, most notably by Francis Crick and others who have suggested that certain neurons firing at particular frequencies are the cause of inner awareness. And there seems little doubt that there is a physical aspect to it, as awareness of who or what we are is affected by the workings of the brain. Brain injury and degenerative disease such as forms of dementia seem to prove this and certainly impact on our perception of consciousness. That said just merely putting consciousness of ourselves and life itself down to impulses within the brain seems wholly inadequate an answer to me. I’m with Sutherland on this one. There is also the problem of free will and the potential to change. It seems that “physicalism” on the whole denies this possibility, claiming we are merely subject to our biological impulses.

In more recent times another theory has developed, which is linked to some more ancient knowledge. The theory has become known as “panpsychism”, which suggest that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. It suggest that consciousness is not merely limited to humans thus rejecting dualism and humanities privileged position.

“Pansychism” does not require a belief in some special mind substance that resides in the brain, nor does it require the suspension in the belief of the laws of physics. Meanwhile nor does it require us deny the reality of our own experiences and the strange acceptance that consciousness doesn’t exist, when it’s so obvious that it does. On the contrary, “panpsychism” suggests that consciousness is everywhere, life it is throbbing with it. It suggests in fact that consciousness is the energy of life.

“Pansychism suggest that there is a connectiveness to everything and that everything affects everything else. It also suggests that consciousness does not actually require a brain at all, that it exists beyond the brain. I would suggest from this that actually the function of the brain is not to create consciousness but to make sense of it and interpret and perhaps communicate this consciousness. Isn’t this what we are doing when we are sharing our own personal experiences of life? Isn’t this what words are for? Isn’t this what creative expression is for? And when we do so do we not somehow increase the experience for ourselves and others and bring about change?

Now you may well ask what is this guy on? And what has this got to do with his work? What’s this got to do with what happened at the wedding? What has it got to with the power of great works of art and loving action etc? Well I believe everything. As I often say I believe everything matters, every thought, every word, every deed, every interaction is interconnected and impacts on everything else. It seems to me that consciousness is everywhere and that life is throbbing with it. The purpose of religion and spirituality is to awaken us to this. If we do we may just begin to live by the “Golden Rule of Compassion” and do unto others as we would have them do to us. How could we not as we are all connected by the same consciousness, we have the same blood flowing through us and we have the same spirit animating us. We are all a part of the aliveness of life. So as we awaken to this consciousness we begin to act on it and incarnate this aliveness in our lives.

Sunday 2 July 2017

Inspire Wholeheartedness

Last Saturday I was invited, as a guest of honour, to present an award at the “Slimming World Oscars” at the Birmingham International Conference Centre (ICC). It was a lavish occasion celebrating the work of Slimming World consultants and other employees. It was a wonderful night celebrating love, community and transformation. Slimming World inspires, empowers and encourages people to live happy and healthy lives, at its core is community and love. They truly encourage, because they bring the heart alive. They bring to life heart and spirit because they inspire and encourage. So it was wonderful to celebrate those who work so hard to make the communities possible. I had a ball.

It was a day of contrast though, because I also bore witness to another group of people, who were also gathered in the centre of Birmingham, they though were not encouraging and inspiring love, quite the opposite, they were only inspiring hate. I had arrived early and as a result decided to walk down to the nearby library, as it is such a beautiful and fascinating building. As I arrived I heard what sounded like a football crowed. Then I saw them. It was obviously a far right group waving their flags and shouting their hatred. There must have been about 150 of them from all around the country and I heard later from other parts of Europe. I observed their drunken aggression, intoxicated by alcohol and hatred of life. I asked the police officers present and some of the photographers and others present who they were. They were “Britain’s First”. I watched, I bore witness in silence, as they sang their songs of intimidation and I observed their faces. I remember feeling sickened by the sight of young children, even babies in prams among the crowd. I wondered what would happen to those children being brought up in such a way. I thought about much of the hatred and the violence we have witnessed these last 12 months from haters of life and fanatics and I thought about the children who they indoctrinate and inspire or maybe it’s more accurate to say dispirit and discourage, destroy loving spirit and heart. I thought about the people blown up in Manchester attending a concert, the people in London just enjoying a night out, the people breaking fast as a part of Ramadan outside Finsbury Park mosque. I thought about Jo Cox murdered by a fanatic who cried out “Britains First” when he murdered her. That weekend she and her message of unity and love was being celebrated throughout the country, her children had unveiled a plaque in Parliament with her simple message “There is more that unites us than divides us”. A message of love and community which I know will overpower those who hate life. I remembered that despite the real suffering and pain spread by those who have been overcome by hate throughout our world. I also remembered that there are far more encourages of love and inspirers of spirit in this world, it’s just that they tend to be quieter and not aggressive. I thought about this as I enjoyed the wonderful joy filled evening in Birmingham and as I observed the people enjoying music at Glastonbury and those remembering Jo Cox up and down the land. I also observed this carefully in the ordinary interactions with people and the loving conversations I have had this week. They have lifted my spirit and filled my heart. I found it deeply encouraging and inspiring. I will not become discouraged and or dispirited by those who have lost the love for life.

How do we encourage one another how do we inspire one another in these challenging times? How do we fill our children’s hearts with love and their spirits with faith in love and life? Well I believe it begins by allowing them to witness what it is that makes us come alive. Howard Thurman said  “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do it. For what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
That is so true. This is what the world needs more than anything, people who come alive, this is how we inspire and thus encourage, by our simple example. This is what I love about the conversations that I have with people. Yes they often tell me about their pain, but also their joy. I am constantly amazed by the conversations I have with people. Even complete strangers tell me amazing things. I don’t ask them to, they just seem to open up to me and tell me beautiful love filled things about their passions and joys, it happened all last weekend. It blew my heart open and I felt that spirit in me coming alive. I see and witness so many people in my life who dedicate themselves to helping others to find what is already within them, I find it beautifully inspiring.

It brought to mind a rather beautiful mantra I once heard. It goes by the title “It’s time somebody told you”:

“It’s time somebody told you that you are lovely, good and real; that your beauty can make hearts stand still. It’s time somebody told you how much they love and need you, how much your spirit helped set them free, how your eyes shine full of light. It’s time somebody told you.”

I remember singing a version of these words in a “Singing Meditation”. I wonder how many of us really believe such words, how we can resist these feelings. Certainly the haters and destroyers of life do not. The truth is that we all need this kind of love and encouragement. I know I do from time to time. I remember a while ago, after attending an old friends 40th birthday party, another old mutual friend saying to me, after we had had another one of those fascinating conversations I love to experience, I remember them saying “Keep up the good work”. I had a similar conversation at the Slimming World Oscars. I got talking to man, he did most of the talking, I found out he was a recently retired senior police officer and he talked about how he gets lit up by the passion in others, he said he wasn’t religious himself but felt it was vital the work that religious communities do and as I left he too said “Keep up the good work” This kind of encouragement is important, it fills mt heart and it enlivened my spirit.

I strongly believe that the purpose of free religious communities is to encourage and inspire one another and the world in which we live. To encourage and inspire is to fill one another’s hearts and enliven one another’s spirits and bring that alive in those we meet and to somehow bring healing to a world in which there are those who want to tear it apart. It is the task pf free religious communities to be a part of the healing and the not the destruction of the world.
These last few days I have spent some time thinking of those who have filled my heart and enlivened my spirit.
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 your inspirations in your lives? Who are the people who have encouraged you to come alive?
The truth is that we all inspire or dispirit one another, we all encourage or discourage one another. No one lives a neutral life.
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, as is our way,  reduced its meaning in power. It’s another one of those words that we have attempted to tame. Why do we always reduce the meaning of things in our attempt to gain control of them? Why don't we attempt to raise ourselves up to them instead. 

Today inspiration means someone or something that gives you an idea for doing something, but originally it meant “immediate influence of God or a god”. 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. It meant something much more profoundly powerful in the past that it does today.
That said I believe that we can and do inspire in this way and in so doing we can bring the kingdom to life in our own hearts and lives. We can ignite that divine spark.
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 amongst us.
I strongly believe that it is our task, our religious imperative, to enliven the spirit within us, to truly come alive, our world needs it. And as we do to breath out that loving spirit and encourage love within one another.
It is our religious task to both breath in and breath out inspiration, to bring to life that seed of love at the core of our being. To shine as we are meant to shine and to not be afraid to be all that you are meant to be. For as Thurman said, “what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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 kingdom 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. In so doing we inspire and we encourage others to bring love and life alive.