Sunday 27 May 2018

Authentic Belonging

At the recent minister’s conference, that I attended, we were asked to take part in an exercise that invited us to explore belonging; to ask ourselves where in the world we belong? We were asked to consider where we would like to be buried or our ashes to be scattered after we died. It seems that some of my colleagues had no trouble with this question at all, while others really struggled. I was one of the ones who struggled. I initially objected internally as I thought to myself I am too young to think about such things. I soon got over myself and then began to struggle with what I would want to happen to my remains, as I felt belonged to more than one place and or one group of people. It was interesting to listen to what others shared, where and with whom they belonged. I felt relieved when I heard one or two others wanted to separate their ashes. This was because I knew that I would have to do the same. I decided that I would initially split mine in half and that one of those halves would be split in half again. I decided that one quarter would be with my dad and grandparents, in the cemetery at Bruntcliffe, Morley and the other quarter with my mum’s family grave in Batley, where both of my maternal grandparents are. I then left the second half open as I hope I have another half of life yet to live and who knows to where and with who I will belong by then. That second half of my “dash” of loving and belonging is yet to be lived.

It was a really good exercise to participate in as it made me think about who exactly I belong to; what it is that makes me who I am. No one lives completely by themselves we all belong to other people in so many ways. Yes we belong to ourselves, but we also belong to one another.

The other morning, in my meditation group, I was listening to a Jewish friend whose daughter is about to get married. It is going to be a huge wedding and the whole family are travelling to Israel for four days of celebration. My friend had recently travelled back to Leeds, where he grew up, with his other daughter. They visited the cemetery where his parents and sister are buried. They were keeping with the traditions of their religion and inviting the spirit of their dead relatives to accompany them to the wedding. It was a deeply emotional thing for my friend to do as I know that the death of his sister, at such a young age, had affective him deeply. He told me that he left a stone at the grave, which again is part of the tradition and noticed that other relatives must have been there in recent times as there were many stones at the grave. I can see clearly how important this ritual was for him as he moves forward and his family move forward. Ritual is so important in life, something that is diminishing in recent times. I see more and more how vital it is to my life and the lives of others as we move through the many transitions of our lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about belonging in recent times. The people who have made me who I am, that have influenced my life and the people whose lives I have touched too. I have entered into someone else’s life and family in recent months as my relationship with Sue has blossomed and flowered. I recently spent a day with her siblings and members of her family. I didn’t find this too much of a challenge actually. They have been very welcoming. I suspect that the reason I have been at ease is because I do belong in my own being. I can be myself in the company of others; I don’t need to try to fit into the lives of others and fall for the trap of false belonging.

Now belonging is not always easy for some of us, perhaps all of us at times. During another conversation I had with a friend I was recently reminded of the loneliest time of my life, when I felt I did not belong anywhere. In those days I tried hard to fit it, but this was not authentic and just left me with this sense of utter loneliness. Thankfully these days I feel a sense of authentic belonging to myself, to life, to the spirit of all life and thus feel I can belong pretty much anywhere. I can be myself in the company of most people.

Sadly many people, for a variety reason do not feel like they belong. Now of course some of this can be an inner sense of rejection, but not wholly, some people do feel that they cannot be themselves fully and thus do not always belong. Sadly some people and places do not always welcome all, do not always invite all to come as they are...

How do we help a person to belong? Well it begins with welcome, to say come as you are, exactly as you are. This though is not always easy. Identity and how people identify themselves can be complicated. This has become particularly apparent around gender in recent times. I know I have got it wrong on occassion myself , I have hopefully not hurt or offended anyone in my clumsiness. I am trying, but there is room for improvement in this area.

I do not want to exclude anyone from my circle of love and want everyone to feel that are accepted in my company, that they belong. Certainly as a minister I want people to feel that they can truly be who they are in the communities I serve. I truly want all to feel that they can come as they are and that no aspect of their humanity will be rejected. I do not want anyone to feel that need to fit into some ideal, and that in order to belong they have to do so falsely. Whether that be age, gender identity, sexuality, politics and belief or lack of.

To belong means that you are accepted for who you are wholly, not partially; whereas fitting in means that you have to change who you are in some way in order to be accepted. Belonging is really about being loved without condition. This is the love that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels. This is the perfect love that is spoken of in Matthew’s Gospel, from “The Sermon on the Mount”. “Therefore be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” I actually think that this is the only thing that we can do perfectly. I am striving for this every day. Perfect love is about welcoming one another exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too.

A sense of belonging is a deeply precious thing. It is belonging that helps us become who we are meant to be. It is a sense of belonging that helps us to truly be who we are. By being who we are we encourage others to truly be who they are and thus belong authentically. It is so easy to fall for the trap of false belonging and to try and fit it.

The late John O’Donohue in his wonderful book “Anam Cara”, hits the nail squarely on the head with regard to our struggles to be who we are and to find a real sense of belonging. I love the way that he relates belonging to longing and yearning. He suggests that we need to find a balance in belonging and that often our problems stem from not being truly at home with ourselves. That we should be our own longing. That the key is to be-long within ourselves. If we belong within ourselves then we will feel at ease and belong wherever we are. Therefore the sense of who we are, our identity, will not be ruled by the need to fit in, to belong, externally.

A little while ago a friend of mine posted the following quote by Brene Brown, it was during an on-line conversation on identity and belonging:

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

I’ve listened to quite a bit of Brene Brown over the last few years and I have to say she speaks to the soul of me. I love what she has to say about the difference between “Belonging” and “Fitting in”, that they are not the same thing, although they are often mistaken for one another.

Brene Brown explains that “Fitting in” is really about assessing situations and becoming the person that you believe you need to be in order to be accepted and acceptable. Whereas “Belonging” does not require us to change who we are, but to be who we really are.

Belonging is an innate desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. This is a primal yearning, deep within the soul of us and thus we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval from others. Now not only does this not satisfy this yearning it actually becomes a barrier to it. In so doing we lose our identity and feel even more lost and lonely. True belonging you see only happens when we present our true, authentic, imperfect selves to the world, “warts and all” and beauty spots too. Unless we are at home within ourselves we will never feel that we belong anywhere.

I believe that the primary purpose of my free religious tradition, of the communities I serve, is to create an environment where people can find their true belonging. My role as a minister is to create an environment where individuals can truly become who they are and to share that with each other. Yes it is true that each individual is unique but each can only truly become who they are in community with others. No one belongs wholly to themselves. No one is an island. From the day we are born we are part of families and communities. Now of course these can be oppressive and inhibiting or they can be liberating and life enhancing and can give us the environment to truly become who we are, all that we were born to be, without apology. Where we can practice perfect love for ourselves, one another, for God and all life. This is "Beloved Community", a space where you can become all that you are, in community with others.

By coming as we are and being all that we are, without apology we belong authentically, not falsely. Therefore, I have come to believe, our task is to find the courage to come as we are, exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too and to let our light shine on one another and thus invite them to do the same.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Becoming Juicy People with Holy Curiosity

I was out the other night with friends enjoying a meal. It was one of our numbers fortieth birthday. We had a wonderful evening full of life, full of joy, full of laughter and of course full of food. We did get some funny looks from others in the restaurant due primarily to the joy and abandon in our gathering. I enjoy similar experiences on a Tuesday morning with the group of folk I go for coffee with after our early morning mediation. We fill Café Nero with the joy of living, despite its very real troubles. Oh how I love the company of juicy people.

Juicy people brings to mind the following lines from Walt Whitman’s “The body electric”, the fourth stanza:

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

Rick Heffern in his book “Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World” writes about the twelfth century Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, she suggested that the key to living spiritually alive is to become “juicy people”. That such people need to be filled with wonder and curiosity and live with lusty appetites and high spirits and that they embrace life liberty and they pursue happiness “with a burly grinning bear hug”, It is suggested that to “be juicy is to be: a fearlessly joyous optimist, a troublemaker tirelessly afflicting the comfortable, a passionate lover of good talk and tasty food, an an anonymous prophet hovering over the cosmological riddle, a frequent violator of the ordinance against indecent exposure of the heart, and a guerilla in the insurrection against Dream Molesters everywhere."

When I think about my friends from the other night and the ones I share meditation and morning coffee with, they are juicy people. They are filled with a enthusiasm for life, they hunger and thirst for a life filled with passion, they seek joy in each moment, despite the real troubles that we all face. They see a goodness in life. They proclaim that all is well, not perfect, but well. They bring alive the juiciness of human being.

There is nothing like eating with and simply sharing the company of juicy people. When you do there is a richness to the company, you experience deep conversation, deep laughter and a joy that no one can take away. They experience the goodness of life and want to share it with you, to welcome you to their table of love and joy. In such company you are challenged to grow, but not grow alone. It is about raising one another up and aiming high, it is not about playing it safe. When I reflect on the near eight years I have meditated with these people I have witnessed deep transformation in our shared human being. Do you know what I think that this has come as much from the hour we have shared in Café Nero as the hour we spent in meditation and sharing. Groovy times with “juicy people”.

Now “Juicy people” are by their nature curious. They are spiritual seekers. They do not merely ask questions, but attempt to live them, to bring them to life. Curiosity always begins with a question. Just think of every two and three year old you have ever known, or every puppy you have ever known for that matter, is there anything more “juicy”? They are full of curiosity and ask questions of everything. Think about the little ones you have known, everything you ever tell them ends with that frustrating one word response “Why?” You can’t take your eyes off them either, their fingers and or noses are into everything.

Now as we get older we lose a little of this, perhaps because we start to realise that there will always be questions that we cannot fully answer. Yes we have gained experience but we do not know everything and I don’t suppose we ever will.

This brings to mind a wonderful little story about an encounter with a Zen master and his student:

“What happens when we die?” asks the student.
“I don’t know,” is the answer.
“But you’re a Zen master!”
“True. Quite true. But I am not a dead Zen master.”

So yes there are many questions that no matter how well we live them we will never be able to fully answer.

Now there are other groups of “juicy people” that I have the pleasure of sharing time with. One is the monthly “Living the Questions” group. An ever changing group by the way. A group which each month explores and attempts to bring to life the questions of truly living. It has been a joy and blessing to be part of this these last few years, it has certainly transformed me and I have witnessed this in others too. The inspiration for the group’s title come from a favourite passage from “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. In it the poet Rilke writes a letter to his protégé the 19 year old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus making a beautiful case for the importance of not merely asking questions, but living them, while embracing uncertainty and allowing for the development of intuition.

Rilke writes:

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

This to me is the essence of living the “juicy” life, to curious living.

Now I’m not sure that our day and age encourages “juiciness” in people; I’m not overly sure it encourages doubt and curiosity, to live the questions. It seems today that folk are encouraged to have an opinion, voice it with conviction and voice it again and again and again. This to me seems to be a faithless form of living, where people cling desperately to partisanship. Certainly this is the case when you look at public dialogue. It would appear that to live juicily, with curiosity is to let go of certainty, now this seems out of step with our current age. Well that maybe, but surely curiosity is the key to faithful living as it allows the transformation of our humanity, this kind of faithful uncertainty requires courage.

Victoria Safford describes what I mean beautifully in her meditation “Open Eyes”. She states:

“The awakened eye is a conscious eye, a willful eye, and brave, because to see things as they are, each in its own truth, will make you very vulnerable.”

This unselfconscious vulnerability, this openness is how the curious, very young live. They see without preconceived notions. They see with open eyes and then ask why, why, why, why?

Now of course we cannot look with children;s eyes, we have to look with adult eyes and this to me is how we begin to live the questions, to become what Heldegard of Bigen suggests as living “juicy lives”. I suspect that Safford captures this beautifully when she writes that “To see, simply to look and to see, is an ethical act and intentional choice; to see, with open eyes, is a spiritual practice and thus a risk, for it can open you to ways of knowing the world and loving it that will lead to inevitable consequences.”

We adults can do what those young children do but with ethical eyes looking out at the world and acting in the world as adults. Through this we begin to be transformed as we live with this curiosity and begin to act differently in the world.

This is where transformation begins. Transformation of ourselves and our world as we begin to live the questions, as we become juicy people as we develop what Albert Einstein called “Holy Curiosity.” Which is to live with the spirit of humility, with an open mind, an open heart and open hands, to search out truth and to live with your eyes wide open in joyful wonder.

I’m going to end this "blogspot" with Einstein’s quote on “Holy Curiosity”. He said:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

So let’s live with “holy curiosity”, living the questions as ever more juicy people.

Sunday 6 May 2018

Grief, the price we pay for Love

I remember attending a funeral many years, long before I became a minister, before I’d even considered becoming one actually; I remember being told before the funeral that many in attendance may not actually be grieving for the person for who’s funeral it was, but for other losses and other people and memories of other funerals they have attended in the past.

Now a strange thing happened at this funeral I did not weep at all. The truth is that I was all cried out at the time. It was just a few days after Ethan’s funeral and I’d been broken in grief for several weeks by then. I remember noticing people crying and breaking down and wondering if they were crying for my grandma, or for others they had lost in the past. It was probably a mixture of both and does not really matter in any case. The tears and sorrow were real, the grief was real, caused by the loss of someone that they loved.

I have over the years felt some guilt for how I shed no tears on the day. I do not today though as I know that at the time I was all cried out, I was in a numb stage of the grieving experience, my heart was not able to express my love for my grandma there and then, it was just too broken by another loss.

Over the years, as I have attended and conducted many funerals, and looked at those in attendance, as they have grieved. As I have connected with them in their tears and grief I have often wondered if they were grieving for the deceased or another loved one, probably a mixture of both. I have wondered about my own tears and grief too on such occasions.

Well last Friday I had my question partially answered. It was my day off and I was spending it with Sue, who almost had a day off too. There was just one thing she had to do and that was conduct a funeral. I decided I’d like to accompany her. One reason was to see her at work, it was beautiful to do so. We arrived and I stood to one side, a stranger amongst people I did not know.

Well actually I did know some of the people, the funeral director and staff.

We entered and I sat towards the back as Sue "held" us through the service. Almost immediately I began to weep and wept throughout most of the service. It was not for the woman whose service it was. Or even her loved ones. I cannot have been as I did not know them. No what was happening is that I was able to fully let go, to be held in love and to experience my own grief. My grief for my step brother Daniel and my whole confusing and wounded family; my grief for an old friend whose funeral I had recently conducted and my grief for the congregants, and their loved ones, that have died in recent months. I also re-felt many other losses from over the years. The tears just kept coming. I was able to sink into my own grief, because for the first time I did not need to think about others in attendance, to watch out for their pain. I was able to let go and to be held by that incredible love that is there at the core of all life when I am fully open to it…As the song goes “All you’ve got to do is surrender.” Well surrender I did.

All of us belong to the largest community on God’s sweet earth, the community of grievers. Grief is the price we pay for love, it is a price worth paying, for what is life without love? It is nothing, it is meaningless, just an empty vessel. The only way to escape grief is to totally armour your heart and deny love. Now who would want to do that, to live without love, to live the life of a zombie?

I have for the last year or so been hosting a grief group “The Colours of Grief: Our Shared Experience of Love and Loss”. It has been an incredible and richly rewarding experience, so deeply moving. It has been about love, as those who have come and gone and come again have held one another in the spirit of love, and shared their own experiences of love and loss.

It has confirmed powerfully to me that grief is all about love; grief is the price we pay for love. No one is immune from it. It is what holds all of us together.

Yes we all belong to the largest community on earth, the community of grievers. Now while it is the largest community on earth it is one that most of us do not want to belong to. I am sure that this has always been the case, but today this seems even clearer than at any time in the past. We live in almost death denying times. We live in times where we are supposed to be able to rise above our problems, our troubles, our struggles. Even modern, so called, spirituality seems to suggest this. That we can rise above anything if we just manifest it. Grief and death though show us otherwise. If I know nothing else I know that grief is not something we rise above or even get over, grief is something that levels us that brings us down to our human finite selves. I suspect that this is why acceptance is considered the last stage of grief, because somewhere in all us is this false belief that it can’t really bring us down to human size.

Grief changes you. That said it is not really the loss that does this, but the love that is at the core of grief. Now what hurts so much about grief is the loss, the very real physical loss of the one that we love. There is no consolation for this and we do not get over it either, the pain of such loss becomes a part of us, just as the love we shared becomes a part of us. What actually happens, in time, is that our life enlarges once again and we are not dominated by the intense feelings as much as we once were. That said from time to time the grief will overwhelm us, this can happen years later. Well that is love and loss, it is meant to overwhelm us from time to time. By the way there is no time limit to love and loss either. To quote Mark Nepo, we humans are fish swimming in the ocean, not God’s who carve our rivers and this ought to humble us. Grief, love and loss always humbles us. As Stephanie Ericcsons says in “Companion through the Darkness”. “Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.”

When we lose someone that we love, it changes us forever. Life will never be quite the same again. We do not rise above the pain of grief, we cannot pretend that it is not there, we don’t simply get over it. What happens is that we are changed by it and as a result our hearts are enlarged by it and we grow as human beings, if the love has truly been realized. You see grief is really about transformation, rather than transcendence, by the way this is the true nature purpose of religion. Grief is not an attempt to explain the loss or even understand some meaning locked into what happened. Instead, it seems to me, that grief is more about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation.

Grief is about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation. This is what the transformative power of love is about too. As I look at my life and my ministry actually it is really about meaning rising once again from the ashes of defeat and loss and suffering. I know why I am here today, there is no despair, for I have a life rich in meaning, despite the very real experience of suffering, of loss and grief.

In “Love and Death” Forrest Church wrote “Love is grief’s advance party.” I know day by day I seem to love even more. As a result I know that I will know more grief. This does not fill me with too much fear. As I look around at the people I serve and the people I share my life with, as I walk the streets of the town I live in and move in the many varied communities that I belong to, I feel my heart filling and sometimes this brings a tear to my eye knowing that the physical aspect will come and go, but still the love will go on transforming my life and all of our lives so long as we find the courage, the heart, to love, so long as we do not harden our hearts.

Grief truly is the price we pay for love, but then what else is their worth dying for other than love. Surely we all want to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for, by the love we leave behind.