Sunday 18 March 2018

All is Well: Belum, Not Quite Yet?

I am afraid of nearly everything:
of darkness, hunger, war, children mutilated.
But most of all, I am afraid of what I might become:
reconciled to injustice,
resigned to fear and despair,
lulled into a life of apathy.

Unchain my hope,
make me strong.
Stretch me towards the impossible,
that I may work for what ought to be:
the hungry fed,
the enslaved free,
the suffering comforted,
the peace accomplished.

So may it be. Amen.

Words by that famous author “Anonymous”. It goes by the title “A Prayer for Hope.”

A prayer not asking, not petitioning for change to be done for us in some future dream like state, but a prayer asking for the person praying to change. If there is one thing I have learnt through prayer, and I pray a lot. is that prayer doesn’t necessarily change things, prayer changes people and people change things. Prayer is not an abdication of responsibility but an acceptance of responsibility in this life, right now. I know that prayer helps to plant those seeds of Hope deep within me to create within me the sense that all is well, not perfect, but well…You might find this hard to believe, but I do believe that all is well…

Theae last few weeks, as part of our annual Lent Breakfast series, the Churches Together in Urmston have been exploring the theme “Hope Now”, not some dreamed of Hope in the future but “Hope, right here, right now”. It’s been a fascinating few weeks. I took my turn to lead and enjoyed sharing in a fruitful conversation. It was wonderful to hear the different versions of people you would find everywhere in the world, the pessimists and the optimist, the cynics and the idealists, the ones who view humanity as basically fallen, but capable of ok things and those who see humanity as basically good, but who fall short from time to time and of course those who see life as suffering with occasional glimpses of heaven and those who see life as a blessing, a gift, in which suffering occurs. How do you see these things? It matters you know, it really does.

Now Hope, certainly for the future, is an easily criticised concept as it sounds like an abdication of responsibility. Hope for me though is not about that at all. Hope, as I experience it, is a way of being. We live in Hope, I would say that we live through and by hope or we don’t. It is not the same as optimism and it is not living in the expectation of something perfect beyond this life, or at least it isn’t for me. It’s actually a quality of our broken and vulnerable hearts. Hope is something that we give birth to, a quality we nurture and allow to grow through our vulnerable human being.

As Vaclav Havel wrote:

“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”

So often, from the most grotesque ruins of life, the most beautiful things have grown. I have been thinking of this a lot, as I have observed hope in action and cries of never again come from thousands of young people across the Atlantic following another dreadful school mass killing. Now the cynics have cried there is no point, we’ve tried this before the gun lobby will always win out, but the young people have said “no”! “We can change things”! And they have seemingly set something in motion. It has inspired me I can assure you. I’ve been deeply touched as I have bared witness to this in recent weeks.

It brought to mind the following little gem of wisdom I shared at last week’s Lent Breakfast. It is taken from “Dwellings. A Spiritual History of the Living World” by Linda Hogan,

"Seed. There are so many beginnings. In Japan, I recall, there were wildflowers that grew in the far, cool region of mountains. The bricks of Hiroshima, down below, were formed of clay from these mountains, and so the walls of houses and shops held the dormant trumpet flower seeds. But after one group of humans killed another with the explosive power of life’s smallest elements split wide apart, the mountain flowers began to grow. Out of destruction and bomb heat and the falling of walls, the seeds opened up and grew. What a horrible beauty, the world going its own way, growing without us. But perhaps this, too, speaks of survival, of hope beyond our time."

Yes there may be Hope beyond our time, but the seed must be planted now. The Hope has to be there growing in our hearts and souls or we won’t plant those seeds. It does not mean there is not horror and destruction in our lives now, but nor does that horror in the present moment stop us seeing that there is goodness in our time and place.

We need to live in and through hope, we need to be hope, we need to say yes to life. Just because there are problems and suffering in life it does not mean we should turn away from life and lose all hope, make despair the orientation of our heart. What kills us is cynicism, giving up on the possibility of what we can make things in life.

This brings to life a quotation from Stephen Colbert a rather wonderful late night American television host, who suffers great despair at the state of his country at times, but lives in and through Hope, it is an orientation of his heart and spirit. He said:

“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say "no". But saying "yes" begins things. Saying "yes" is how things grow. Saying "yes" leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say "yes".”

So I say yes to life, to possibility, to the Hope in my heart. That Hope though is now, that hope is present, not some other place somewhere over the rainbow. So I keep on planting seeds, despite those who tell me there is no point. For hope is, as Elizabeth Barrette says in “Origami Emotion”

“Origami Emotion” by Elizabeth Barrette

Hope is
Folding paper cranes
Even when your hands get cramped
And your eyes tired,
Working past blisters and paper cuts,
Simply because something in you
Insists on
Opening its wings.

Life is not perfect, there is suffering in all parts of life, but it is not life itself. We do not live in a state of despair, well at least not yet.

This brings to mind a winderful little piece of wisdom titled "Belum" by Robeert Fulghum

“Belum” by Robert Fulghum

"Americans, it is observed, prefer definite answers. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Yes or no. No grays, please.

In Indonesia, there is a word in common use that nicely wires around the need for black and white. Belum is the word and it means ‘not quite yet.’ A lovely word implying continuing possibility. “Do you speak English?”

“Belum.” Not quite yet. “Do you have any children?” “Belum.” Do you know the meaning of life?” “Belum.”

It is considered both impolite and cynical to say, “No!” outright. This leads to some funny moments. “Is the house on fire?” “Belum.” Not quite yet.

It’s an attitude kin to that old vaudeville joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I never tried.”

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Not yes or no, but squarely within the realm of what might be. Soft edges are welcome in this great bus ride of human adventure.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

I love this concept of "Belum" of  uncertainty, but a faithful uncertainty, that nothing is ever fully sealed, not yet at least. However hopeless things may feel at the present moment it does not mean that all is despair. Look around you, look into your own heart. There is love and goodness present both within you and in life. There are those around you that can bring inspiration to your being, who have the courage to say yes to life, that have hope lightening and inspiring their hearts.

All is well. Yes it doesn’t always feel like it, but it is. For an awful long time I used to say “all will be well”, don’t lose faith in life. In recent weeks I have changed my mind. Well actually my heart and soul have changed my mind. Minds are made for changing by the way. We should never, ever be ruled by our minds. I no longer believe that “all will be well”, to quote Julian of Norwich. Why you may well ask? Well because it sounds like an abdication and abandonment of this life. Such belief is of no use to me, is disrespectful as it rejects what I’m experiencing right here right now. It’s also a rejection of reality.

My truth, as I type these words right here , right now, is that all is well. Life is rich in meaning. It is not devoid of suffering and trouble, but it is well. There is love, there is goodness and it is my task, I believe, to share that with those all around me. It is the orientation of my heart and soul. It is Hope.

Living this way is not about perfection, it is not about completeness it is about planting seeds from our hearts and souls and living in the Belum, the not quite yets of life. To repeat those words of Robert Fulghum

“Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

So what are you going to do? Are you going to try, give it a go, plant those seeds in your heart and souls right here right now in this new spring or be cynical and claim the wisdom of fear and say we’ve tried this before it won’t work, what’s the point? People will never change. There is no Hope. Or are you going to join with me and believe in your heart that all is well, not perfect, but well. That there is goodness in the world and goodness in my heart and that this goodness can once again grow in the world if I would just let the courage work through me and rise once again.

It’s up to us right here right now. Hope is not something we passively dream of in the future, something beyond this life. It has to be born here right now, an orientation of our heart and souls or not at all.

All is well, have the courage to allow the seeds of Hope to form in your hearts and souls, let it become the orientation of your very being. Let’s not give up on our belief in love and life, well at least not quite yet, Belum.

Sunday 4 March 2018

Know yourself, know that you are mortal

Last year I was invited to Parliament to speak at a forum on obesity, specifically to talk about men’s health. It was an incredible honour. As you can imagine security was tight. It was actually the week before the horrific terror attack that took place there. I will neer forget the sickening scenes that took place just seven days later, the terrible loss of innocent lives.

As I entered parliament I had to pass through metal detectors and thus had to empty the coins in my pocket out onto a tray for unspection. One of those coins was a sobriety chip. The security officer seemed very interested in what it was and asked me about it. I explained what it was for a few moments and then turned the coin over. On the back it read “To Thine Own Self Be True”, which I read out to her. she looked at me rather oddly and then dismissed me. I moved on into the day, speaking from my heart of my own expereinces in the hope to help others. It was a good day.

Being true to yourself, living with honesty, authenticity and integrity is key to recovery and I would say it is the key to living with virtue in this world.

The ancient Greeks believed that the ultimate aim for a person of virtue was to know themselves. There were many aphorism on this theme such as “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The key for the ancient Greeks was to know yourself. Now “Know thyself” has been understood in many ways but ultimately to know oneself is to know that you are mortal and live in such a way, fully a part of mortal life. They constantly guarded against the dangers of hubris, the idea that human beings were God’s. Yes we are made in the image of the Divine but we are not God’s and it is vital that we recognise our finite mortality. In many ways this is the beauty and the energy of our lives, the fact that they do not last for ever.

Know yourself, know that you are mortal. That is what it means to be truly human. The word human is etymologically linked to humility. We are not god’s we are finite, we are mortal. We cannot live wholly from ourselves, no one is totally self-reliant, self sufficient and we do not live for ever. To truly know yourself is to accept the finite nature of your humanity. This is a stepping stone to discovering yourself and your unique place in the circle of life.

The fact that we are mortal is not to say that we do not matter, quite the opposite actually. Our lives matter, how we live matters. We impact on the whole of creation and we impact on the lives around us. Just as all that has existed before impacts on who we are today, including our ancestors. No one person lives a life separate from those around them and the history that they come from. Our lives are not singular cellular ones. The whole history of life has brought us to the point we are at today and who we are is made up of from that.

This is beautifully illustrated By Thich Nhat Hahn, who wrote in “Present moment, wonderful moment”

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

All that has been before is a part of who we are. We are not separate selves, to know ourselves is to know what made us who we are. To know who we are we need to know those who we are surrounded by, who help make us who we are and all those who existed before we did. How do we begin to know ourselves? By knowing the lives we are surrounded by. No one is an island. Then we begin to understand who we are and we can begin to know ourselves.

The book of Genesis describes humanity being made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. Now what on earth could this mean? Well image, from the Latin “imago” means reflection or portrait it does not mean exactly the same. I believe it is suggesting that each of us has something of Divine within us, that we are a reflection of the divine and that this brings a duty to humanity to reflect this image into the world in which we live. This is a real responsibility, to reflect the divine love into life, to incarnate it to bring it to life.

I believe that most of our human problems stem from our rejection of this, from our inability to see that we are children of love, formed from love. That this Divine spark is an aspect of our very human being. I know when I look back at my darkest days it is this that frightened me the most and so I rejected it. I know that I am not unique in this thinking about myself. Marianne Williamson beautifully illustrated this when she wrote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God?”

So who do you think you are? Oh and who do you think that everyone else is?

I believe that we are all formed from that same love, from that same image, every single one of us.

Now this puts a great responsibility on us as human beings, to make our lives matter in the short time that we have here on earth. What will our epitaphs read?

From time to time I am asked to conduct funerals for people who are not members of the congregations. Often they have had some connection in the past or are looking for something spiritual in nature but not too religious. Last year the family asked for the following poem to be included in the service.

The Dash – Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the the end.
He noted that first came her date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears, 1964-1994
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth..
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own;
The cars..the house..the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you”d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what”s true and real,
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we”ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile..
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy”s being read
With your life”s actions to rehash..
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?

Know yourself, know that you are mortal, but also know that how you live your mortal life really matters. It impacts on all that you meet and come into contact with. Each and every life matters, each is unique and each is vital and each has something to offer to the world.

You see we are all a part of this body that is life. Everything that we say and everything that we do matters, just as everything we do not say and everything that we do not do matters. This is why it matters how we see ourselves and one another, who we think we are and who we think one another is, for this will impact on how we live in the world.

To know yourself is to know that you are mortal. I believe that because of this, not despite it, it really matters how we live our lives, how we spend our dash.

We need to pay attention to who we think we are and therefore who we think others are. For if we see that we are formed in the image of divine love we will see that we have responsibility to this life that we lead and the history that we are a part of. If we do we can become champions of this life, we can become co-creators of the Love that is Divine.

By the way it’s never too late. Actually I suspect that it’s probably only later in life that we finally get to know ourselves. I’d like to share with you the following poem by “Now I become myself” by May Sarton

“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"Hurry, you will be dead before—"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

To know thyself, to be who we truly are, who we were born to be, is no easy task. Sarton wrote this poem when she was 83 years old. It would seem that it took her a long time to truly know herself and become who she really was, something she wrote of in her memoirs and journals. I commend them to you, they are worthy of exploration.

It is no easy task to be who we truly are, to live openly, to live whole and holy lives. To “find our path of authentic service in the world.” You see we learn by following others from the day we are born. We learn to be like those others we are surrounded by, who made us who we are, rather than becoming who we truly are. It takes a long time to let go of the stabilisers of others and become wholly ourselves. For May Sarton it only really began after the death of her parents during middle age, actually about the age I am now.

Forrest Church had similar experiences it was only when he stopped living in his father’s shadow that he found the courage to truly become himself and give his true mortal gift to life. As he said:

"I found my calling. I answered a call that was mine, and not someone else’s." And went 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."

The key he said of course was to always “be who you are.”

This is the key of course. This is what it means to live holy lives. This is how we become a holy, an authentic presence in the world. This is how we serve the world by our presence and you know what it is never too later. This is how we fill in that dash and truly live our mortal lives. It can begin right here right now. May Sarton was 83 years old when she wrote “Now I become myself”. Maybe, we only truly become our true selves at the end of our physical being. That said we need to begin some where and the only place to begin is right here right now. Right here, right now is the only place we can not only know ourselves, but truly be ourselves, to not only know that we are mortal, but to truly live our mortal lives and give our unique gift to the life.

Let us make it so.