Sunday 29 July 2018

Dedication: To bless the space we're in

Last Sunday I attended the 80th birthday celebration of Peter Sampson at Cross street chapelm in Manchester (England). It was a joy and blessing to be there and celebrate this wonderful human being’s life. Peter is one of my favourite people and in so many ways epitomises what it is to be a Unitarian. Peter has dedicated his life to living Unitarianially, if such a word exists. He has also been a beloved member of Cross Street since even before the new chapel building was built in 1998. He travels in from Lancaster,sometimes three times a week. He has blessed this place with his dedicated service and loving presence. He has helped to truly make it holy ground. It was Peter who greeted me as I first walked through the door there some 14 years ago, as he has done for so many others.

Now during the celebration Rev Cody Coyne spoke of Peter’s dedication to Cross Street. I listened carefully and as I did my homiletic consciousness began to awaken. It got me thinking about dedication, about how we show our love through what we bless with our presence, it got me thinking about holy places, holy ground and how life becomes sanctified by loving dedication.

Now the word “dedication” itself is one of those words that has changed, nay been reduced in meaning as time has gone by. So here’s a little etymology for you. Dedication comes from an old French word “dedicacion which meant “concecration of a church or chapel”, coming from the Latin word “dedicare” meaning to concecrate, proclaim, affirm or set aside. It later came to mean to give yourself to a purpose. Over the years people have dedicated books and music to people as a thank you for inspiration and support.

When I think about Peter Sampson it is plain to me that he has dedicated his life to living Unitarianally. He has done so by blessing those he meets and living a life of loving presence. He has been his unique self and in so doing he has encouraged those blessed by his presence to become all that they could possibly be. He has dedicated his life to making the ground at his feet holy by blessing it with his presence. Peter is a man of dedication.

As Roy Castle sang as the end of "Record Breakers"

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

Whenever I go to Cross I am always filled with many emotions, so many beautiful but also heart breaking too. My days there, many years ago, were so important to my spiritual development. It even has a special place in my early relationship with Sue. On the day of our first date we called into the place as we were waiting for the theatre to open. Cross Street is one of my holy places, I feel like I am on holy ground when I am there. I suspect that Cross Street is one of those “thin places” that the ancient Celts described. A place where there is only a very thin divide between the past, present and future. It certainly feels like that for me. In this place I reconnect with my past and perhaps get a glimpse into the future which enables me to truly connect with the present. Oddly in those moments time actually feels very “thick”, in the sense that I experience it richly and deeply. As a result of these feelings I tend to feel this blessing in most places, as I connect to the love present in life.

Once you have felt the power of sacred space and time you can experience it everywhere and as a result I have discovered that you can dedicate your life to love and learn to bless all time and place with your loving presence. Something I see clearly in the life of Peter Sampson, a man of true dedication.

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

If we live in dedication to love and life we begin to bless all life, we make the ground at our feet holy ground as we consecrate it with our loving presence. This brings to mind perhaps one of the best known references to holy ground, found the Book of Exodus. It describes Moses catching sight of a bush which is on fire, but which is not being consumed by the flames. An odd sight indeed, which draws Moses nearer, to get a closer look. “God calls his name from the bush.” “Moses, Moses.” When Moses answers, “Here I am,” He is told to remove his shoes for he stands on holy ground.

Moses is called to deliver the Hebrew people out of Egypt, to free them from slavery. God says to Moses, “I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come to rescue them from the land of the Egyptians. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharoah to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Now Moses wondered why on earth the people would follow him, so he asked for a sign, he asked for a name that the people would believe. To which God told him to tell them that “I am” had sent him. He was not offering them certainty, just mystery. They would have to risk everything in order to reach the Promised Land.

Now all this sounds a little strange, but there is meaning here, hidden in the beautiful universal mythos, a truth that can speak to all of us. When I read scripture I do not do so as history more meaningful mystery. For me the burning bush is about Moses uncovering his own meaning, his own purpose. It’s about him being caught by the flame. It’s about him paying attention to the ground at his feet and the people he lived with. It’s about him seeing that the ground at his feet is holy ground and that his task was to lead his people to the Promised Land. So they wandered for forty years in the desert looking for the Promised Land. Something we can all do in our lives searching for Heaven, for Nirvana when the truth is we are already in it. All we have to do is truly live on the land in which we find ourselves and to truly bless it and one another with our loving presence. We don’t need to be led to the Promised Land we just need to realise that we are already standing on it. We just need to bring this space and place alive. We need to risk everything by giving our love away.

We can all hear the call of the Holy from deep within us and from all around us, all we have to do is to listen is to pay attention. All we have to do is risk everything by giving our love away. We too can be like Moses and the Hebrews we can come to find ourselves, after many trials in the Promised Land by learning to live in the land that are feet are firmly planted in. all that’s needed is dedication.

All we have to do is live with dedication, to consecrate the ground at our feet and the people who we meet, all we have to do is live with dedication and become the blessing that we have all been searching for. In so doing we will find ourselves instantly in the “Promised Land”

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

To live in dedication all we have to do is shake off our shoes and live our lives recognising that this truly is a holy place. Sacred living, holiness, dedication is about being fully alive. Holiness is a life fully lived, a life where we truly pay attention.

All we have to do to awaken the holy is to truly pay attention to the world and the people around us and truly inhabit the space in which we live and breathe and share our being. All we have to do is come to believe that we all walk on holy ground. All we have to do is wholly live our lives. All we have to do is live our lives in dedication to the holiest of holy purposes, to live in love.

All we need is dedication… 

Dedication. Â Dedication. Â Dedication.
That’s what you need.
If you wanna be the best,
and you wanna beat the rest.
Oo-ooh! Â Dedications what you need.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

The love of contradiction: The power of paradox

Last week I spent some time in London. It was wonderful to get away and visit a few sights and sounds. It was a time of contrast, you might even say contradiction. On the Tuesday Sue and I set off to the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design, the aim was to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit “Making Herself Up”. We travelled through the hustle and bustle of the city as people went about the business. As we got off the tube we noticed a couple of women who were obviously going to the exhibit, they looked and dressed just like Kahlo. It was a beautiful exhibit using her work and her unique style of dress to tell her moving and remarkable life story. In many ways her whole persona was a work of art, making the most of who she was and her struggles both physical and, emotional, identity and political. A life of contrast and in some ways contradiction. I found it deeply moving. Beautiful actually.

After leaving the exhibition we spent some time enjoying some of the beautiful gardens in and around the V and A, particularly Kensington Gardens. Sue taught me about the different flowers and how well they go together. We also observed the rich variety of people going about their lives. We had a lot of fun just goofing around before heading towards Highbury to watch Lukas Nelson in concert. Another wonderful night. Lukas is the son of country music legend Willie Nelson and his music was a mixture of so many styles. You could hear an eclectic mix of influence in his music. It made me think of the all the great artists he must have met growing up as the son of Willie Nelson.

It contrasted beautifully with the Kahlo exhibition and yet at the same time complimented it. They were both influenced by their upbringing, Kahlo had a German father and Mexican mother and was influenced by the communist revolution of her time, she rejected her Catholic faith and yet her art and her life were obviously influenced the deep spirituality of her ethnically Mexican roots and of course the physical difficulties she struggled with all her life. Nelson’s joy and abandon in his music was just a beautiful spiritual experience. I particularly loved a new song of his in which he suggested that we turn off the news and stop getting wrapped up in the negative aspects of life and go plant a garden or create a family and bring some love and beauty into the world. A sentiment that rang in my ears over the next few days as I became overly absorbed in the troubles of Brexit and the insane visit of Donald Trump both here and all over Europe. I cannot change the world I cannot stop the pain of life, whether personal or global, but I can do something positive and loving in this world. I can create some love and beauty. Something we can all do.

I learnt once again last week that if I want to know life’s beauty all I have to do is be involved in creating it. By merely creating beauty I know beauty I come a part of life’s beauty.

My word what a week of contrast…and contradiction…

Barry Lopez said in “The Big Questions” by Lama Surya Das

“One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once, life would collapse. There are simply no definitive answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

I do love people, even when they irritate me. The thing I love the most is perhaps how contradictory we can all be. People constantly surprise me in loves and dislikes, none can ever be put perfectly in a box. It is the same with life really, it is full of contrast and contradiction.

Now the area where life’s contradictory nature is clearer than anything is in the spiritual aspects of life and living. At the core I have discovered is contrast, contradiction and paradox. Religion and spirituality is not common sense, it is by contrast uncommon sense. You cannot put it in a box and seal it, it is unbound, but then so is life. Our lives, like Frida Kahlo’s, if we are going to truly live spiritually alive ought to be works of art. We are here to create love and beauty, to plant a garden, to make a family, to create Beloved Community.

The world’s religious and spiritual traditions are no stranger to paradox. Taoism is full, or do I mean empty, of them. Here is one example:

Fullness and emptiness give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complete each other.
Long and short shape each other.
Tones and voice harmonize with each other.
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore wherever the sage is, he dwells among affairs by not doing.
He teaches without words.
The ten-thousand things arise, but he doesn’t impel them.
He gives birth, but he doesn’t possess.
He acts, but he doesn’t rely on what he has done.
He has successes, but he doesn’t claim credit.
So by not claiming credit, he is never empty.

The teachings of Jesus are firmly grounded in paradox. He said “the first shall be last”; “empty yourself and be filled”; “lose yourself and be found” The epistle Paul wrote “As dying, and, behold, we live”; he said of his fellow Christians “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”; and he said of himself “When I am weak, then I am strong”

Aristotle saw this as absolute twaddle of course. He is the great grandfather of scientific methodology, of all who pride themselves on their critical faculties and all who claim rationality. He talked of the law of the excluded middle. Put simply something cannot be both hot and cold at the same time. How can anyone argue with such logic? We cannot be rich if we are poor; we cannot be first if we are last; we cannot experience joy if our lives are full of sorrow.

Is he correct? Well he sounds like he is making sense.

Yet the religious sages seem to disagree. They speak an uncommon sense it seems.

How on earth can we receive when we are giving? It does not seem to make sense, when we think logically. Life though is not pure logic, we are more than the sum of our parts. Just look at a garden. It is made up of many and varied flowers, each uniquely beautiful but who come alive as they blend together, they are far more than the sum of their parts. It is the same with our lives that are made up moments but that are made beautiful by the meaning that emerges from these moments, good and bad and oh so beautiful.

Of course a paradox does not make sense in a purely logical sense, it is in its essence uncommon sense, but to expect it to do so is to fail to understand its purpose. It is the tool that broadens the framework in which we see reality. It stretches the boundaries of truth. Through our imaginations we push truth past its seeming limits. Without imagination, without foresight we would probably never have come down from the trees, or out of the caves. A paradox cannot be solved by conventional truths, it requires unconventional truths. It stretches common sense to the point where it becomes uncommon sense and thus moves our experiences of life forward. It challenges the status quo and the understanding of any given time. This is of course what the great religious sages did, they brought new understanding to their time and place.

Here’s a little wisdom on the paradoxical nature of spiritual living by the Sufi mystic Kabir. It is taken from “Songs of Kabir: A Fifteenth Century Sufi Literary Classic” by Rabindranath Tagore

"I am neither pious nor ungodly,
I live neither by law nor by sense,
I am neither a speaker nor hearer,
I am neither a servant nor master,
I am neither bond nor free,
I am neither detached nor attached.
I am far from none: I am near to none.
I shall go neither to hell nor to heaven.
I do all works; yet I am apart from all works.
Few comprehend my meaning: he who
can comprehend it, he sits unmoved.
Kabir seeks neither to establish nor to destroy.”

Our lives are riddled with paradoxes. How often have we heard the following statements? “I am surrounded by people and yet I am lonely” “My life is so full of choices, that I can’t make a decision about anything” or on the more optimistic end of the scale “I am skint and yet I am happy” or “I have so much, because I have so little”

The wisdom of paradox challenges our desire for certainty and perfection. The only thing that I know for certain is that my body will not last forever. We humans though do not like to believe this we like to think that we are all powerful and all knowable. We are mortal we are not God. The book “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, which was based around the authors work with alcoholics recognises that our attempts to achieve perfection have been our most tragic mistake. It highlights that one of the central theme of the spiritual traditions is the insistence that honesty, particularly honesty with self about self, is an essential requirement for any religious quest; that the greatest and most insidious dishonesty is to deny or refuse to accept our mixed human nature. We are not saints, nor are we sinners. We possess qualities of great goodness as well as the capacity to do great evil within us. We are beautiful balls of contradiction, made up of all kinds of thoughts and emotions and yet somehow far more than the sum of our beautiful parts.

So what I am trying to say is that we need to learn to not only accept but glory in life’s messiness. Let’s not get bogged down in worries and concerns, well not too much. I’m not saying we merely passive accept things, no not at all. Let us instead make something beautiful from life’s contradictions and paradoxes, let’s become artists of our lives. Let’s form something beautiful from our hearts, grow a garden, a family or a community, let’s live by this beautiful and sadly a little too uncommon sense.