Sunday 17 September 2017

From Sincerity to Authenticity

“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.

When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.

It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold and the car handle feels wet and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.”

From "The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present to the Life You Have"

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks; we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Parker J Palmer from “Let Your Life Speak”

The greatest danger to living the authentic life, to living with sincerity and integrity is what I think I know; what I think I know about myself, others, life and the spirit that is at the core of all being, that I call God.

With this in mind each morning as I awake, as I begin my morning devotion and open myself in humility, I say a few words of prayer asking that I can lay aside whatever I think I know. I lay myself open to the mystery at the core of life and ask that whatever I believe I know about the four realms of existence does not become a barrier to new experiences. The four realms as I understand them today are of the mind, the body, the heart and the spirit. As a result I am finding new truth being revealed to me constantly; as a result I am finding myself less inhibited by my own self-created fears and the fears created by others that they can attempt to pass on to me.

How many times in life are we held back not only by our own fears, but by taking on board the fears of others.

“Keep it real” it’s a phrase you hear quite a lot these days. It’s about being authentic, living with integrity. Some people go to extremes to prove the realness of who they are. It seems to me that if you feel the need to prove it, then in some sense you are not being real at all, that you are not living with integrity as you feel the need to seek the approval of others.

I remember many years ago the tragic Richey Edwards, second guitarist and lyricist from the Manic Street Preachers, infamously carving the phrase “4 Real” onto his arm in an attempt to prove to “The NME” that they were who they claimed to be. A few years later he disappeared, presumed dead by his own hand. A sad end for such a talented young man.

How many other people have been destroyed by this need to be seen as authentic to others, how many of us have found ourselves standing their naked seduced by the delusion that is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?

In this age of “Fake News” it is hard to discern what is real. Who and what do we trust? There seems to be little or no sincerity and integrity in life. Dishonesty it seems is not only acceptable, but kind of expected today. This saddens me.

We see this obviously in politics and in the spoken and written news. We also see it very clearly in sport. The Olympic spirit is gone. As money and ratings have become the God that such people worship, the idea of integrity as all but died out. The last Olympics Games was shrouded in questions about drug cheats, no one trusts cyclists. Even in cricket no one trusts the batsmen and fielders any longer. Perhaps the only sport where such integrity exists is in golf where it is still highly regarded.

Does sincerity exist any longer? Is integrity dead?

I recently attended the funeral of my “Auntie Josephine”. Josephine was my dad’s cousin, she had no children of her own. As a result she would take me and my siblings for birthday treats when we were children. Sadly over the last few she has lost who she was through dementia. At her funeral one of the readings was taken from John’s Gospel Ch 14 vv 1 – 7. After the service I was talking with Josephine’s brother my uncle Billy who said about the reading something like “I don’t go for much scripture, but those words speak powerfully to me.” They describe both his and many people’s faith. The service was held in my dad’s side of the family’s church, St Francis of Assisi’s Roman Catholic Church, Morley West Yorkshire. A place I spent many Sunday’s at as a child and one I occasionally attend for family weddings and funerals these days. During the funeral Mass the priest offered communion or to those who are not Catholic a blessing. I went forward for a blessing, as mark of respect to my family and to the occasion even if I do not believe as they do. After the service several friends of the family had also gone forward, but they had offered themselves for communion at which the priest asked them if they were Catholic, they were not they were Anglicans and thus he indicated he could only offer a blessing. They were upset by this and asked me afterwards why it was? Gosh why do I always get these questions, perils of the job I suppose? The truth is that the priest was acting with integrity with regards to his own beliefs. Whether I or others agree with him, is not the real question he was acting with integrity with regards to his own beliefs. I for one respect him for that.

I see faith and life through very different eyes. I am a Universalist in every sense of the word, but I would not expect someone else to subscribe to my truth if they didn’t look at life through the same kaleidoscopic lens.

Whatever we believe about life, ourselves, the world and whatever we believe about what is at the core of it all it is vital that we are sincere about it, whilst also respecting that others will come to various conclusions. It is not enough to simply tolerate that there are different truths, to me that still sounds somewhat judgemental, tolerance is not enough. I for one want to celebrate the difference and to lay myself open to the truths of others. I never want to become a slave to what I think I know.

Sincerity is no easy thing. It is not easy being sincere about who we are, to show the world as we are, to live as we truly are “warts and all and beauty spots too.”

There is a phrase I often here in spiritual communities that irritates me. It is used as an attempt to get people started but to me I find it not only unhelpful but in the long term quite damaging. The phrase goes something like “You’ve got to fake it to make it.” I have found the opposite to be true. In my experience if you attempt to fake it you will never make it. I suspect that the most unspiritual thing a person can be is insincere.

If you attempt to fake it you won't truly make it...just because it rhymes it doesn't make it real...

The key is authenticity, being real, being honest, living by faithful it an honesty go.

Now “Sincerity” is a fascinating word and anyone who knows me will know I love etymology. Well there is a disputed theory about the Etymology of the word “Sincere.” One theory suggest that it is rooted in Latin and that it literally meant "without wax"

It is said that during the Renaissance, in Italy, sculptures were in plentiful supply & stones were sold everywhere. It seems that not all stone sellers were honest & some of the stones they sold were imperfect, they had cracks which were filled with wax. They tried to sell these stones as flawless when in fact the cracks were filled in with wax. So an honest stone seller became one who was “sin cere”, without wax who sold his stones revealing the cracks.

For me the spiritual life has to be the same. There are cracks in my belief, but it is honest. Each day I turn in faithful uncertainty and experience toward a life I never dreamed possible. I do so honestly, with integrity in humility which I have found leads to a greater openness.

Is sincerity enough though? John O’Donohue suggests otherwise, he believed that what we really needed was authenricity. That is what it means to be real. To live with our cracks fully exposed and open to life. That it is this that allows us to truly feel life, to live without our gloves on. He stated that:

“Another way to approach this is to look at the huge difference between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, while it's lovely, is necessary but insufficient, because you can be sincere with just one zone of your heart awakened. When many zones of the heart are awakened and harmonized we can speak of authenticity, which is a broader and more complex notion. It takes great courage and grace to feel the call to awaken, and it takes greater courage and more grace still to actually submit to the call, to risk yourself into these interior spaces where there is very often little protection. It takes a great person to creatively inhabit her own mind and not turn her mind into a destructive force that can ransack her life.”

It seems to me that live with authenticity is to be truly open in all four aspects of humanity, the four realms of being, mind, body, heart and spirit. I suspect it’s about truly being who you are.

Forrest Church suggested that to “be who you are” is perhaps the hardest task of all. To be who you are is to not "fake your existence." He claimed "each of us is unique, with unique flaws and gifts. The world doesn’t owe us a living; we owe the world a living, our very own." The key is to answer your own calling, going on to say "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are."

It seems to me that to live with sincerity, with authenticity is to truly be who you are. Do you know what our world needs us to live authentically; it needs us to be truly who we are, warts and all and beauty spots too. It needs us to be unafraid to revel our cracks, because in so doing we encourage others to be who they are. We need to expose who we truly are to give ourselves fully away to life and thus encourage others to do the same. In so doing we may just begin to create that kin-ship of love right here, right now…

So let’s keep it real, let’s be who we are, let us be unafraid to live the sincere life, to show our cracks, let us live with authenticity…For our world needs us to be...

Sunday 10 September 2017


I recently spent a week at Summer School, serving as minister of the week. Now one of the traditions that has developed there over the years are the knitting circles. There is always a group of knitters, working away throughout the week. They even have a "knitting policy" and guidelines for knitters who wish to practice while listening to the theme talks. Some people find the knitters a little distracting.

A few years ago when I attended Summer School it seemed like they had taken over the place, everyone was knitting. There was a charitable project going so it was for a very good reason. I remember at the time saying “You’d never get me knitting” In fact I said “The only time you’d see me knitting is if Bill Darlison did." Now I thought Bill was my friend. Well he set me up good and proper because on the last day they got him to pose for a picture with needles and yarn in his hands and lap. It brought a great deal of laughter, but did not lead me to pick up the needles.

This year there was a group of three knitters that particularly caught my attention. They were always together, it seemed strange to see one without the others. In a odd way they kind of held the week together, a bit like the rug in the film “The Big Lebowski”. They were one of the many stabilising and creative threads that weaved their way through the week. All were needed.

While I was away at Summer School I began to weave a new thread into my attempt to live the four aspects, “The Four Realms”, of my human being more fully. “The Four Realms” are mind, body, heart and spirit. Each morning, before breakfast we were offered the opportunity to be led in either meditation or yoga. I went to meditation the first morning, but after that I decided to give yoga a go. I’d been considering it for a few months, but hadn’t taken the plunge. Well it seems I’m hooked and since I got back I’ve been following a teaching on line every morning, on awakening, after a short time in prayer and meditation. It is a new thread that is helping to weave together the four aspects, realms, dimensions, of my human being. As I have been practising I have felt the thread that runs through my being both lengthening and strengthening.

Ever since I returned from Summers School I’ve been thinking about the many threads that make up my life and the web of creation, made of infinite threads that both holds and creates all life.

In many of the human traditions there are enumerable web and weaving mythos’. The stories describe a creature or perhaps spirit that guides human beings through life, that runs through all of life and holds life together. I have come to believe that we each of us have this very same thread in us, in fact maybe we as individuals are one thread on the universal web of all life, that without our thread and every other thread the web would not exist. The web is what creates, holds and sustains us, but at the same time we create the very same web of existence. Many of the great stories of the ancient traditions speak of this. In the Christian tradition I always think of the Kingdom of God, as being an example of this. You see the Kingdom is not some place we wish to arrive at some day, but something we build or maybe weave right here, right now. We are the builders, we are weavers or we are the destroyers of the web, the kingdom or as I prefer to call it these days, the “kin-dom”.

Now in many traditions there is the mythos of “The Spirit’s Thread” You will find it in the Navajo tradition, and in traditions found in Alaska and Japan. By the way there may be good reason for this, as studies of migrational history suggest that all three peoples’s originate from a tribe that dispersed from Siberia. Both Navajo and the Japanese traditions share a reverence for the larger interconnected net that holds all of life together, the web of life.

In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo writes of this. He states:

“The Navajo honor this connection in everything they do. Even when weaving rugs to lie on the earth, the Navajo worldview is present. For somewhere in each rug there is always a single thread that connects the inner weavings to the outer weavings. This affirms a spiritual law which says that if we are to know health, if we are to experience the mystery of being whole, if we are to know joy, there has to be a thread or inlet that allows what lives within out and which allows what lives without in. Indeed, only if in and out are allowed to inform each other can we live in the mystery and strength of the Great Spirit.

This is the Spirit's Thread, which love makes visible. It exists in everything. The thread of Spirit - there in the rock and the rose and the dark heart waiting to be known. And in order to befriend the Whole, in order to stay in relationship with all that is larger than us, we are invited to care for our Spirit's Thread. We are invited to honor the Spirit's Thread in everything, so the light hidden in the rock sand the blood hidden in the rose might help revive our dark and waiting heart.

So, what does the Spirit's Thread mean, then, in a daily way? I think this beautiful notion implies that we are called to care for the small, thin thing that lives in each of us, that connects who we are to the world. We can understand that small passageway as our breath, our heart, or openness of mind. It is the vital tether by which we can tremble in awe at the infinite power and gentleness of life.”

It is vital that we take care of this thread that is our life, body, mind, heart and soul and that we continue to weave into the web of all existence. That we fully play our part in creating and recreating the web. For if we do not we will not be playing our part in the whole and we will feel disconnected, no longer a part of the whole.

Now at times our thread may become a little threadbare, an aspect may become weakened. When this happens we need to take stock and perhaps do what is required to fix our thread or perhaps do more work to repair the damaged whole.

Now the web does not only exist in the present moment. It began to be weaved at the beginning of time and will continue on into eternity, when we are long gone. That said we have played our role in co-creating the whole. As our ancestors did, those who came before us. As I look back at my own life I can see a kind of personal tapestry being weaved and not by myself alone. I did not create this wholly alone, so many other lives have weaved their way into my life and helped create who I am, just as I have weaved my way into the lives of others. There is no neutrality in life, everything is connected. Everything that we do and do not do matters. Every thought, every word, every feeling. It matters for we are all part of the great interconnected whole.

Now for me the main purpose of spiritual community is to aid and encourage both the repair and enhancing of our individual threads while also creating, repairing and beautifying the whole. This is what Rev Dr Martin Luther King called “Beloved Community”, the Kingdom of God right here right now. This is the kind of faith community that is based around responsibility in humility. Not one that expects God to do the weaving alone but for each individual to bring their uniquely beautiful thread and weave it into community, turning up, entering into relationship willingly, learning how to weave their individual gifts to make the most of the whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. To me this is true religion. Religion comes from the word religiere which meant to bind together and create more than could be done alone with the individual parts. Our single threads, no matter how well developed, no matter how powerful and beautiful can achieve very little alone, in fact they are pretty useless and certainly lonely on their own. This is the greatest problem of spirituality without community, in truth it doesn’t really work. Yet each individual thread weaved into the whole, playing its part, can create something way more beautiful than any of us could ever have imagined.

We are here for a purpose, there is a mighty meaning to our lives. Our lives and the lives of all depend on us taking care of the threads that make up our individual lives and the weaving of our threads as deeply as we can into the web of all existence. As we look at ourselves, our families, our communites, our world, no doubt we can see may tears in the web of existence, tears that won’t heal themselves. It is our task to repair the damage by weaving our threads together. In so doing we not only repair the whole, but we also beautify and strengthen our own threads. In so doing we will begin to create the “Kin-dom of Love” right here right now, we become the “Beloved Community”, we become the ones we have all been waiting for.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Why is it so hard to speak of Joy?

I was recently given the honour of serving as minister of week at Summer School. The subject of the week was seeking joy in life despite its many real troubles. It got me thinking about Joy. What Joy might be and how to articulate it.

Joy is a characteristic of faith in life itself; faith in the joy of living, in all its mystery. Joy is the universal aspect of living life fully. It’s about spending our time in “thick” space, a life deep and rich in meaning. It is not the same as happiness, pleasure or fun. Joy is not about the material circumstances of our lives. Perhaps the true measure of joy is the experience of it, even in the most difficult of times, without guilt or apology. Joy is a deeply held spiritual quality, it exists beneath feelings and emotions. It is a quality that is always open to us, although not necessarily realised. Why you may well ask? Well because too often we are afraid to live by and through it, to reach out for it for fear of not achieving it and living in disappointment. I know disappointment every day and I know and experience what it means to live in and through joy. Or perhaps the reason we don’t know joy is because we are too afraid to let go of control and let life have its way, because deep down we do not have faith in life itself. The essence of joy is faith, faith in life itself, that there is a goodness, a Divine goodness at the core of life…

Here is an example of Joy in this sense by Unitarian Universalist minister Carl Scovel. He named the heart of his faith “The Great Surmise”

"The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. . . Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. "Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy."

I have come to believe that Joy is the essence and the energy of life and yet we find it so hard to speak of. Why do we find it so hard to speak of joy?

Well for some it hasn't been so hard. Here is another example.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote…

“Joy is everywhere; it is in the earth’s green covering of grass; in the blue serenity of the sky; in the reckless exuberance of spring; in the severe abstinence of grey winter; in the living flesh that animates our bodily frame; in the perfect poise of the human figure, noble and upright; in living; in the exercise of all our powers; in the acquisition of knowledge; in fighting evils; in dying for gains we never can share. Joy is there everywhere.”

“Joy is there everywhere.” Do you believe this? What does your life teach you? What energises you? How do you feel when you are around a person filled with joy, en-joying life, en-joying who they are, singing the joy of living in all its mystery? What do you do when you are around such a person? I do hope you never try to clip their wings, to put them off being who they truly are, learning to fly free. I hope you never try to enslave them by the dangers of living with too much safety. In fact if you are going to be cautious about anything in life, it ought to safety. Be very careful about playing it safe, for it won’t guard you against the dangers of life, it will only strangle the joys of living, in all its mystery.

I was recently sat with friends enjoying coffee and chatting after sharing an hour together in meditation and deep conversation. We meet twice weekly at seven am and then some of us go off and continue the conversation in a local coffee shop. We are quite a shocking group to the locals and staff, due to the volume of laughter that rings out from us. Don’t get me wrong we speak seriously about many things, but we also know the joy of living. Anyway after an hour I declared “it’s time I moved” and got up to go for a gym session. Before I left I was asked how often I went and how long I spend at the gym. I said I go five times a week for between one and a half and two hours. Then followed the often heard comments about being too obsessive and not over doing it. I said little in response and just got up enthusiastically to get on with my session. Yes it’s tough and challenging, but I do enjoy how it is transforming my body and allowing me to be all I can be. I’ve never felt more alive.

All my life I’ve experienced people who have tried to curb my enthusiasm. It used to work as I allowed fear to inhibit my natural experience of joy, I didn’t want others to think I was a weirdo or nuts. By the way it worked for it sucked all the joy out of living as I suppressed my true human nature. People still try today but I know that it is more about their fear than anything I am doing or not doing. These days I always respectfully listen to others, but I do not take on board their fears and negativity. I would rather listen to the voice of joy and possibility deep within me; I prefer to live from a place of faith in life and not fear. Ever since I rediscovered faith in life itself, I have found the courage to be.

Now to live in joy, to have faith in life is not easy, it is even harder to describe. It is far easier to talk about pain and suffering, to talk about despair. Just enter any academic environment or follow social media or the daily news. People find it far easier to talk about their pain, than their joy.

Henri Nouwen observed that anxiety and suffering are far more easily expressed than joy. He wrote:

"I vividly remember how one of my university teachers spoke for a whole year about anxiety in human life. He discussed in great detail the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus and gave an impressive exposé of the anatomy of fear. One day, during the last month of the course, a few students found the courage to interrupt him and ask him to speak a little about joy before the course was over. At first he was taken aback. But then he promised to give it a try. The next class he started hesitantly to speak about joy. His words sounded less convincing and penetrating than when he spoke about anxiety and fear. Finally, after two more meetings, he told us that he had run out of ideas about joy and would continue his interrupted train of thought. This event made a deep impression on me, especially since I had such great admiration for my teacher. I kept asking myself why he was unable to teach about joy as eloquently as he had taught about anxiety.

It’s a good question, “why is it so much easier to speak about anxiety than joy?" We have no trouble describing our sadness, what is wrong, what sickens us as individuals and as a society. Nouwen observed there are far “more words for sickness than for health, more for abnormal conditions than for normal conditions. When my leg hurts, my head aches, my eyes burn, or my heart stings, I talk about it, often in elaborate ways, but when I am perfectly healthy I have little, if anything, to say about those parts of my body.”

Think about the word resentment. It comes from resentere which literally means to re-feel something. Now when we re-feel something a memory from our past life it doesn’t have to be a painful memory, something that makes us angry and yet the word resentment only has negative connotation. We do not have a word that means to re-feel something joyful. There is no specific word for this in the English language.

I have come to believe that one reason that we struggle to speak of joy is that it is not a surface experience, it is not of the body or the mind, it is more about the spirit. It is harder to make sense of and or control with our minds and our language. Now some may say the reason for this is that joy is an abnormal state, but I have come to believe that the truth is the opposite of this. Joy is actually the essence of life, what Scovel called the “Great Surmise”. We can’t tame joy, we can’t control it and perhaps this is why we fear and distrust it in ourselves and others so much.

Joy is linked closely to ecstasy, no not the party drug, but ecstasy in its true meaning. It is derived from the Greek 'ekstasis,' formed from 'ek,' meaning out, and 'stasis,' a state of standstill. So to be ecstatic literally means to be outside of a static place. It is a constantly moving state, not a rigid or fixed one. Joy is the same, it is always new, it is about life, it is about creation. Thus, those who live ecstatic lives are always moving away from rigidly fixed situations and exploring new, unmapped dimensions of reality. This is the essence of joy.

Joy is always new; it is about life; it is about creation; it’s about energy. Think about those joy filled moments you had when you were really free, maybe while dancing, singing, playing, creating, running free, at the birth of a child whatever that might be. When you were like a child.

Can you remember the last time you got giddy? I get giddy with those folks I share meditation and coffee with twice a week and other places too, often in the pulpit.

We need to get “giddy” with it. By doing so we may well just begin to experience the joy of living. By the way “giddy” is one of the words that has been reduced in meaning over time. In medieval times it used to mean being 'possessed by a god or spirit.' Now this was not considered to be a good thing as to be in such a state was considered to be a form of insanity, simplemindedness or to be some kind of religious fanatic. Religion has shied away from such expressions and feelings. We Unitarians have sadly been at the vanguard of this, distrusting emotion and worshipping rationality. We were once known as “God’s frozen people?” Not any longer I hope. Never fear who you are, your true nature.

I suspect that the reason it is easier to talk about the pain, what is wrong with life, our fear, rather than the joy of living has something to do with how we view the nature of ourselves and life itself. That there is something wrong with life, that there is something wrong with human nature, that at the core we are bad and its time we accepted this. I’m not convinced that this is so.

The first chapter of the book of Genesis talks about God looking at his creation and seeing it as good. But is life with all its ups and downs good? What about violence, war and senseless tragedies? What about germs, disease and famine? What about the pain of our families, our friends, our loved ones? Isn’t life more like what Thomas Hobbes described in “The Leviathan” “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. Is that what life is? Are we fallen and broken by nature, at war with ourselves and one another. We are told that the nature of life is competition, but is that correct? Recent biological research into the most basic life forms suggest that this is not so as even they have to cooperate in order to create, that this is in actual fact the energy of life. When we cooperate, work together in harmony, don’t we feel joyful? I know I do.

So something to consider. What is the nature and energy of life? Is joy the essence of life? Is it the energy that forms all life? Also how do we find ways to articulate and express this in ways that others can understand? I suspect that it might not be through the limit of words. Maybe we can’t tell, perhaps all we can do is show. So show it in all that you do and if you must, use words.