Sunday 29 April 2018

Prepare for Surprise

"The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!"

Robbie Burns

No matter how careful we plan and scheme life never works out exactly as we would like. Life is full of surprises, some amazing, some terrible. Life is awry and usually or do I mean unusually incredible. Brother David Steindt Rast said "Another name for God is surprise." Ah yes the God of surprises, isn’t this the true nature of life? Surprise. It fills me with awe.

I’ve been thinking about surprise quite a lot these last few days. I’ve also been thinking about how we respond to life. How the things that happen to us can shape our lives in incredible ways. How many times in life have we received that phone call that has changed our lives forever?

I received one such phone call just a few weeks back when my sister called me, broken, to inform me that our step brother Daniel had taken his own life. A moment of numbing shock, not merely surprise. At our Daniel’s funeral I talked with many people. One conversation in particular stood out. It was with an old friend. Someone I have known for almost forty years. During the conversation he asked me about the work I do. He informed me that he calls himself a “born again atheist”. He talked about church parade etc when we were cub scouts and his early encounters with religion. He then began to talk about his family. Of him nursing his father while he was dying and then of the death of his son in a car accident. He spoke of his step children and his mother. Of his physical difficulties and the amount of opiate based painkillers he has to take each day. We spoke of old friends too and times gone and then he wished me well in my ministry. There was a lot of love, but also pain and loss in the conversation. It was a day filled with conversations about love and loss, but then that is the nature of grief.

Over the last week I’ve been thinking of similar moments in my life, when I have received devastating news about those I love and how I have responded to these moments. There were times when I turned away from life in despair, something that happens rarely these days; these days I usually turn towards the Divine and back towards life. This may seem strange to some, but it is actually in the hardest and darkest times that I experience the Divine most intensely, when I truly feel that God is with us. The God of my limited understanding is not the controller of life, instead I find God with me in suffering, but also Joy. I find the Divine at the heart of experience. Now I cannot adequately explain this, I can only share my experience and to stand here in awe.

This still surprises me…

We live in an almost death denying age. I think I understand why. I have known such temptations. That said by denying such realities we do not transcend the suffering that loss brings all we really do is block ourselves off from the joy that comes with truly living. In so doing we also deny the love and depth of meaning that comes with living, with truly being alive. Life, love and death is meant to fill us will awe. For life is truly awful, it is meant to fill us with awe. We are meant to be filled with awe in the old meaning of the word.

Now while we live in a world that wants to sanitise suffering we see ever more violence on our screens that we spend so much of our time staring into. Our entertainment seems to be ever more violent, punctuated by advertising. How many times I have sat of an evening recently, with Sue, looking for something to watch on Netflix and struggling to find anything worth watching. So much of what passes for entertainment is just full of murder, intrigue and violence. They are so predictable too. I have noticed that virtually every film I’ve watched recently has been so predictable that I have worked out the plot twists in the first 10 minutes. Gosh how I wish for a surprise. When we sanitise death, we sanitise life and it almost becomes unreal. So much so that it no longer touches. Life is meant to touch us deeply. Life is meant to surprise us constantly to fill us with awe.

Yet so often we don’t want this. We want to know what’s coming, so we can prepare ourselves. What was the phrase that the character played by John Cleese in the film “Clockwise” cried out “It’s not the despair, I can live with the despair, it’s the hope” that destroys you. It seems if he could have just given in it would have been easier, but hope kept on rearing its head.

A friend recently sent the following story to me, told by Roger Housden in “Ten Poems to Change Your Life”

"There is a Jewish story saying that when you are about to be born, God takes you to a field covered with bundles. Each bundle represents a particular set of troubles. You can choose any bundle, but the one you choose you have to take to Earth with you. The rabbis say that if, at the moment of death, God were to take you back to that field and let you choose another bundle with which to relive your life, you would always pick the same one.”

By the way it is no doubt we would do the same with our bundles of joy. When I think of all the things we fear in life, it is surprise that we fear the most. We like to know waht's coming, even if it's abundle of troubles. It seems that it is surprise that we fer the most.

We spend so much of our times finding ways to avoid the suffering and pain that are part of life. It seems we can only really bare to look at these things through our screens and devices. This seems to me to be going against the nature of life as it is meant to be. Life is full of surprises, they move us and change us. I have been surprised by many things over the last week. Before Daniel’s funeral I was apprehensive about what might occur. I was worried about what might happen, by how people might be with each other. Yet when the day came I was pleasantly surprised. I was more than that I was deeply moved by the expressions of love and healing shared by so many. I bore witness to almost miracles actually. I’ve bore witness to a few others in the last few days too. I have noticed and absorbed several things. I have been awed by the people and events I am surrounded by.

I have found myself trembling in awe. I have never felt more alive.

Awe is perhaps the ultimate form of surprise. When we are stirred by awe it is so unfathomable, vast and complex that we can’t quite believe it. Like all forms of surprise awe makes us stop, it awakens something within us and it shifts our perspectives. It changes us and makes us want to share our experiences with others. Sadly these days so many of us want to freeze the moment, take out phones and take a picture of it. We cannot capture moments. All we can do is open ourselves to the vastness of life. The most dangerous thing to life is the ability to predict what is coming as it will stop you living life. It will freeze us completely in the moment.

We cannot predict the future. None of us know what is coming. If we could we would probably do all we could to avoid it and thus commit the ultimate sin, to live an unlived life. All we can do is open ourselves to the God of surprises and be filled by the awe of life. Life should fill you with awe, it truly is awe filled, it is literally awful.

Life is meant to be awry, we are meant to be surprised by it. We cannot prepare ourselves for life. All we can actually prepare ourselves for is the fact that we are always going to be surprised, and awed by life…The only way to do this is to be open and to remain open and when we begin to close down, open ourselves again…To live our lives fully alive is to find ourselves constantly trembling in awe at the amazement of life...Life is the ultimate miracle if you think about. Isn't it amazing that we live at all. It should always stir us, move us and ultimately surprise is.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with a wonderful, perhaps awful (it certainly fills me with awe) quotation by the great twentieth century Jewish mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a contemporary of the great twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was one of his closest friends. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, they were great friends in the civil rights movement. When he introduced King as the keynote speaker to the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis sang “We Shall Overcome” to him in Hebrew, the language of the biblical prophets who both King and Heschel came to embody for that generation. Dr King was meant to share the Passover Seder dinner with the Heschel family, but was murdered just two weeks after giving that speech, 50 years ago almost to the day.

To truly live our lives we must be stirred by awe and wonder every day. I suspect that Heschel believed in the God of surprises and that the Divine is with us in our suffering and that we bring that love alive when we stand with others in theirs.

He said:

“I would say about individuals: an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. What keeps me alive — spiritually, emotionally, intellectually — is my ability to be surprised. I say, I take nothing for granted. I am surprised every morning that I see the sun shine again. When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

So let’s attempt to become more maladjusted to life, to live in constant surprise and to stand side by side with one another in total awe.

Let's sing of the total amazement that we are alive. A song of praise, the only true prayer of life.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Four funerals and one wedding: Circles of Inclusion

“Widening Circles” by Rainer Maria Rilke translation by Joanna Macy and Anita

Barrows from “Book of Hours, I 2”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

I want to share with a story about four funerals and one wedding, kind of the opposite of the classic British film, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Actually it’s a story of three funerals, one wedding, a memorial service and a few other things, but that just doesn’t sound as snapping as “Four Funerals and a Wedding.” It’s a story about overlapping circles and the many ways that people, families and communities overlap and interact and how all of us belong to one another and to life in so many ways. Nothing is simple, nothing is black and white, all life is a rich tapestry, a rainbow, we all move in ever widening and overlapping circles. We are all one humanity and one human family, born on one earth, under one sky, with one spirit running through it all and yet we create division and so often see others as somehow different.

The story begins at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston, at Betty Hydes funeral. A beautiful and moving occasion for a much loved member of the Queens Road family. Betty had joined the Queens Road circle when she had married John Hydes who had been a part of Queens Road for more than fifty years. Both John and Betty were widowed and had come together and brought two families into widening circles.

Following the funeral I returned home to be with my hurting complicated family. I was going to be with those I love as my step brother Daniel had taken his own life. Daniel had been a part of my circle of life and love for over twenty years after his dad and my mum married. His funeral which I attended last Thursday was the fourth funeral of this story. A hard day, a heart breaking day, but one overflowing with comassion as peole came togther to hold each other in their love and loss, their grief.

The day of Betty’s funeral, as I returned home, ended in the living room of our Mandy. I had gone there at the end of tough and painful day with our Natalie. We shared with one another, sharing our pain together and it ended in a hug as we held one another. Now our Natalie is my half-sister, she has the same mum but a different dad to me. Our Mandy is our Natalie’s half-sister too , but she shares the same father and a different mum to our Natalie. So Mandy was my step-sister for many years at least legally, but the truth is that she is my sister and we have been together since I was three years old. We share a deep love for one another and hold one another in the same circle of compassion. Our wider families are complicated and fragmented but the circle of love we share and are a part of is very strong.

The second funeral was for a man known as Dave, as “Dave the hairdresser” to many of the friends I shared with him. It was a funeral that I knew was coming for several months before he died and I had spent quite a bit of time with him over the last year preparing the service as he wanted it. I have known Dave for over fifteen years. He was my first recovery sponsor and helped in some of the darkest days of my life. We had a complex relationship. There was a time we did not speak, as he hurt me and let me down. That said in recent years we made our peace. It was a beautiful experience learning about his whole life, creating the service and leading it and sharing it with the many people he loved and who loved him. As I led his coffin into Manchester Crematorium emotion and fear hit me, so I did as I always do and prayed for some of that invisible help that runs through all life and I believe is at the core of all life and mine too and as I like to say, I did my job and did it well. The reception afterwards was moving too as I mixed with the many different circles of people that knew Dave, his family, his old friends, his recovery community and his spiritual community, who are mainly connected to the spiritualist church. As I walked away from the reception I was overcome with exhaustion and emotion. Thankfully Sue was with me and I went back to her home. It has been a difficult and emotional time of late, deeply draining in many ways.

Towards the end of last week the exhaustion really hit. On Friday night I spent time in one of Sue’s circles. It is mainly a women’s circle and this Friday night was a dancing circle and a kind of spiritual healing one. I had enjoyed it the last time I went, but this time it was a struggle. It was nothing to do with the occasion, it was me. I was exhausted, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. I hit a rock bottom that evening, in fact in the middle of the evening I physically laid down in a heap on the ground. I surrendered to the ground of being, to that spirit at the core of life. I had kept going in recent weeks and my body said no more. I have been here before and knew that this would be a turning point. I knew I would be ok.

For the last few weeks I had kept going through my duties, my family’s pain, the week at the general assembly meetings. I fulfilled my duties, I have wanted to do so, although the congregations I serve would have let me take time off, infact they encouraged it, for this I am deeply grateful. The love and support I have received from the many circles of love and community I move in has been just been incredible. I received some beautiful gifts in the post this week too. Two stand out, a beautiful card from the folk from Dukinfield Old Chapel and a prayer shawl from those at the Octogan chapel Norwich. So many beautiful gifts of love have filled my heart and soul.

...The story contines...

Over the last weekend I conducted a wedding for a couple who have attended Dunham Road occasionally. The groom Geoff has been a part of the “Living the Questions” circle for several years. The bride Megan is also a part of another circle of mine. The one I grew up in, as she comes from the village of Birstall in West Yorkshire. The same village that Joseph Priestley, one of key figures of my chosen Unitarian faith’s history. The wedding and the reception I and Sue attended that evening was so needed. The circle at the reception I sat in that night was a beautiful tonic as we shared stories and laughed together. Two of Megan’s aunts were at our table and I think Sue got a glimpse of the spirit found in folk from that part of the world. She will have to get used to it as she becomes a part of my family circle. Something she got a bigger experience off this week at our Daniel's funeral.

...Yorkshire is not just a place, it's also a state of mind...

Last Sunday, after leading worship, I accompanied Sue as she headed into Manchester to conduct a memorial service for someone known as Mary. It was held on Canal street, in a bar in what is known as “The Gay Village” and afterwards in Sackville Gardens. Now Mary had already had her funeral but that was for the male aspect of her life. You see Mary identified as trans-gender and this service was to mark this aspect of her life. It was a deeply moving service as people spoke of her life, of this circle of her life and the impact she had made on so many lives. I even bumped into a couple of people I know from other past circles I have moved in. I cannot go anywhere without this happening. I have moved in many circles in my life

Everyone’s life is complex and made up of many circles. These circles overlap. This is wonderful and beautiful. No one ever fully knows another or moves in exactly the same circle. This is the nature of life and it is a beautiful thing. It only becomes a problem when our cirlces become ones of exclusion, rather than inclusion. This brings to mind the following verse from the poem “Epigrams” by Edwin Markham. It is from the middle section “Outwitted”


He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

These simple four lines speaks to me about the nature of spiritual community; it is about ever widening our circles and inviting others in. Love is there at the core ever empowering us to even widen our cirlces. Sadly too often in life we fail to do this, we draw circles to exclude so many for a variety of reasons. When we look at our own lives surely we will see our own personal circle, our family circle, our community circle, our political circle, our social circle, moving ever onwards. Now while each circle includes ever more people, we still exclude oh so many.

We see circles of exclusion everywhere; we see suspicion of others who we see as different to us growing. This cannot be a good thing. It is happening within nations and between nations; it is happening within cultures and between cultures; it is happening within the faith traditions and between the faith traditions as well as those who wish to see an end to faith. It is happening within ourselves too. I often wonder if we are expanding our circles of experience and understanding or whether are we are in actual fact retreating into what we think we know.

So what can we do? Well I believe we can do much. Where does it begin? Well I believe it begins in our own hearts and souls, in our own homes and in our own communities. We need to begin to expand our own circles. How do we do this? Well we reach deep within ourselves to the ultimate source of love and in doing so we can reach beyond our own human created limits and begin to ever widen our circles. It begins by seeing where and how we exclude ourselves and others from our circles. Now of course this will not stop others from limiting their circles but then that should not matter if we expand our circles of love to include all, even those who wish to keep others out.

Now this is no easy task, of course it is not. That said I believe that it is one that is worth undertaking. I believe it is the challenge of our age. I believe that maybe it is the task and the challenge of my own open faith tradition. I believe that it is our task to ever widen our circle so as include all, for there can be no limit to love. This begins by putting love at the core of the circle and to understand that if we see love as the circumference we will see there is no limit, for no one can be excluded from love. For if they are, it is not love.

For love is eternal and love is perfect and love knows no limits.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Listening with your heart

William Stafford: "Listening"

My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.

“How do I listen?”

How do I listen to others? As if everyone were my Master speaking to me his cherished last words.”

Words of the great Sufi mystic Hafiz. How do we listen in such a way? Well maybe it begins by listening like the father in William Stafford’s poem above, to be like someone who can listen for what they can hear, far off in the night, “from that other place.” Such people hear so much that they make me want to listen as well. So often in life it has been the example of how others listen and really hear that has inspired me to listen. That said I don’t always listen to others as if everyone were my master, sadly sometimes I don’t listen, or I find it hard to listen.

I have noticed in the last few weeks that I have found it a challenge to listen to others. As a result I have not been as effective as I would hope to be in my work. This is hardly surprising. I am grieving and hurting and deeply concerned for my nearest and deepest. I know well the power that grief has on myself and others being. I have been reminded of this over the last year or so as I have shared deeply with others in the grief group I lead, “The colours of grief: Our shared experience of love and loss”. They have been some of the most treasured moments of my own ministry as we have shared together our own experiences of love and loss, holding one another, listening to each other and beginning to bring some healing. Through our shared experience of suffering we have helped bring healing to one another. Through this deep communion of coming together in love and loss we have experienced what Richard Rohr has described as “dear compassion” which as he has observed “is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure.” In these deeply intimate moments I have heard the Divine Love speak as I have listened with others with my heart open, as we have listened with “the ears of our hearts”.

I found listening particularly difficult at last week’s Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings. It was interesting that I found it less difficult engaging in group participation work, but found it impossible to listen to talks and particularly debate in the important business meetings. I tried, but found I just couldn’t sit and listen. So I took the wise move of taking care of myself, spending time in loving company and actually sitting and talking with others in smaller more intimate groups. I heard some beautiful things and was involved in some deeply moving conversations. The Friday morning, the day I delivered “The Anniversary Sermon” was a wonderful example of this. After sharing breakfast with Sue we remained at our table as others left for the buisness meeting. We sat down at 8am after sharing worship and did not move again until noon. Wow! What a beautiful four hours as different people passed by and stopped and shared with us. It was deeply healing, interesting and moving. I laughed and cried and shared, I also heard some pretty eccentric views too. These were Unitarians after all. It was a beautiful morning. Sue enjoyed it too and although the morning had started badly with an unpleasant encounter she met some beautiful and friendly people, with open hearts, minds and souls.

I enjoyed deeply what I heard all morning, I said very little actually. I heard everyone as if they were the Divine speaking to me his cherished last words. I know that it helped to heal something in my heart, it opened my heart and helped me share the anniversary sermon with my heart wide open. It was deeply connective and healing. I listened with the ear of my heart, I let those words sink into my being and as a result began to speak the language of the heart. From what I was told later, this connected with those in the congregation deeply.

The next day my colleague Mark Hutchinson sent the following reflection on my address:

It went by the title “A Danny Meditation”

How many statues
Stare out into the ocean
Wishing only to be
Somewhere else
Not seeing
Or hearing
Or listening

Hold each other
Be held

Not even realising
As the powerful tide is rising
How all statues that wish this way
Are never walking
Or listening
Or talking
Just disappearing
Each and every day.

Hold each other
Be held
This is your domain.

This is a world of pain and joy
For every girl every boy
Everything around and in between
We cannot stop the pain
Nor stem the rising tide
But we can listen
There are things to be said and seen.

Hold each other
Be held
This is your domain
Awaken a new dominion

A man two loving sisters holds
This man is held by them
Not wishing for another place
Despite the seething pain
Just to hold
And to be held.

Hold each other
Be held
This is your domain
Awaken a new dominion
Do your job.

Trusting statues
Talking listening holding,
Stepping back from the tide
Have laughed, sung and cried
And not once tried
To be away
From this very necessary day

In trust and love
Hold each other
Be held
From your domain
Awaken a new dominion
Do your job
Let us hold
Let us be held
Let us all
Do our job.

Mark listened and absorbed every word and created something beautiful from it. It has certainly touched me deeply. He seemed to be listening with his heart and responding with his heart. To me this is what it means to truly live religiously. It is to listen and to live with “dear compassion.”

To truly live religiously is to live in communion with one another, it is to live in “dear compassion”, this is about inviting others truly into our lives and I have come to understand that is about truly listening to each other with our hearts, with the ears of our hearts.

Listening is about invitation. It is about inviting the other into our lives; it is about making space for the other. This is not always easy to do especially when engaging in conversation.

As I have shared many times before “Listen with the ear of your heart”, is one of my ministerial mantras. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “.

This is no easy task. It is so easy to get wrapped up in so many other things, particularly our own pain and troubles. That said in order to make space for the other we do need to learn to listen; to listen “with the ear of our hearts”.

Ernest Hemingway once said "When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."

How many of us can really say that we listen to one another? When we begin to converse do we take time to truly listen to what the other person is saying? Or are we merely waiting for our turn to make our point? When we engage with one another are we really attempting to make space for them or is it all about us? Is it about our need to be heard? Are we engaging with others in the hope that they will agree with us?

In “Forgotten Art of Deep Listening” Kay Lindahl asks us to:

“Think of the difference it would make if each of us felt really listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world, as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.”

By listening we can begin to transform the world; by listening we begin to practise being the change we wish to see in the world.

Listening is about making space for the other, it is an invitation; an invitation to create true spiritual intimacy. Listening is one way to release ourselves from the treadmill of own ego centric little worlds. It can release us from hell.

Yes sometimes it is hard to listen, particularly when we are caught up in our own pain. It happens to all of us, it’s been happening to me of late. I thank God that I have not run and I have not tried to hide, I have simply let others share their time and space with me, to listen to me when I have been ready to speak my own pain and fear and love and truth.

I have lived faithfully, indeed I have lived religiously in intimate company with others. I have lived with others in “dear compassion”

To truly live religiously is to live in communion with one another, it is to live in “dear compassion”, it is about inviting others truly into our lives; it is about making space for the other. It’s about listening with our hearts, with the ears of hearts. It’s about living with others in “dear compassion”

Let us live in “dear compassion”.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Accepting this: There is no other place

"Accepting This"

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 are 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.

—Mark Nepo

One of my favourite places on earth is Crosby Beach. It’s not just vanity by the way, although I do love to stand next the sign that reads Greater Crosby. So maybe a little vanity…Maybe, maybe not…

What I love about Crosby Beach are the 100 identical sculptures, of those 7ft tall figures that go by the title “Another place”. There they stand staring out to sea, perhaps looking for another place, any place but here; these naked, lonely scarecrows staring out into the great big nothing, dreaming of another place.

Have you ever felt like that? I have. I have stood there staring out at into space so many times dreaming of something other than the life I was living. Who does not want to escape when the tides of suffering are coming in?

It’s a common hope, to dream of some other place beyond the life we have, beyond the suffering and pain we can all experience at times, or perhaps to dream of a place away from what can often be seen as the mundane aspects of normal life. We all at times hope for some Heaven, The Promised Land, Nirvana, the perfect life when all are troubles are behind us. It is common to all we humans to dream of some technicolour dream land, our own private Oz…

Someday I'll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney top
That's where you'll find me

Oh, somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
And the dream that you dare to,
Oh why, oh why can't I?

Yes it’s such a common desire to dream of some other place beyond our current life. It’s dangerous though. Remember those words sung by Dorothy in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”, brought with them the Tornado and none of us want that. As I have often heard, “be careful what you pray for.”

Dorothy dreamed of another place somewhere over the rainbow, a place away from dull, grey, flat Kansas. Is there another place that we dream about, that we Hope for, a Heaven, a Nirvana? Who knows? I don’t. Nobody knows.

This is not how it is meant to be. It is a waste of this precious gift that is our finite human lives, to wish it away. We are not meant to live our lives dreaming of another place, a place beyond this life. Our task, I have come to believe is to create heaven here and it begins within each and every one of us. I much prefer to follow that simple message in the “Sermon on the Mount”, to become the light of the world. To create the Kingdom, the kin-dom of love, right here, right now. We are here to bring alive the light within us, to hold one another, to live in love.

We bring heaven alive through our loving living or we create Hell by fearing one another, fearing life, turning away and dreaming of some other place, somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere beyond this life. Why do we waste our days wishing our lives away?

“Another Place” contains 100 identical figures all placed in different parts of Crosby beach. Some are way out to sea and some close to edge of the beach, almost on land. They disappear as the tide comes in and eventually all are consumed by the sea. None can hold back the tide, they are always overcome by it. The sea is a powerful force, a power far greater than our singular human selves. Every single one of those statues is eventually overwhelmed by the sea. They teach me a lesson in humility.

Oh how I love the sea.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I love to go to the sea from time to time. Sometimes I hear it calling powerfully to me. It’s a song I hear singing in my heart. I hear it with the ears of my heart. Now what it is that I love so much I am not entirely sure, I cannot tell. Only my heart knows and I have not yet fully perfected the language of heart. Yes I hear it, but I cannot yet adequately put it into words. I am trying.

My love probably has something to do with the vastness of it. Like King Canute I am humbled by the sea. I know it is a power far greater than little old me, but it is more than that, I also find it deeply connective too. While the waves move individually, the sea moves as one. The sea speaks powerfully to me about the spiritual nature of life, both personally and communally.

Like Nepo said

we are small living things
awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.

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

I am not alone in being overwhelmed by the sea's power, thank God. Frederick Buechner in his beautiful meditation titled “Tears” wrote the following about the great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich

“Tears” by Frederick Buechner

"They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears."

...I think I get it...

I feel fully human when I open my senses to the sea, it humbles and connects me to life. It reminds me that I am not God and yet that mysterious power is very close at hand. God is with us, in us, running through us. We swim in a sea of love, in the waters of life.

I bow before the majesty of it all. It truly humbles me. I bow before life, before the waters of life. I bow before the ground of all being of which I am a part of. I am human and I am finite. In accepting this I see I am a part of life and I can live my life as one fish swimming in the ocean of life. I suspect that is what it means to live in heaven. Heaven on earth. This is what it means to choose life in all its blessings and curses. It is to be at home in the earth or the sea in which you find yourself, to be truly present in your being, to truly belong here and live in the time and space you find yourself and to serve the life in and around you.

A pretty picture you might think, but is this just a dream? How do we do this? How do we serve the life we find ourselves in? How do we begin to swim in that sea? How do we begin to create that kin-dom of love right here right now? Is this just another’s dream?

Well we can’t simply transcend suffering, ours or other peoples. I don’t think we are meant to. Pain, as much as joy is something we live with. We have to let life sink into our very human being…

“Come with me on a journey under the skin, oh come with me on a journey under the skin…All you’ve gotta do, all you’ve gotta do, all you’ve gotta do is surrender…surrender…surrender…

I love “The Waterboys”

We have to sink into the ground at our feet, surrender the ground of all being. To begin where we find ourselves, start close in…in the earth, the hummus, be fully human. Simple but far from easy…

We seem to be living in very troubling times. We see this clearly when we look nationally and globally, but also when we look close at hand. It’s been a long hard winter in the congregations I serve, we have lost several people after long illnesses. It’s been a difficult time within my own family. My step brother Daniel, the son of my mum’s husband took his own life last week, ripping a deep hole in my family. As I stand here now I feel the pain of so many people I love deeply, within my family and my communities. We cannot escape this suffering and I cannot take away the pain of my loved ones, as much as I want to. Gosh if I could only perform miracles but I cannot. Ministry truly humbles me and so it should. I cannot take anyone’s burden from them, but I can walk with them and be with them in their pain and of course their joy and celebration, the blessings and curses of “choosing life”.

To repeat those beautiful by Mark Nepo

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.

I have spent much of this winter and early spring standing with people as we held each other. Last Wednesday I stood with two of my sisters and we held each other tight, broken with tears rolling down our cheeks.

As individual people we cannot end suffering, but we can do small little things. This is how we create that kin-dom of love. Didn’t Jesus say it begins with the little things, the mustard seed?

David Whyte, formed in the same soil of West Yorkshire I was formed in, only with an Irish soul, in his wonderful poem, talked about starting close in. This is how we begin the courageous conversation as he called it, this is how we begin to live, to create that kin-dom of love right here right now. Through the authentic, the courageous conversation, we dwell in our own being and connect with all of life…but it begins close in with the first step.

“Start close in” by David Whyte

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To find
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

By David Whyte in, “River Flow: New and Selected Poems”

We cannot take away the pain of the world, it’s not our task, but we can humbly walk with one another. Again to repeat those words by Mark Nepo, from his poem “Accepting This”

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.

“Accepting this” is a poem that touches the soul of me so deeply. Yes we are small things, but we are significant and we are living things, who truly are awakened when we swim in the stream, in the water of life. No we are not God but we can be enlightened by that spirit and experience meaning. We can know what it is to be fully alive, we just have to let that water flow through the gill of our hearts. We do not need to wish for some other place or even travel to some other place. We just need to accept the reality of our beautiful and finite humanity and we can do anything and truly go anywhere. If we take care of these small things we may just begin to build that kin-dom of love right here right now.

So let’s stop dreaming of some other place, somewhere over the rainbow, let’s instead inhabit the ground at our feet, let’s open the gills of our hearts and swim in the water of life and let’s build a land where we’ll bind up the broken, walk hand in hand and hold one another tight…

This is heaven on earth…All is well…All is well…All is well…

Sunday 1 April 2018

To look or not to look: An Easter Reflection

From "The Book of Awakenings: Having the Life You WantBy being Present To The Life You Have" by Mark Nepo

"A Great Battle Raging"

"There is a great battle raging: for my mouth not to harden and my jaws not to become like heavy doors of an iron safe, so my life may not be called pre-death."

~ Israeli Poet Yehuda Amichai

There is an ancient Greek myth that carries within it, like a message in a bottle, one of the most crucial struggles we face as living beings. It is the story of a gifted musician, Orpheus, whose Love, Eurydice is taken by Hades, the god of the underworld. Orpheus is so grief-stricken that he travels to the land of the dead to plead with Hades to give Eurydice back. After a cold and deliberate consideration, Hades says, "You can have her. It will take you three days to bring her back to the land of the living. There is one condition. You must carry her and you must not look upon her face until you reach the light. If you do, she will return to me forever."

Unfortunately, unknown to Orpheus, Hades tells Eurydice the opposite, "He will carry you to the land of the living, and you must look upon him before you reach the light. If you do not, you will return to me forever." Their colossal struggle fails, and Eurydice is lost forever.

The struggle for us, though, is ongoing. For there is an Orpheus in each of us that believes, if I look, I will die. There is also a Eurydice in each of us that believes, if I don't look, I will die. And so, the great spiritual question, after "To be or not to be?" is to look or not to look. The personal balance we arrive at determines whether we make it out of hell or not.

Though it shifts throughout our lives, according to our devotions, I believe each of us is born with a natural leaning toward looking or not looking. Not surprisingly, I am one of those feminine seers: I believe that if I don't look, I will die. This probably has a lot to do with my calling to be a poet. So, I admit my bias. For though, like staring into the sun too long, there are times we mustn't look to preserve our sight, more often we need to look to stay alive.

Like each of us, I struggle with both: to be the keeper of secrets or the discoverer of truths. Though no one can tell us how, we have to work this great battle again and again: to leave the underworld - not to harden - and to make our way back into the land of the living.

...I recommend this book, actually anything by Mark Nepo...Here follows a reflection inspired by this passage and Easter morning...

To look or not to look? To become the keeper of secrets or the discoverer of truths? To preserve our sight or to look and therefore choose life? Dilemma’s we face every day in our lives. How often do we look? How often do we refuse to look at life?

Often this is a decision we face many times each every day. To look or not to look, to turn away not only from the darkness, but also the light? Just think about the last week of your life. How often have you looked when perhaps you shouldn’t have looked? Also how often have you refused to look, when you really should have looked?

To look or not to look? To become the keeper of the secret or the discover of truth? Brings to mind the narratives of Easter morning found in the Gospel accounts, the story of the followers of Jesus going to the tomb. The stories of those who went and those who did not go. Those who found something in the tomb and those who saw nothing. Those who reacted faithfully and those who fled in fear. Those who looked and responded to the light and those who turned away. All very human responses to what they saw with the eyes, what they found in that empty tomb.

An example is Maray Magdalene in John's Gospel. She rises before dawn on the third day to visit the tomb. She is a broken woman as her beloved teacher Jesus has died a horrible death.  Mary is going to prepare Jesus body, following the teaching of her Jewish faith. When she arrives at the tomb she sees that stone blocking the entrance has already been rolled away and there is no body inside. She flees in fear and grief

She does eventually return and faearfully enters broken, in despair, grieving for the loss of her beloved Jesus. There then follows a description of an exchange with two angels and then suddenly out of the corner of her eye she catches something, a man. She dares to look. The man asks why she is crying and who she is looking for. Mistaking him for a gardener she asks if he has taken Jesus away and asks where he is saying she will take care of him and will rell no one. She just wants to take care of his body and clean him up so he can rest in peace, At this moment the man calls out her name saying “Mary”. As she hears her name she sees that the man is Jesus. As he names her, she recognises him and calls him “Rabbi” “Teacher”

Personally I do not believe in the literal bodily resurrection, but this does not mean I do not believe in a kind of spiritual resurrection, an awakening that can occur in our all too human finite lives. This I believe is what happened to Mary. When she heard her name called, suddenly her eyes were opened to a new reality, she began to see perhaps for the first time. In this moment, through finally seeing with her own eyes. She is called out from her blindness caused by grief and despair. Her eyes are opened and she saw for the first time, she truly began to understand her purpose in life. Her life began again.

Easter is after all the day of new beginning Easter calls us to open our eyes in a new way. To see not only what we expect to see, but something more, something new and unexpected. We need to look to see, despite the pains and troubles of life and the temptation not to look. Look we must, we must always choose life, despite its very real troubles. We must awaken to life, to answer the call and to pour out the love we carry within us onto life.

Mary Magdalene is in utter despair, having lost her teacher, until she once again heard the voice of hope, born from that same place of total hopelessness. As she did she was able to see life through new eyes, new vision came and she was able to turn away from despair to hope.

This is Easter for me a story of hope for all of us that whatever happens in our lives if we keep on turning in faith new vision will come. Easter time, in the midst of spring, truly is the turning season, it is the day of new beginnings. Easter teaches that we can begin again in love each and every day. This begins as we dare to look and see, in so doing we see new hope and by turning from whatever despair may keep us trapped in our empty tomb we are once again turned toward the light.

How we look at life and how we look at others is so important. How we respond to how we see matters too, everything matters every thought, every feeling, every action and every single look. It matters how respond to what we see too. Do we turn away in fear or respond in love? I’m sure we’ve all seen the responses of the young people in America to the gun violence. They have responded in loving and peaceful ways and said enough is enough, its time to change. It’s time for a new dawn and a new beginning. It’s time to respond in loving compassion, to say that life, all life matters, we see the same thing in the “Me too movement” too. We also see it in small acts of love too. I have experienced these last few days as I have been with my loved ones as we have lost one of our own tragic circumstances. The family is broken in grief but so many of others are holding one another in love. I offer thanks and praise for all who have offered loving support.

I also witnessed a simple example, right in front of my eyes. Last Friday I arrived at my gitlfriend Sue’s when jut in front of me there was a loud bang as two cars collided into one another. Thankfully no one was injured, just a little shook up. Now at first Sue didn’t want to look out of her window when she heard the bang. I think there was a little fear about seeing the darkness. When she did she instantly responded. She didn’t turn away. She simply went down stairs, turned on the kettle and took tea and coffee to the two sets of young men in a state of shock. Now this was only a small act, not one that will change the world. That said it was a simple act, witnessed by the young men and her neighbours, and one that hopefully others will respond to when they witness troubles in a similar way in the future. They will not turn away, they will look and having looked they will respond from their hearts and act.

It matters how we see life. This is the starting point, but isn’t the end. It matters how we respond to what we see with our eyes, for others will be watching too.

We need to look. We need to choose life, we need to become seekers of the truth and not keepers of the secret and we need to give our love away, to act on what we see and to give our love away, in our small individual human ways.

It begins today.

Happy Easter. Let’s begin again in love.