Sunday 13 August 2017

Exquisite Risk

I was recently sent a picture of myself with my two closest, in age at least, siblings. It was taken in 1977 at a fancy dress street party during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was five years old at the time. In the picture I am dressed as Tarzan. The strange thing is though that I am standing bolt upright, like a soldier on duty. There is good reason for this. I was originally planning to go as “Action Man” (What American’s call GI Joe). I had spent the weeks before attempting to stand upright, as even at that age I was deeply self-conscious about physical problems I had and was constantly told to stand straught. As I looked at the picture I reflected on the pain and the shame I had at the time and the decades that followed. I also remembered how even at that young age I was already living a bubble of self-protection that would lead to so many problems later in life. It has taken me forty years to shed that skin, but as I write this little "blogspot" I believe I have done so. Many old ideas have drifted away over the years. I have lost so much skin that have been imprisoned in.

As a kid I was always considered overly sensitive, that I needed toughening up, to develop another layer of skin. For a long time I attempted to do so and of course it only made things worse as I attempted to be something I am not, to harden my heart. The truth is that all I needed to do was to learn not take things so personally and to allow my sensitivity to become perhaps my greatest asset. I no longer attempt to defend my heart, instead I just allow my heart to lighten my life and pour my love out. Today my sensitivity may well be my greatest asset, my treasure, it is certainly where my heart is

I regularly meet with several colleagues. We talk about ministry; we talk about where our own lives are at; we talk about our own spiritual development. One colleague often repeats the following words when we come together.

“I honour your gods
I drink at your well
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place
I have no cherished outcome
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment”

Oddly these words come from traditional Celtic wedding vows. Hardly romantic, but perhaps they symbolise something deeper.

It is the line “I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place” that resonates with me the most. It is the key I believe to living the spiritual life, to live with an undefended an open heart. This can be extremely painful and difficult at times, but I have learnt how vital it is for me. When I close down or put on my suit of armour life soon loses its flavour. I suppose that this is why I’ve always struggled with the sentiment of Ephesians Ch6 vv 10-18, the passage commonly known as “God’s Armour”. I was recently at an Anglo Catholic church where I saw an image based around this passage. I remember thinking to myself “gosh that’s the last thing I would want.”

For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict and the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own traditional Christians friends. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.

Increasingly for me the spiritual life is about “Living with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. It is the treasure though and wherever my treasure is I have come to believe that this is also where my heart is.

Just imagine what it might be like to live with an unarmoured or an undefended heart. We all have defence mechanism, things we do to protect ourselves from being hurt. I am sure we are all familiar with the fright and flight mechanism. There is another reaction that perhaps we are less familiar with, it is certainly one that is less talked about. I have come to call this the freeze mechanism. It is something I am very familiar with, for I have utilised it throughout my life. Basically when trouble strikes a frozen person appears to continue to function normally on the outside, but inside, emotionally at least, they shut down, they internally hibernate. It is something I have come to learn about myself in recent years and I see it others quite clearly at times, perhaps too clearly. When it happens to me my neck and shoulders become stiff, my throat dries up, the base of my skull seems to warm up, my skin tightens around my face, I tend to blow out a lot and it feels like someone has just dropped a great rock into the pit of my stomach. These are the moments when I build up my walls and try to keep life out. I was doing this at five years old, no child should be like that.

How many of us spend lifetime’s building these walls that we think protect us? When in fact all we succeed in doing is block ourselves off from the love present in life, a treasure of infinite value, a pearl of great price.

To live with an open heart is to live intimately with all that is life. It is to experience life through our felt experience to not be ruled by what our minds project from our past, those disappointments and fears that have been built over a life time. To live with an unarmoured heart is about connecting with all that is there. Zen Buddhism talks about intimacy with 10,000 things, meaning intimacy with all things, all phenomena, that nothing is left out.

I have discovered that I am living openheartedly when I am not at war with life, when I am not arguing with reality and not avoiding intimacy, especially with my own thoughts and feelings. I can find myself arguing with reality at times, I suppose some would call this living in denial, but thankfully by living faithfully I once again see the truth and let loose the prison of my own skin and move onto a newer and fresher reality, my heart opens up and I experience a new reality. I do not remain armoured or frozen for very long. Faith sets me free once again. I shed another layer of skin.

In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring To Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo talks about daring to live your whole unique self, to sing your authentic true song, and to be you unforgivingly. The key is to dare to slow down and to really feel life rather than merely manage it. Nepo encourages us to become quiet enough and open enough to listen to what truly matters; he encourages us to listen intimately to our own hearts, our loved ones, the wonders of nature; he encourages us to live with nothing held back. He shares his own journey including a battle with cancer which he overcame and which helped him understand how only by daring to embrace all that life has to offer can we come to a deeper appreciation of its meaning and beauty. The beauty of Nepo’s work is that he makes the personal universal. He speaks in a way that anyone can relate to, if they would only find the courage to open their own hearts.

A beautiful example of this is when he tells of a dear old friend who slowly loses her hearing. I can relate to this, mine is not what it once was. Due to this she moved beyond merely surface listening and instead listens below, she goes on a journey under the skin. He tells how one day as she grew “tired of straining so hard for all the words, (she) began to listen to eyes, bodies, to gestures, to the face behind the face.” She discovered the warmth, the deep love coming from within the other. Circumstances had forced her to change how she related to people and in so doing she discovered new and beautiful ways to relate and connect to others. Her disability had not decreased the experience of her life, instead through listening with the ear of her heart she had discovered new and beautiful things. She had shed off the skin she had been imprisoned it.

Nepo does not suggest that we have to suffer in order to draw out these beautiful gifts of the heart that are within all of us, although it seems that for most of us this is the case. It is often suffering that finally humbles us enough to open up and transcend the limits of what we think we know. The key he suggests is in self-education. Since the word “educate” means to draw out to call forth what is already present within us (if only schools and places of education would learn this). In so doing we will discover the world within us and ourselves within the world. This requires us to listen to all that the world has to say and not just the thoughts going round and round in our own little worlds. It requires us to shed the skin that we are imprisoned in, to let down the armour plating to learn to live with an un-defended heart.

The key is to become intimately aware that all of us have a unique purpose for being here, this is the “exquisite risk” that Nepo is describing. It is to become willing to be fully alive, open, available to live authentically alive with an undefended heart.

Nepo speaks powerfully to me, to my condition. The spiritual life is indeed a journey under the skin, beneath the surface. This takes courage to go beyond the limits of material life. It takes courage to truly engage in the exquisite risk, to live the authentic life, to join in the courageous conversation. I invite you to come and join with me on this journey under the skin, to lose the skin that you’re imprisoned in. Let us take together the exquisite risk.

Sunday 6 August 2017

Time and the Theory of Wellativity

I have ministered to the two congregations I serve for seven years now. I began on 1st of August 2010,  it seems like only yesterday and yet at the same time a life time ago. So much has happened during this time. It has affected me deeply, I trust it has done so with the folk and the communities I serve. I have certainly experienced some deep moments in our time together, what I like to call “thick time”.

Yes we have been together for some seven years now, it has been a wonderful time, a true blessing. As I look back at those seven years I feel I would like to mark this time. I feel I would like to honour all we have shared together, I hope it has added as much depth and value to their lives as it has to mine. I trust it has in some ways expanded their imaginations and fed their spirits and enabled them to give more of themselves to life.

Time is a funny thing. Time can stop and time can fly by. The passing of time brings with it the experience of ageing, if we are offered that privilege, but that same passing of time can also rejuvenate, if we spend it wisely. We can kill time, but in so doing we do not damage it, only ourselves. We can spend time until it runs out, but we can also invest in it, spend it wisely, and in so doing receive a rich dividends.

One thing we humans do, whether religious or secular, is mark the passing of time. We say “It’s time for this and it’s time for that.” In so doing we mark a certain day and in so doing we separate what has been and what is yet to come. So this week I marked seven years of journeying together with the people I serve, remembering that journey is from the French word “Jounier” which meant your daily travel, your daily task. Well we’ve spent just over seven times 365 individual daily journeys together, in our fellowship love. This week we marked the day and separated what has been and what is yet to come.

We acknowledge the passing of time by marking it. We have always done so. Our ancient ancestors looked into the night sky and observed that the celestial events above them kept on repeating themselves, but not in exactly the same way, but at varying intervals, that today we call a day, or a month, or a year, and so on. Such time is a measured period that extends from one event until it is repeated again. This is linear time, the ancient Greeks called it “Chronos”.

We place such a high value on this kind time because we are given a limited supply of it. We cannot earn more of this kind of time. We mark it off and we continue to mark off such time to keep track of its passing. Each morning, as the sun rises, we begin our daily journey, we begin a period of time called a day. The moon moves through a "moonth" or monthly cycle which lasts twenty nine and a half days. It’s the same with the passing of the spring equinox, which follow a cycle of what we call a year, or actually 365 and a quarter days, which is why we have a leap year every fourth year.

There is though another form of time, other than chronos, that we all experience, a time without measure. Such time is called eternity. Now the ancients believed that this is the time that God inhabits. As Peter wrote in his third letter “A thousand years is as a day to God and one day is as a thousand years.“ The Greeks called such time Kairos”. Such time cannot be measured in a linear sense and thus we often miss it’s value.

Kairos time is not limited, through it we can indeed alter how we live out our Chronos time. We cannot lengthen such time but we can deepen or thicken the experience of this time. Kairos time is qualitative. It is measured by the depth of the moment and not the length, how many seconds it lasts. It’s what Blake described as infinity in an hour. In such moments it feels like the whole world takes a breath; in such moments our whole lives can change and yet in terms of measured “chronos” time it lasted no longer than any other second.

It brings to my mind that wonderful poem by Wendell Berry when he describes the journey (the daily task) or more accurately the spiritual journey which is one of depth rather than distance. This is Kairos time which last no longer but is experienced in a much “thicker” sense. He wrote:

"A Spiritual Journey"

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

by Wendell Berry

You cannot lengthen time, we are finite creatures we humans. This is what makes our lives so precious, so valuable, so meaningful if we would but learn to deepen our time and thicken our experiences. But how do we do this? Well in many ways this is what I try to do each Sunday and in my other activities with the people I serve, I try to guide them into ways in which they can live their lives in deeper and more fulfilling ways.

How do we do this with regards to time? Well the following wonderful piece of wisdom by Marney K Makrodakis explores one way in which this could be achieved. In “The Theory of Wellativity” she writes:

"Since time is relative, and is relative on so many levels, why not consciously control it, by adjusting our inner relativity? Time is changeable and is not an absolute thing, and we can use this to inspiring advantage. After all, time wasn't even standardized until 1884, and obviously life on the planet was able to carry on just fine before then.

"Einstein's theory of relativity is popularly known through the equation E = mc2. In actuality, this equation represents just a portion of the theory of special relativity, basically setting the stage to state that there is equivalence between mass and energy.

"I propose a Theory of Wellativity that looks like this:

F = T + I2

which means:
Fulfillment = Time + Imagination2

"To summarize the equation: to increase wellness in your life, take Time and add to it lots of Imagination, and then you get Fulfillment.

"How does imagination play a role in leading us to fulfillment? Imagination is a powerful conduit for change. Applying the dazzling power of imagination is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope. When we look through a kaleidoscope and focus on a single object, the image magically expands into a dazzling infinity of patterns and colors, instantly changing our capacity to see. And when we connect to the power of imagination, sparkly solutions expand in infinite directions, allowing us to see more. As author and creativity coach Jill Badonsky says, 'The imagination is always on call to transport my spirit to that timeless place of inner peace.'

"The most important changes in my life have, without exception, been primarily fueled by my imagination. Through my imagination, I have attracted an endless number of kaleidoscopic miracles, including bouncing back from mental illness, emerging from suicide attempts, healing physical ailments, attracting my soul mate, designing my ideal work, changing my financial reality, becoming pregnant when doctors said it wasn't possible, losing one hundred pounds, and so much more . . . including completely changing the way I see and experience time.

"As my experience illustrates, imagination is a powerful inner creative act, capable of transforming reality in ways beyond our wildest dreams, including creating the time we need. We can use imagination to control our intention, attention, and awareness; by doing so, we can see the ways in which any given period can be shortened or expanded, deepened or cheapened. Through our imagination, we have an infinite capacity to control our perception of time. Knowing that all time is not equal opens the doorway for us to tap into imagination to make new choices about how we experience time."

...My goodness I relate to this, almost word for word, well except the pregnant bit...

What do you think of this “Theory of Wellativity”. Is imagination a powerful conduit to change? Well it has been in my life. Before any change was possible, before any new beginning was given birth to, I first had to imagine it was possible. Even if others believed it would not be. One of those was becoming a minister, another was over coming physical problems I’ve had all my life, another was being set free from addiction, another was finding and developing a relationship with God, I really didn’t think that was possible and much, much more. I know I’m not alone. It is my imagination that has allowed me to move into unknown territory in my life, to experience the undreamed of realities of existence, to experience what I have come to call “thick time”

We cannot really lengthen the time we have been given, the “Chronos” time. Well at least not beyond a few extra years. Instead of three score and ten, perhaps the norm is four score and ten now. We can though deepen and thicken this time, there is no limit to “Kairos” time. It does not operate in a linear sense, it has no limit, except our own imaginations and we will never reach the limits of these, well not in our life time.

The key it seems is not the length of time we have and or have left but what we do with the time. I invite you to make the most of it. To continue on journeying (joining in the daily task) to sail the sea of life in the ship of love, to expand the limits of what we think we know, to not be held back by what we think we know. Let’s journey on enjoying ever more thickening time.