Sunday 28 January 2018

The limits of language: That which reveals also hides

The following is taken from “The Cathedral of The World: A Universalist Theology” pp 10-11 by Forrest Church

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our vision so dim, over the course of our pilgrimage we are able to contemplate only a bit of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect on the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet by pondering and acting on our ruminations, we discover insights that will invest our days with meaning.

A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honouring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists claim that the light shines through their window only. Some, as we know from painful experience, go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshippers, they conclude that there is no light. But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.

We shall never see the light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden. The light is veiled. Yet, being halfway in size between the creation itself and our body’s smallest constituent part, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. Awakened by the light, we stand in the cathedral, trembling with awe.

Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly doesn’t mean God isn’t there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours through the windows of the Cathedral of the World”

...The above extract from Forrest Church's "The Cathedral of the World" puts beautifully into words my own understanding of my own universalism...Or at least it sheds a little light on it (Tee, hee, hee)

Each Sunday I attempt to communicate with with the beautiful people I serve, through the worship I create and lead. It does not come easy, sometimes I really struggle and I am never wholly satisfied with what comes out of my mouth. I can never put into words exactly what I am attempting to share and I know that it is never fully received from those who are engaged in this creative interchange. It is a challenge to find the right words, to touch the hard to reach places, to truly articulate the language of the heart.

It is the same when sitting with those who are suffering. To offer comfort in such times is impossible. All any of us can really do is be with one another. Prayer helps. I often use an adaption of the fear prayer “God please remove my fear and direct my attention to what you would have me be.” I’m not so much asking what to do, that can be tough to discern, but how to be is a whole different matter. I know how to be. I need to open my heart and hold space for others to be. The heaet transcends language.

People are often asked how do you feel? In reality it’s a difficult question to articulate, to put into words. Words are limited, they can never fully describe a feeling. Actually if truth be known when we communicate face to face we do not do so with only the words coming from our mouths. If you are anything like me, it will be written all over your face and in your body.

That said words are our primary form of communication, whether written or spoken. It is how we attempt to explain and pass on something. As soon as we do though we are already reducing the meaning of what we are articulating. Yes people can relate, but they cannot experience exactly what another person has or does experience. If you don’t believe me go and ask a friend to look out of window with you and describe what they see. I will bet you anything that what you share will not be exactly the same.

Now of course some communication is intuitive, some people are better at connecting than others this way. There are some people that we connect with on this level easier than with others too. There are people in my life who have and I do connect and communicate with on a deeper heart level, way beneath the limits of language and words. As I look back at my life I can remember moments, situations and people for whom words were not required, the connection was and is heart to heart.

There are also times when something happens and you are just completely lost for words. It is ok you know, I have been many times in my life. This is humble, it is human and the truth is there is a limit to what we can say about anything and everything.

Words have their limit. There is a gap between experience, process, articulation and receiving of words depicting experience. By the time we put it into words the experience has already been reduced greatly. The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich had an interesting take on the limit of language to describe ones faith. He claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” also hides it. I think it applies to all aspects of truth. Whatever we do to communicate truth will reveal aspects of it, but not fully. I’m not sure it is possible for any of us see the light of truth absolutely, we always see it through lenses. We never see anything absolutely and as soon as we attempt to articulate the meaning something gets lost in translation. We understand things through the lens of our culture and upbringing and we communicate it through this even more so. It is important to remember this. It certainly humbles me.

I was recently talking with someone who I feel it easy to communicate with, very much on a heart to hear level. There is quite a lot of synchronicity between us, which always delights me. During the conversation they asked me about the process of creating and sharing worship. A difficult question to articulate, as my muses are wide and varied. In many ways I just seem to stitch things together, but loosely, a kind of patchwork quilt really. I also explained that the sermons I deliver are less and less what I actually write. They are of course variations on a theme, but never what I initially write.

In spiritual matters sometimes words, language and understanding can actually get in the way. I remember many years ago when I was exploring ways to develop meditative practices I found the Brahma Kumaris. They practise a beautiful form of Raj Yoga meditation, which is open eyed and in principle is about focusing on light and love. I practised with them for many months and it helped me hugely. I still practise the methods today and can easily connect to those beautiful places deep within my being and all being. As in most things I was very enthusiastic and wanted to know more. The problem was that when I got into the theology and the imagery beneath the practise I found it impossible to follow. I suspect I took it too literally and not as mythos as a way of revealing deeper truth, rather than absolute truth. I was not so spiritually mature at the time and actually soon stopped practising with them. I feel a little sadness about this today as I wish I hadn’t got so lost in the images and the words and instead had just been happy with the practise. Why did I need to understand and articulate what I was experiencing? Why did I have to allow the literal and reductionist mind I had those days lead me away from aspects of this beautiful practise?

God only knows!

As I grown older, and a little wiser I hope, I have developed a growing love for poetry. There is a deep truth to poetry it speaks a language that allows the limit of words to go deeper. It seems to reveal far more than it hides, W.S, Merwin claims that poetry is “the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination.” It speaks a deeper truth. Perhaps a universal truth, it is mythos. As Stanley Kunitz has said, poetry is 'the most difficult, most solitary, and most life-enhancing thing that one can do. It's a struggle because words get tired. We use them. We abuse them. A word is a utilitarian tool to begin with, and we have to re-create it, to make it magical. You have to kill off all the top of one's head, remove it, and try to plunge deep into self, deep into memories, deep into the unconscious life. And then begin again.'

Poetry though frustrates people because it uses words illiterally, it tells the truth slant as the poem suggested that truth should be spoken.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

Now as many folks know one of my ministerial inspirations has been the writing of Forrest Church, who I only discovered shortly after he actually died. He speaks a language that hits my heart. He articulates something that makes sense to my head, heart and soul. I particularly love his view of faith and his attempt to articulate a metaphor for 21st century Universalism, a humble and a real approach to faith. This "blogspot" began with an extract from it.

His image of “The Cathedral of the World” is asking us to imagine the whole of humanity standing under the ceiling of the cathedral of the world. Around this cathedral are millions of stained glass windows. There is a light outside of the cathedral shinning through all of the windows; this is the light of truth, the light of God. No one inside is able to stare at the light directly, we all see it passing through a stained glass window. Each of the windows distorts the light in some way; they only allow some of the light to pass through. Sometimes the light is refracted, by the tinted windows and occasionally it is blocked by the opaque aspects of each window. In some places the light is almost completely obscured. By the way the light is not only coming into us from the outside the windows, but also from ourselves shinning out to the window. The light is in us too.

This metaphor is an attempt to describe a 21st century Universalist theology, one that speaks to the heart of me. There is one light outside of the window but there are many windows through which we can get a glimpse of the light. Each window is unique in its own way; each window is different; but none gives us a perfect image of the light. Each window is representing different religions, different ideologies, different philosophies, different dogmas, different views about life, the universe, everything. The key is to understand that each window has been fashioned by human hands, often with great skill, imagination, beauty, intelligence and artfulness that said through no one window is the light seen perfectly.

From where we view our particular perspective on the light we can begin to believe that what we see is the absolute truth and that the light only shines through our window. That only our window offers the true representation of the light. That what others see through their window is false, even stupid and irrational. Forrest Church’s Universalism though is saying something very different. He is saying that each window conveys part of the truth and that no one window has a monopoly on the truth. He is echoing those words of Paul Tillich, “that which reveals also hides”.

I think it is important to accept that none of us ever glimpses the whole truth, no matter which window we are looking through. Even if for s pit secend we could, we could never fully articulate this. Two people looking through the very same window can see something different or perhaps their attempts to put into exactly what they are experiencing may be very different. How on earth do any of us articulate this?

This humbles me, as most conversations I have with others about their faith humbles me. Humility is always the key by the way. This teaches us that we can only glimpse the truth and we can never make complete sense of what we see or ever adequately articulate it. Now the wonderful thing about this is that by genuinely accepting it we are opened up to a myriad of possibility that we probably believed were way beyond our capacity to experience. If we listen to one another lovingly we may just find a greater truth, if we can but just lay aside what we think we know, our prejudices.

The epistle Paul hints at this in his letter to the Corinthians (1ch 13), those beautiful words on love and charity. Here Paul gets to the very nature of humility when he says, “for now we see through a glass darkly”. He is making the point that even when our knowledge and understanding is not perfect, which I suspect, it never can be, we cannot go wrong if we follow love without prejudice as a guide. Love without prejudice is a universal principle found in virtually every one of the windows that the light is pouring through, it seems that the only ones not preaching it are the ones who are trying to throw rocks through the windows that others experience the light through. Not a different light, but a slightly different view and understanding of the light.

Universalism is a way of openness of truth seeking and love experiencing. They are not perfect though and they also glimpse the light imperfectly.

What’s the light like, that shines through your window?

This is my attempt to articulate something that is almost impossible. This is not easy. I hope it has helped you in some way to open you to the light which ever window you look through and attempt to share that with those you share your lives with and thus live more loving and charitable lives.

Let love continue long and show to us the way, it shines through every window.

Let it’s warmth transform us.

Sunday 21 January 2018

The Wisdom of Winter & Ecclesiastes

“Ice Sculpture”

A Norwegian artist loved to make ice sculptures. When winter came he would travel to the Artic north and camp in a shack beside the frozen river. He would hack slabs of ice from the river and carve them into beautiful shapes.

People soon heard about his work and came from far and wide to see these sculptures.

“Doesn’t it sadden you”, they asked, “that, as soon as the spring thaw begins, your art will vanish back into the river?”

“Not at all”, he replied, “for this is our life. For a brief time we take material form, and have a unique opportunity to express something of the nature of the spirit within us. If we express that spirit truthfully and honestly, others will find inspiration from it. And then, when the time is right, we return peacefully to the river, and all is well.

by Margaret Silf

Last Monday, the 15th of January was a special day in the yearly calendar, did you mark it? In the USA it was a public holiday, Martin Luther King Day. A day when people remember the sacrifice he offered and the service he gave with his life and death. Now while it is a public holiday, it is a day that is not meant to be of rest, but a day of service. The idea is to follow the great man’s example and to be of service to the wider community.

Now while this is a special day, it is not the one we were supposed to mark here in the UK. Last Monday was “Blue Monday.” It is regarded as the hardest day of the year, the Christmas spirit has all gone, our bank accounts are empty and we are right in depths of winter. It is dark, it is cold and there is little light around, Spring seems so far away. There will not be another public holiday until Easter and that seems a long way away too. I am told that it began as a clever marketing ploy by a holiday company to encourage people to book a holiday in sun. I don't know if this true or not, but I do know that several of my friends are jetting off for a week in the sun this week. People will do anything to escape the cold and the dark of winter.

The day light hours will increase over the coming weeks but still we must face winter. January and February can be difficult as we feel stuck in the cold on these dark winter evenings.

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always looking towards the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace. There is a need to embrace and fully experience the darkness, the lifelessness and the starkness of this time of year. We should not wish it all away, for everything there is a season and a time for everything under the sun. We need winter, as hard it feels. All things need to properly come to an end in order for what is new to truly come to fruition. The beauty and the meaning of life comes in its finiteness.

Whenever I look at the winter world it looks barren and bleak. It looks bare as I look out there.

I was staring at a barren tree the other day. It looked vulnerable just standing there all alone and yet I knew it was alive as it stood there bold and upright. It reminded me of my own vulnerability and my exposure to the cold of winter and to the challenges of life, challenges I do not shrink from, even though I do from time to time feel tempted.

Like everyone I want to feel safe, protected and warm, not cold, exposed and vulnerable. It is a refuge that we all seek, often something that folk seek and believe they will find in religion and spirituality. This sense that we are protected and safe, but is it realistic? So often we seek protection from the troubles of life, from its winter. If life has taught me anything it has shown me that the insulation I often seek so easily becomes isolation. These attempts to protect myself from exposure only increase the suffering. If I have learnt anything in life it’s that self-protection just cuts you off and leaves you feeling all alone, once again.

One of the advantages of ministry is that it really forces you to pay attention to the passing seasons. By doing so you learn to appreciate what each has to offer. Winter has so much to offer if we would but let ourselves appreciate it I think the trees in winter have much to teach we who would prefer to hibernate. If I have learnt anything I have learnt that the spiritual life is about living openly and vulnerably, it’s about accepting the reality of life. It’s about standing their upright, arms outstretch in the cold vulnerability of life waiting for the time of re-birth and renewal in whatever form this takes, just like the trees in winter.

The spiritual life teaches me not to cling to things, but to let life flow freely through me. The power of our finite lives is in the impermanence. Thus giving us a time for everything under the sun, including death. The power and beauty of our lives comes in its finiteness. Nothing ever lasts forever. That said although our lives and the lives of our loved ones someday come to an end, life does go on and love does indeed remain. To quote Ecclesiastes 1 v 4 “Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever”

For everything there is a season. Winter is the most difficult in many ways. This winter has been a challenge for me as a minister, the demands are greater than ever and there is much heart ache within both congregations I serve, many are seriously ill. For some this will be the final year of life.

The wisdom contained within the book Ecclesiastes, particularly the well known  verses from the third chapter, has stood the test of time. There is good reason for this; it speaks an eternal and universal truth that generation after generation have found that they can relate to. The power of this ancient source lays in its ability to link we who live today with the generations that have walked the earth before us. We all of us have travelled many and varied journeys and lived through all the seasons of life. Nothing is permanent and nothing lasts forever. No one will ever escape the pain of life, but that ought not bring despair because if we remain open we will also know life’s joy. Yes there is a time to mourn, but there is also a time to dance; there is a time to weep, but there is also a time to laugh.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”There are many seasons in our lives, just as there are many different emotions. Yes sometimes we can experience all those emotions in one single day, just as we can experience four seasons in one day. There is a time and perhaps a place for all them, for to diminish any of them is deny what it is to be fully human. Yes there is a time to weep, just as there is a time to laugh and there is a time to mourn, just as much as there is a time to dance.

I have wept several times this last week and have held others in their suffering too, that said I have also laughed many times, I have seen joy and I have seen how life continues on. Again to repeat Ecclesiastes 1 v 4 “Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever”

It is the realness of Ecclesiastes that really speaks to me, it reveals and authentic truth. I have a growing love for Ecclesiastes. I love it because it is real, it is authentic. Like the changing seasons life is forever changing, it is impermanent, nothing last forever. As Rami Shapiro writes of its wisdom:

"The world revealed in Ecclesiastes is an impermanent world of continual emptying. Ecclesiastes calls this hevel. Trying to grasp something in this world, trying to hold on to anything in this world, leaves you breathless, exhausted, and anxious. This impermanence is the nature of nature, and because this is so, the world lacks surety and certainty; change and the unknowing that change carries with it are the hallmarks of life. In Ecclesiastes you spend no time longing for escape from impermanence, but rather learn to live well in the midst of it. This is what the Book of Ecclesiastes wants to tell us. This is why it was written. This is why it is still read some twenty-five hundred years later."

Eccleciates teaches me what it means to live authentically and truly religiously. That said it is a religion that is not pointing to Salvation beyond this life, but in this life. This to me is the essence of my Unitarian faith. It is not pointing to something beyond this life, but within this life. Which you can only truly experience by letting go of control and allow life to have its way with you, every season of life and every feeling of life. In so doing you will live the life you have been given, the ultimate gift, the ultimate grace.

Last Monday was meant to be the most miserable day of the year, Blue Monday. I didn’t feel that myself. Yes there was pain and suffering present in my life and certainly in those around me. I have been with many people experiencing the most difficult kinds of suffering. There is much pain in those I hold dearly to my heart too. I also relive my own grief and suffering when I am with others going through the same pain. Whenever I walk into a hospital ward I do relive those times I have gone to be those I love the most those whose lives are coming to end or have already ended. That pain is the price I pay for daring to love, a pearl of the greatest price. It is the refusal to close myself to this pain that allows me to do the things I am here to do. It gives me meaning even in the most painful suffering.

“Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever” So does love. Something beautiful remains. I’ve been thinking all week about the legacy of Dr King and his view of religion of the creation of the beloved community. He knew intense suffering but never lost faith in the power of love to always overcome. He spoke about building the kingdom now. This is faith that I can believe in and it’s something I and all of us can be responsible for. We cannot escape the suffering in life. We cannot cling to anything even those things and those people we love the most. The generations come and the generations go, just as the seasons do also. That said we can plant seeds of love right here right now. We can walk side by side with one another, we can hold each other and bear witness to one another’s tears. We can also laugh and dance and make merry even in the midst of real suffering too. We can live our lives fully regardless of how many seasons we have left. And when the time comes we can let go of our lives with dignity and grace.

Remembering always that while our individual lives come and go, just like the seasons, both the earth and love abides forever.

I'm going to end this "blogspot" with the following inspired by a verse I have reapeted from Ecclesiastes 1 vv 4 “Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever”

“The Earth Abides Forever” by Richard S Gilbert

The seasons come and the seasons go,
But the earth abides forever.
The cold-whetted wind blew autumn from my mind,
The white snow whipped across my landscape
And reminded me of the changing seasons.

Another transition, paying no attention to the calendars,
Simply doing what it had to do to follow Nature’s law.
The seasons are capricious here;
They come and go without warning;
They flaunt our human artifacts and devices;
They remind us of our finitude
And call to mind our dependence.

There is a strange beauty in their passing,
Something mysterious in the subtle or not so subtle
Changing of the guard.
The seasons seem indifferent to us
Who, after all, are in charge here, aren’t we?
They act as if they do not need our permission to be or not to be.

It is a humbling reminder of irresistible forces
Meeting immovable objects
With inexorable persistence.
And we, with our little lives, tossed into his playground of Nature,
Strutting importantly about our business,
Try to learn to play our small part within the larger drama
In which we find ourselves.
The seasons come and the seasons go.
So do we
But the earth abides forever..

Sunday 14 January 2018

Guilt and shame are not the same

I recently came accross the following by Richard Gilbert...It oh so got to the heart of me...

“To Savor the World or Save It” By Richard S. Gilbert

“It’s hard to know when to respond to the seductiveness of the world and when to respond to its challenge. If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
—E.B. White

I rise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world or to savor it—to serve life or to enjoy it;
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden.
What am I to do when the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?
To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes to the sight of the afflicted.
What is that you say?
To save, one must serve?
To savor, one must save?

The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me—in my preoccupation with myself,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.
Forgive me, God of justice,
Forgive me, and make me whole.

,,,Beautiful and powerful don't you think...

I have often said how much I dislike the phrase “there are two types of people in the world.” and usually respond that there is only one type of person. Now I’ve recently been questioning my conclusion. I have noticed that in one area of life there may well be two types of people… Those who arrive early for things and those who are always late.

Which one are you?

...I am of course not being serious here, there is ony one type of person in this world, we are one human family...

I hate being late. Now some might say that this is a good quality, that I am being considerate. To some degree this is true, but not entirely. The truth is I don’t like creating unnecessary anxiety, also I want to avoid criticism at all costs.

I live an extremely busy life, so I do my utmost to always give myself time to get to things and not to have to rush around at the last minute. I admit that to some degree this is fear based. I just don’t like that look from others when I am late and I will do many things to ensure I am not so.

Now there was a lovely little example of this on Monday afternoon at the gym. I had arrived in plenty of time for my session with Chris my personal trainer. I’d done my half an hour of cardiovascular and then had a few minutes to relax and stretch before my session began. I was about to begin stretching when I saw a friend and went over to say hello and got into a conversation. The conversation went on and Chris skipped along. I saw him and thought it is two o’clock, I’ve got to end this conversation, I don’t want to be late. I managed to bring the conversation to an end, which I felt some guilt in doing and went over to Chris to begin my session. I apologised for being a couple of minutes late. He smiled and said “oh don’t worry I’m always rushing not to be late. I always feel a little guilt when I see you waiting here for me every time, I’m always on the last minute and you are always early.” I smiled and said “Oh I hate being late”. I then said “I often make that impression on people, they feel guilty around me, it’s one of the perils of the job.” I smiled about it for most of the day.

That said anyone who really knows me should never feel guilty around me, I am as human as the next person. I’m as perfectly imperfect as everyone else.

Guilt in an interesting feeling. It can be positive, as a barometer to keep one aiming for our highest ideals, which everyone falls short of. That said there are other forms of guilt that are very negative and unhelpful. Such feelings come from a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with our human being, it comes from a sense of shame. This is unhealthy and unhelpful, for no matter how well you do or what you do you will always feel bad about your very human being, if you live with a sense of shame.

As I look at my own guilt I can see that I have suffered from both types. For most of my life it was shame based and I know that it led me to doing more harm than I ever intended to as it stopped me doing the things I needed to do. These days most of my guilt is a guiding barometer, but not all of it, I do acknowledge that some of that fear of being late is based on a need of others to see mr as being good enough.

This is not necessarily a bad thing by the way. It keeps me grounded. For it reminds me I am no better than anyone else. It has certainly saved me from becoming sanctimonious. Not a good quality, especially in a minister.

Guilt is a common feeling for most ministers. We rarely feel that we are doing a good enough job, we wish we could do more. I have never been busier than I have been these last few weeks and yet I’ve felt I’ve not done enough. Crazy I know, but true. Now is that coming from healthy and unhealthy guilt? Probably a mixture of the two.

I have felt these feelings often when being around those suffering and their loved ones. I feel it around family and friends too, particularly old friends. I wish I had more time for them. I feel it too sometimes when in a joyful state, when I feel so much joy at simply being alive. When I see others suffering and struggling, there is a part of me that feels bad. I also experience some survivor’s guilt too, with my fellows in recovery and when I think of friends and loved ones that have died far too soon. I then feel a little bad for feeling guilty about feeling joyful.

It is crazy isn’t it, but oh so very human. I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. It does suggest I’m not some kind of psychopath, which I am pleased about. No I’m a human being who experiences the same emotions and feelings as everyone else. Thank God.

Guilt comes in many forms, helpful and unhelpful. To feel remorseful after saying or doing the wrong thing, is healthy. It compels us to do what we can to put things right. That said if this feeling lingers even after putting right what was wrong, if we dwell and beat ourselves up for unskilful action or word, then this form of guilt is coming from another place, from this sense that fundamentally there is something wrong with us.

I suspect that the key is where the guilt comes from. Does it come as a result of our actions, thoughts and or words or is it a feeling that comes from some other place and almost dictates our thoughts, feelings, words and actions and regardless of these things we just feel bad.

Where does this feeling of being wrong come from? Why does it control so many of our lives?

Now in our culture some put it down to our Judea Christian heritage, the core of our culture, even in these secular times. Often folks who grew up in deeply religious homes will argue about who feels the most guilt. Now although the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to be seeped in guilt, I understand that the guilt that the Bible speaks of is guilt as it is commonly understood, this sense of guilt. As Mark Belletini points out in “Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Colours of Grief”

“…I confess to being surprised that the word guilt itself, as in the feeling of guilt, is not found any place in either the Jewish or the Christian testaments. Not once. The few times the English word can be found in more antique translations, it refers only to the kind of “guilty” that courts speak about, which is not a feeling so much as a legal category.

I am convinced that families of origin, cultural and ethnic patterns, and categorical realities play a far greater role in how much guilt we feel than does religion. I certainly have known folks raised without religion of any kind – including the “shopping mall spirituality” created by cultus consumerism – who have struggled with guilt as much as anyone raised in a particular denomination of religion, Western or Eastern.”

The feelings of guilt coms from a place within us. When it is in appropriate proportion it is a good thing. It connects us to one another and to life, it keeps us humble and therefore human and saves us from the dangers of destructive hubris. Such guilt is a function of conscience. This is key to my understanding of my faith as a Unitarian, this concept of living revelation that is an aspect of my humanity, if I can tap into it and allow it to lead me. When I do I see this same spark in others too. You see in opening myself to the divine spark within me I open myself to that same spark in everyone and everything. This is key to my understanding of religion, my attempts to live my life in the company of others and through which I attempt to shape an ideal that I strive for, but suspect I will never attain. I always fall short of this ideal, in this sense I sin (from sinare which meant to fall short of the mark). This though is not original sin, it is actually more original blessing. I feel guilt, appropriate guilt, because I fall short of the mark, although I do at times feel shame too, in doing so I deny my true nature. I also occasionally fall short in shaming others too, something I strive not to do. I sometimes fail to recognise the divinity in my brothers and sisters, but hey these short comings save me from becoming too pious and separating myself from these very same brothers and sisters.

Now Shame is something else. Shame is destructive and it keeps us separate from ourselves and one another. Shame is not formed from our actions or inactions, but from some other place in our being. It’s that place that people have tapped into throughout human history. Yes religion has used this, the classic example being the concept of Original Sin, but then so has the secular world. Advertising is the classic example it’s how they sell lifestyles to us and it’s how they get so many of us to feel we have to change who we just to be acceptable. How many people suffer from a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with them? I know it’s crippled me over the years. Thankfully it does so less and less as I grow faithfully.

When I look myself in the eye these days what I see is a man who gets things wrong from time to time and I feel appropriate guilt for this. This enables me to act in the world positively. Yes I wish I could do more, but hey I am only human. I feel less shame about my being, but I must confess that I am not completely free of this. There is a part of me that is ok with this. Why? Well because it keeps me grounded, for I know that every single one of us is still living with these feelings.

When you look at yourself in the eye, what do you see? Do you a decent person who makes mistakes? Or do you see someone who is fundamentally wrong to the core.

It matters you know, it really does. For it will affect how you interact with the world and how the world interacts with you.

I’m going to end this "chip" of a "blogspot" with a bit of Mary Oliver, her classic poem “Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

You might also find this lovely bit iof wisdom from Brene Brown helpful

Sunday 7 January 2018

Give Yourself Away

...This little "blogspot" begins with this beautiful piece of wisdom...

Parker J Palmer Reflecting of “Sabbath’s” by Wendell Berry taken from “On Being”

One of my favourite poets is Wendell Berry the following is often seen as a poem about death and dying but really it is about generosity the most living giving of all virtues. “Sabbaths” by Wendell Berry

Sabbaths – 1993, I

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And you have become a sort of tree
standing over a grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

Generosity does not require material abundance. When I think back on the many people who have been so generous toward me, I never think of money or “things.” Instead, I think of the way they gave me their presence, their confidence, their affirmation, support, and blessing — all gifts of “self” that any of us can give.

And where does generosity come from? Perhaps from another life-giving virtue, the one called gratitude. When I take the time to breathe in my life and breathe out my gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given, only one question arises: “How can I keep these gifts alive?”

I know only one answer: “Become a giver yourself, pass your gifts along, and do it extravagantly!” As Wendell Berry “Every day you have less reason/not to give yourself away.”

...I do love Parker J Palmer, he speaks to the soul of me. I love the way he brings Wendell Berry's words to life...

When I awoke on Monday morning, the start of not only a new week, but also a new year, I should have been tired. By rights I should have been utterly exhausted, I certainly expected be so.

Now don’t get me wrong I didn’t leap out of bed, I simply rose into the day. That said I felt so alive. Why was this? By rights I should have been exhausted. I had certainly felt that way for a few days leading up to the New Year. I don’t think I’ve been busier than I have been this last month, so many demands, that I have mainly fulfilled and cheerfully. I’ve got a busy few weeks ahead, this week has been very full too.

Last Sunday began early at about 6.30am and it didn’t end until gone 2am, early New Year’s morning. I had led worship at both of the congregations I serve in the morning as well as other pastoral duties and then hosted a New Years Social and Watch Night service. It’s been full on for weeks, I’ve been giving myself away and its felt like I’ve been running on empty. So by rights, by all reason I ought to have awoken on Monday morning, have begun the New Year, exhausted and utterly empty. 

Several people had said to me these last few weeks, “Don’t give too much of yourself away.” I was thinking about this last Saturday evening as I felt utterly exhausted and knew that the next day was going to be a challenge. I would be spending the best part of 24 hours holding the space for others. I wondered, would I be up to it. I spent time in prayer and meditation, preparing myself, emptying my mind and filling my heart.

I’ve heard this phrase a lot over the years “Don’t give yourself away.” I question it, I'm not convinced it is helpful, if anything all it does is restrict life, reduce experience and keeps one lonely and isolated. I think the reason I felt so alive on News Years morning is that I had indeed been giving myself away and I’d been sharing in the company of so many other people who had also been giving themselves away. People simply coming together in love, with hearts burst open. On Monday morning my head felt completely clear and at peace, my heart was burst to overflowing and the soul of me had never felt more alive. I had spent so much time in intimate, spiritual community. I was experiencing, what I call true, free and loving religion. Religion as it is meant to be.

I’ve been thinking of Wendell Berry’s poem “Sabbath’s and Parker J Palmer's reflection on it, these last few days. I had shared it during the “Watch Night” service I had led. Like Palmer highlights it is the poem's ending that really gets into the heart of me and I know it got to others too, during the service. “Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

I have learnt that if you truly want to know yourself, this is how you do it. This is how you will find yourself, how to know love, how your very being gets transformed and you become who you truly are, by giving yourself away. By pouring your heart out, you fill it with love and your mind and spirit know peace. This is the purpose of the religious life of living in true intimate spiritual community. You cannot experience this if you practise your spirituality in isolation. This is what I have experienced even more deeply this last month.

Religion gets a very bad name these days and rightly so, as for too long it has been about control and dogma, but that is not really its purpose, not in it truest sense. I think the core of religion is self transcendence, t is about giving yourself away and in so doing you actually not only find yourself, but become who you truly are.

This brings to mind a favourite quotation on the purpose of true religion, by Karen Armstrong:

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.” When we dare to move beyond the known patterns and perceptions of our lives, letting the alchemy of love, listening and justice do its work, then we will be more than changed. The base metals of our lives will be transformed into something precious and flourishing. This is the purpose of religion, and the meaning of a religious life: to be transformed."

These thoughts about the true nature of religious living were passing through my being as I reflected on the recent weeks of my life and the people I have shared this time with. I see so many gorgeous examples of this transformation in them. Just beautiful!

Again as Wendell Berry wrote “Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

This is about living generously. My word I have witnessed this a lot this in the ordinary people I share my life with. I’m not talking about on the big global scale, I’m talking about the communities that intersect my life. When I look at the big picture, on the news screens, what I see is selfishness and greed and yet when I look at the people around me, what I witness is people being generous, people giving themselves away. It fills my heart. By the way I'm not saying that this is all that is there, no just what is reported. They only tell us about the bad news, so rarely do we hear good news. Look around you, it is there.

As Parker J Palmer has pointed out generosity does not require material abundance. When I look at the people I have been around in recent weeks, what I have witnessed is generosity of spirit, generosity of time and generosity of heart. I’ve witnessed it every time I’ve been visiting in hospital as I have looked at the people all around me. I have witnessed people giving their time, their support, their open hearted presence, their hope even in the suffering of their loved ones. These are our gifts of the self. This is how we bring that divine love alive. This is the alchemy that transforms life. This is the heart of true religion. This is gratitude in action, this is living with gratitude, this is abundance, extravagance, this is God incarnating in out ordinary human lives.

Sadly too often we are afraid to do this. In fact we are told over and over again “Don’t give yourself away.”


What are we so afraid?

No! Times is passing by, it is short “Everyday day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

It’s that simply really and yet at times it seems so complicated. This is the transformative nature of the religious life. It comes alive, as we come alive when we give ourselves away.

Another poem I’ve been thinking of a lot these last few days is “Accepting this “ by Mark Nepo

Yes, it is true. I confess,
I have thought great thoughts,
and sung great songs—all of it
rehearsal for the majesty
of being held.

The dream is awakened
when thinking I love you
and life begins
when saying I love you
and joy moves like blood
when embracing others with love.

My efforts now turn
from trying to outrun suffering
to accepting love wherever
I can find it.

Stripped of causes and plans
and things to strive for,
I have discovered everything
I could need or ask for
is right here—
in flawed abundance.

We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.

We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.

We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
of compassion.

we are small living things

awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.

Like human fish,
we’re asked to experience
meaning in the life that moves
through the gill of our heart.

There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
Accepting this,
we can do everything
and go anywhere.

So many beautiful paradoxes in this poem that speak to me of what it means to live spiritually alive and in the company of others. I have witnessed and experienced so much of what it speaks of these last few weeks and it has filled my heart and humbled me. I have bared witness to how the spirit only comes alive in relation. That’s what the spiritual life is actually about you know, relationships. You cannot be a spiritual being, a living one at least in isolation. It only occurs truly in community, as messy as that can be. In so doing we may not transform the world, but we certainly transform ourselves, in that very relationship and this may just one day transform our shared world. I live in and through hope.

I’m going to end this little chip pof a "blogspot" with a confession. I hope you can forgive me. Life is an utter mystery to me. It just doesn’t make sense. I know my own life doesn’t. I don’t understand any of it, I just can’t make sense of it. Last Monday morning this didn't seem to bother me. My head was completely empty and my heart was full and I felt this incredible sense of belonging and well-being and pure love. I felt powerfully the presence of God and every person I looked at that day seemed to me to be made in that image. I felt this new sense of wanting to be a aprt of the love of this world, to be in relationship with it all.

If I know nothing else I know that every day I have less reason not to give myself away.

Maybe that is all I really need to know, maybe all I have to do is keep on remembering this and keep on giving myself away. The next time I forget, please remind me.