Sunday 31 December 2017

Choose Life

Here we stand on the hinge of the year, New Year's Eve. Or as it is known in the Caribbean, “Old Year's Night”. Here standing at the end of one year and facing the new, we are offered an opportunity to await, to contemplate. No doubt we will spend time with friends, family, loved ones, or perhaps we prefer to be alone reflecting on the year of life that has now gone. I will joun with friends and community at our social and “Watch Night” service. A tradition I love more as the years go by.

No doubt we will all have experienced so much of the blessings and the curses of life this year. How has it been? What are the lessons this year of life has taught you? Whatever it has meant, whatever it has brought, it matters. For everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word, every action, everything we do and do not do. So let’s remember the year now gone with gratitude, even if it has been a challenge and let us make of it all that we can. Let us make our meaning of this year in how we live this next year as we once again enter into another 365 new days of the book of life. Remember life itself is the ultimate grace, the ultimate free gift, for we did nothing to be given it. Life is the greatest free gift of them all.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, a time for new beginnings, a time for hope of what might be as we step forward into another year of life, a time to journey on in life. A time to once again experience both the blessings and curses of “Choosing Life”.

This brings to mind the journey that the Israelites took to the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 30 vv 11-19 Moses speaks to the people on his 120thbirthday. God had just informed him that he would not enter the Promised Land, after fourty years in the widerness, with the people he had led out of exile.

As they reach the Promised Land the people gathered to receive Moses’ final blessing. And what does he say? He tells them that they must “choose life.” They are told that in order to keep the freedom that they have been given they must make thoughtful choices about their lives. I am sure that this must have been scary for them, for after all they were frightened of their freedom. Throughout their time in exile whenever they were given freedom they did not want it, they hoped that someone would make their decisions for them. Again this is such a universal predicament, it echoes through the ages. How often do we wish that someone would make our decisions for us? Wouldn’t that make life easier? But we must make the decisions, we must live our lives. We will make mistakes. I have made many this year, but we will also get much right. It’s what we do with what has been in the coming year that really matters.

Now "Choose Life" is a phrase that has seeped into public consciousness on at least two occasion over the last 30 years. Two places that would at first glance seem highly unlikely.

One was in a "Wham" pop video to the song "Wake me up before you go-go". I feel fairly confident in claiming that George Michael, Andrew Ridgley and Pepsi & Shirley didn't know they were quoting Moses when they were dancing along to this song.

It is also the inspiration for a poem by John Hodge that was spoken by Ewan McGregor to the tune for "Lust For Life" by Iggy Pop for the trailer to the film "Trainspotting". A film that is definitely not about "choosing Life", as it’s a film about heroin addiction. Addiction is the ultimate rejection of life

In “Choosing Life” we choose all of life, blessings and curses. We do not get one without the other, but we do get life, the ultimate free gift. The biggest mistake we ever make in living is that we wish so much of our lives away, we dream of some other place, a heaven, a nirvana, an Oz, Ithaka. Perhaps heaven, Nirvana, the Promised Land, Ithaka is actually the life that we have now, the kingdom is now, perhaps the true gift is life itself, the beautiful journey. It truly matters, every breath really matters.

This brings to mind that rather beautiful poem “Ithaka” by Constantine Cavafy.

"Ithaka" by C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

How often have we heard the phrase “Life is a journey”? Sometimes beautiful; sometimes frightening!

For all of us at times just to simply step out into the world takes all the courage we can muster. Choosing life is not always easy. Past experiences can often stop us dead in our tracks. Fear can block our attempts to step out into the world and back into the adventure of life with all its many challenges. Fear is always present to stop us to block us along the way.

What is it that calls us on, what is our Ithaka? Ithaka though is not about the destination itself, but the journey that comes with living life. Just like Moses none of us gets to truly reach the destination that is the Promised Land, for it is not a geographical location but the adventure of life itself. This is the gift, the pearl of great price, the kingdom of love right here right now and what we do with it is what really matters, for everything matters. The meaning of our lives comes from what we do with the life we have been given, in all its blessings and curses.

So as we stand on the hinge of the year let us not do so in fear of what is to come, for the truth is not one of us can know. There will be much suffering for all of us, for that is part of life. That said there will also be much joy too. For some of us it may be our last year and for some that we know and love that will certainly be the case. Now while our actual lives may not end, perhaps some aspect will. We should not fear this, for every ending is a new beginning.

So let us step forward in Hope, of what might be, of what we might make of the year ahead. Let’s make the meaning of the year that has passed with the way we live the year ahead

So let us step forward into this threshold moment that is New Eve or Old Years Night, let us do so in love. Let’s end in love and let’s begin again in love.

We have before us life, blessing and curses, suffering and joy, the beautiful journey, for life itself is the Promised Land, the ultimate free gift, the ultimate Grace. Let’s choose life.

I will end thid "blogspot"with some words of beginning by Edward Searl

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

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

Nothing is ever lost
in the many changes
time brings.

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

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

From “We Pledge Our Hearts” by Edward Searl

Sunday 10 December 2017

Becoming The Gift We Have All Been Waiting For

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

Have you done all your shopping yet? I’ve not even begun. I will soon, but not just yet. I’ve got too much to do.

Gifts of course come in many forms. Not all are wrapped in paper and tied up in ribbons. Some come in other forms, some wrapped in flesh, human flesh. I remember at primary school once being asked what was my favourite Christmas present had been, to which my answer was “Our Natalie”, my youngest sister had just been born a few days before Christmas. Her life has proved to be a wonderful blessing, even if she is a little too well named. Our Natalie never stops nattering. That said she is a gift beyond gifts.

When I look back at my life I have known some wonderful gifts in human form. Some of whom I have known for only a short time and others all my life. I’ve been thinking of these folk quite a lot these last few days. While I may not carry those people with me physically, their love is tied up in my heart. I do not forget these things, in fact in many ways my life is an act of remembrance of the love they gave, and certainly my ministry is.

Last week an old friend, someone who I have begun to see a little of once again in recent times, reminded me of a book I had given him as a gift 12 Christmases ago. He told me he had been re-reading it in recent weeks and reminded me of an inscription I had written in it, some simple words of gratitude, simply for being himself. He told me that reading it had led him on a path of spiritual discovery and wanted to thank me for it. I could have wept, I would have wept if I had not being in company. Now while this boy does cry, he rarely does so in the company of others, I am always the minister.

The conversation brought to mind another gift of a blessing that a dear friend gave me 11 months later, on the day my heart was broken, as I lost the most precious gift that ever entered my life, my friend Claire’s son Ethan, my Immanuel. The one who showed to me that God is indeed with us.

The day Ethan died I was utterly broken. I was alone with nowhere to go and ended up with friends from the Cross Street congregation, three in particular Alan Myerscough, Wynne Semeter and Peter Sampson. John Midgley had already come to the hospital and ministered to us as best he could. I will never forget what John gave that day, even though I have since learnt that he felt he let me down, nothing could be further from the truth. What I remember the most though about that day is a simple bowl of soup that Wynne warmed for me, sat me down and made me eat. It didn’t change anything about the hell I was in but the love warmed me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I felt God was with me, expressed in human form, incarnated in those around me. I also remember how much others were friends to me in the coming months, particularly my friend Derek.

The Christmas that followed was a hard for so many people, but in so many ways it was beautiful. A beautiful example of people coming together in love, a glimpse of the kingdom of love that I believe is at the core of the true Christmas message. It is certainly the message I read in Matthews Gospel, to me this is what it means to follow that yonder star the wise men from the east were seeking. I pay homage to those gifts of divine love that I have known in human form, that have blessed my life and shown to me that God is with us indeed.

Christmas is a time of celebration, of family and others coming together once again in love. It is a time when everything is heightened and illuminated. This can be difficult for some people, particularly Christmas Day. For some people who are not feeling so joyous, Christmas can actually increase those feelings of isolation and loss. As we sit round the Christmas dinner table we may notice not so much the ones that are there, but the ones who are not there. Often those we have lost due to death’s dark shadow, but also those who are not there due irreconcilable differences. I notice the empty chairs around my own family’s table. I always have done. I fully feel the joy of the day, but also its sadness.

Yes Christmas can be hard for some people. We need to remember this as we engage in our joy. And if we really want to bring the love at the centre of the season to life, we ought to perhaps think of ways in which we can bring a bit of love into their lives. One simple act of love can change a person’s life for ever. It certainly has mine.

There is a tradition that has developed in recent years that has begun to recognise that Christmas has its shadow side as well as its light. Many places of worship now conduct what are called “Blue Christmas” services. They are held at this time of the year for those who have lost a loved one during the year, or who are remembering losses from previous years.

Grief can sting more sharply at this time of the year because such feelings stand in contrast to what is the ideal of this Christmas season, namely, a time of the fullness of the heart, a time when one is united to all that one loves.

Christmas is about the heart, the ties of the heart, the loves of the heart, the dreams of the heart, the yearnings and longings of the heart. At Christmas we are called to concentrate on the heart; we are called to concentrate on what the heart wants, what it needs, and how it calls us to live. This is not easy if your heart is broken by grief.

By the way grief may not be the loss of person to death, it may be the end of a relationship, or the loss of livelihood and or health.

Sometimes the light of Christmas can illuminate this suffering in our hearts and lives. This can make the lives of some appear more dark and dreary as we are burdened with the memory of too many failures, too many defeats, too much sorrow. Sometimes loneliness, fear, selfishness, discouragement, and resentment turn the bells of Christmas into bitter mockery.

We need to remember this in this season of the heart. Such people need to gift at the heart of this season more than others.

So what can we do?

Well we can give the greatest gift of the season, we can give our heart. How do we do this by giving just a little bit of time and attention to someone who really needs it. In so doing we will truly begin to sanctify this season by giving one another perhaps the greatest present of them all, our true presence. A pearl of great price, a gift beyond material value. The most priceless commodity of them all.

Do you know what we can all bring the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts and lives. It’s quite simple really, it is not even difficult. Anyone of us can do it. All it requires us to do is to open our hearts, to become the gift that we have all been waiting for. How do we begin? Well again that is quite simple too. All that we have to do is look all around us, in our own families and our own communities. You don’t need to look above to find the star to follow, you just need to look around, find the need around you and invite those suffering around you into your hearts and lives. Unwrap the greatest gift you have been given, your own heart. Become a memory that may change someone’s life forever. You have that power within you. Go use it.

This will be my focus this season, I invite you to come and join with me,  in this giving of our true presence, the ultimate present. To open our hearts to those around us. To pay attention to those close at hand. To bring the heart of Christmas alive, to incarnate love in our own lives. To become one another’s Immanuel’s, to show that God is indeed with us.

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

We no longer have to wish it could be Christmas every day, we can make it Christmas every day. By simply blessing each day with our presence, by giving our whole hearts to those who really need it.

Sunday 3 December 2017

Advent: In a Dark Time the Eyes Begin to See

Twice a week I sit in shared meditation, in the dark, with friends. The silence is lit by three simple candles. One of the things I love about the time, early in the morning, is that during the weeks of November and December we begin in darkness, as the silence ends we remain in the dark and then as we share where we are personally at spiritually the sun rises and the day begins. At the end of the hour our space is fully lit by sunlit. I love this time and space as we move from darkness, to half-light, to full light. It is a gentle transition from one spiritual space into another, without physically moving.

There is another time in the week when I do something similar, only it ends very differently. There is not the same transition from darkness into light. As the time ends the lights are switched on and I find the transition from darkness to light, a little shocking. There is no in-between space as we move suddenly from darkness into bright, shocking neon light.

We are approaching the darkest time of the year as we head towards the Winter Solstice, closely followed by the coming of the light that is Christmas. Today is Advent Sunday, the day that marks the beginning of the days leading to the coming of the new light, that is Christmas.

Advent is a time for waiting, a time of preparation. A time set aside to wait for the “coming” of Love in human form symbolised in the birth of the Christ child. A promise of what love can become if we let it grow and nurture in our hearts and lives. For every new life is the gift of promise and possibility. A gift of possibility that can be reborn in each of our lives if we allow it to be.

Advent is a season of preparation and it cannot be rushed. It requires patience. We cannot wish the days away, we cannot wish the winter away. We have to wait patiently, but not passively. We have to adjust ourselves to the coming light. If it was to come all at once, it would be too much for us. Let us not wish away the darkness of winter and look forward too desperately to the future, for what is yet to come. Let us adjust to the limited light we have been given, just enough to take the next step.

We impatient people, we who live by neon light and instant gratification do not like the dark and certainly know little about patience, about waiting. If you don’t believe me just watch yourself the next time your computer freezes when you’re trying to watch a clip on YouTube. We want it all and we want it now. We also want it all in bright lights, with bells on. We certainly don’t want to have to go through the hardships to take us there.

Yes Advent is about the coming of the light, but not something sudden and dazzling, more a journey from darkness into natural light. This is the classic spiritual journey. This is the beauty of the holy month of December. I experience this powerfully in that dark silky silence of early morning, when the frosty winds make all moan. I revere this dark, cold, humbling time that leads to the coming of the light. I have noticed these last few years that if I don’t rush and push my way through this time, If I allow myself to savour it, something shifts deep within me if I allow myself to truly embrace the darkness. Somewhere between Solstice and New Year, probably on Christmas Day, some new light comes into my vision, but not suddenly. Like most good things in life, slowly it rises. It is coming. This is Advent, the coming of the new light. If we allow it to it will work its magic and something new will grow within each and every one of us.

We are afraid of the dark though aren’t we. We want to rush through these weeks and force the light, we people born in neon times. We impatient and expectant folk. The truth is though that in order for us to truly appreciate the light we must first know the dark. Brings to mind those beautiful words from Isaiah chapter 9 verse 2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light shines.”

Now of course the very same light shines on us all, it’s just that we don’t always notice it. We only really notice it when we are in the deep darkness. I saw a beautiful example of this during the last singing meditation I experienced. I always light a hundred candles as we sit together in the dark. The candles are meant to light what we are engaging in, to allow those present to read the words we sing around. Now usually I leave the kitchen door open which adds a little artificial light. I now realise how much this has been a mistake. Last week I didn’t and do you know what the room seemed even more illuminated. The candles burned ever more brightly in the darkened room. The light shone even more brightly on we that were singing and sharing silence in deep, deep darkness.

We need to honour the darkness in order for us to truly rejoice in the light, when the moment of magic comes.

But first we must know the dark, we must learn the patience of sitting in the dark. This brings to mind that beautiful short poem “Know the dark” by Wendell Berry

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

But we don’t want to know the dark, we want to walk in the light. Often we spiritually inclined do not want to look at the darkness, we only want the light. Who really wants to take the time to look at the darkness within ourselves and within our world? The truth is of course that if you refuse to look at the dark, to shine a little light on it, is to truly live in the dark; this is a life without joy, this is not truly living in life. We need to bear witness to all life, to hold life with a steady gaze, to live spiritually alive.

In order to live spiritually alive we need to see life in its fullness. We need to practice holding an unwavering gaze in the dark to not look away or to flush it out with neon light, one that is far too bright.

You see as Roethke said: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

I am learning to surrender to a more natural light, to the dark. I am learning to allow my eyes to adjust to the whole of reality. I need to do so to truly embrace the beauty of the dark. This includes the lingering darkness within myself that leads me to still reject and to turn away from some aspects of life.

I am slowly learning to follow those words of Wendell Berry

"To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings"

I am learning the lessons of the darkness and during these Advent days I will not be waiting passively for the coming of the light. Instead I will appreciate these dark days, shed some gentle light on the dark places within myself, my life and this our shared world, so that when the moment of magic comes I can become a child of the light and become a light for others. This is what we are here waiting for. To be a light to others who may be struggling in their own dark times. We can light the way. This brings to mind the following beautiful words by Mary Oliver “The Buddha’s last Instructions”

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire—
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

So let’s prepare ourselves for the moment of magic yet to come. Let’s nurture the love within us and prepare to give birth to it in lives. Let’s not wish these dark cold days away. There is a beautiful gift in them if we allow ourselves to fully experience them. We need to experience each and every sensation of this season. We need to not fear the dark, we need to know it and fully embrace it. And when the time comes to once again give birth to the new light.