Sunday 23 December 2018

The Christmas Guesthouse: Welcome them all in

I am often asked “What do you believe in?” Not an easy question to answer. I often say “I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything.” Now don’t get me wrong, as someone recently did, this does not mean that I approve of everything in life, but I do try not to deny things these days, the good and the bad and the less than beautiful. I also believe that there is something more, perhaps only a little more, than this material life. The trouble I have is in articulating this. I know some will say this this is a cop out, but I do not agree. It is honest and it is humble. I experience something more than my and I reckon others understanding, but the fact that I cannot articulate this does not make it any less real. I experience so much in this life that I accept I can never fully comprehend. When I accept this I experience that something more in ever more deep ans wonderful ways that are way beyond my imagining.

There are times in my life when I feel this more powerfully than others. These are often moments of trial and tribulation. I have felt it often this year, that said I also feel it almost as powerfully in moments of joy. The key, I have discovered, is to always remain open.

Rumi wrote:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The key, as Rumi taught is to welcome whatever gift comes, “ a joy, a depression, a meanness” Well this year I have welcomed them all in. This is the greatest gift of all that we are given in the experience that is human life. I have learnt the truth that if you do welcome them all in, then somehow you will experience more than you could have ever dreamed of.

We are fast approaching the moment of magic, the birth of love in life, the birth of joy to the world. I have noticed many guests this Advent. Many joys and many depressions. I know that all the spirits of Christmas have been alive and well in me throughout this Advent Seasons. I have felt them even more intensely this week. Monday was a wonderful example as I felt myself getting a little scrooge like during the day, as I got frustrated at trying to get everything done in time to get to Sue’s as we were going to “Home” cinema in Manchester, to see big screen viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Well the film worked its magic. It got into those places that it needed to get deep into. It was beautiful to sit there with so many other people, the rest complete strangers and allow the magic to get deep into the core of my being. It opened me up, got deep into my soul as I relived so many feelings that I have felt this year and so many other times throughout my life. I was visited by all the spirits of this beautiful season, as I re-experienced many emotions. As we left I felt that once again something had changed deep within me.

My heart had been a guesthouse and I had welcomed them all and as a result something in me had changed. This truly is a wonderful life, but it is not one without pain and at times suffering. Something we all experience even at this time of joy and love. Do not be afraid to let them all in. Remember we are all in this boat together and everyone of us will be experiencing these many emotions, unless something deeply human has died within us.

We need to make room for it all and to welcome it in, I reckon that this is what the Christmas stories, whether they be ancient or modern, are about. There is something powerful and transformative in the mythos of all of them that help bring the spirit of the season alive, just when we need it the most. Well “It’s a Wonderful Life” did it for me again this week as I laughed and connected and spent the last half hour with tears rolling down my face as I remembered so many people who have touched my life, and experiences that have affected me deeply, all those  complex emotions I have felt throughout my life and once again this year, as I felt the true religion, that gets lost in the tinsel, the lights and the ever heavier traffic so often at this time of year. It opened me up once again and allowed me to let it all in. As a result I can now hopefully give it all out once again.

I was asked the other day what Christmas means to me. My first answer went something like this, well for me this season is about preparing each of us for the coming of hope that can be found in a humble birth of a lowly child in a lowly stable. That this is not about one birth though, but all births and not just about our physical birth, but that this is a spiritual birth that can come at any time and can continue as we journey on through our lives. If we open our hearts to it, if we welcome them in. The magic will come to life so long as we do not act like those inn keepers in the ancient Bethlehem story. The miracle will come so long as we say that there is in fact room in the inn. It is a story of a child born with incredible potential and yet who is rejected. Isn’t this a universal tale? Doesn’t it speak of all of us at times? There is more to the Christmas myth than the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of the Biblical accounts. In fact to get lost in detail of what did or didn’t actually happen is to miss the whole point of the story. It sounds as ludicrous as those medieval theologians who argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Is that what really matters? Surely there is more to the story than prosaic fact.

Remember that during this season we sing “Glad tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy” and not “glad tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact”

There is a deep universal truth hidden with these deep and meaningful stories. There is something “deep and crisp and even” in it all, if we would just open ourselves up to it all and welcome it all in.

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell taught that myths such as the nativity story are actually metaphors for human life. That they are eternal and universal tales that can teach us about our lives right here right now. He believed that by understanding these mysteries we can begin to understand who we truly are and what life is all about.

Carl Jung taught that these myths originate within our “collective unconscious”. He said that we each have a conscious level that we are aware of in our waking moments. Beneath this is our personal unconscious level, our closet. This is where we store memories, experiences, desires, fears, urges, compulsions etc. It is here that our personal “stuff” is stored, which from time to time we dip into. Some of this stuff is beautiful and some of it is terrifying. This is the domain of our devils and demons.

Jung also described our “collective unconscious”. This is our “collective closet” Jung uncovered common themes, symbols and motifs while working with his patients and he noticed that these same themes, symbols and motifs were also to be found in the religious stories and myths. From this he concluded that these common myths and stories are part of humanities “common closet”. These myths are drawn from a common human well of memory and thought and that they teach us about ourselves and the mysteries of existence. The problem today is that when we hear the word myth we equate it with an untruth, a lie, instead of seeing them as revealers of deeper universal truths. As Campbell observed to view them as lies is to actually get “stuck in the metaphor” and to fail to see the deeper universal truth that is being revealed.

As I sat in that cinema last Monday, with a load of strangers who were all connected in that shared experience, I know that all those levels were working in harmony and doing their magic. I know this because as I left the cinema I felt changed and I feel certain that others did too. So much of my experiences were brought back to life as I set there with others, it was a truly religious experience as my heart was opened once more as I was held with others and was able to let in every experience. It was very similar to times when I sit through a good worship service or are held through a funeral service. The challenge is to stay like this throughout my days, something I can never quite do, but then who can?

Christmas is not yet here. We still have a few days to open the mangers of our hearts and let all those guests in. No doubt we will sing some of these songs once again, or we will see a film or speak with an old friend or loved one. Perhaps we will attend another service of worship and come together with others and sing “glad tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, oh glad tidings of comfort and joy.”

So let’s invite everything in, lets believe in everything and in so doing experience and know that little bit more than everything. Come and join with me and make of your life a guesthouse where all can enter, where all are welcome to come as they are, exactly as you are…always remembering that none of us will ever leave in exactly the same condition…

Come Christmas come...and shine your holy light and bring to life that which is waiting to be born in the mangers of our hearts…

Sunday 9 December 2018

Our Rituals of Christmas Time

We are well and truly into Advent now, well into the festival of light at this the darkest time of the year. How are you doing? Are you in the spirit of the season or are you struggling a little. It can be a difficult time for some folk in so many ways. It’s just so easy to get lost in a variety of things. So much so that we fail to fully experience what this time of year is all about. We all have a bit of Scrooge within us do we not, we all have a little bit of “Bah Humbug”.

Christmas means different things to each and every one of us. Do you know what, it always has. People often cry that it’s not what it used to be. Well do you know what it used to be many years ago is not what it used to be many years before then. That said despite all the ever changing rituals and celebrations there does appear to be a universal spirit that has always existed. Do you know what the spirit has existed longer than the Christmas story and stories. Christmas is the ultimate Universal mythos of the heart.

For many people Christmas is a time of love and compassion of bringing to the surface our better selves. For others it is about family (however we understand family) coming together. For some it is about God’s Love incarnating perfectly in life, in the Christ child. For others it is the celebration of the end of winter and the coming of life and renewal in the spring time. I think it is all of this and a whole lot more. It seems to me that Christmas is the ultimate universal festival of the heart. It is a mixture of so many traditions and it has altered so much over time, embracing and incorporating so much of this simple spirit of light and love. Christmas is the ultimate festival of the heart, perfectly placed in the deep mid-winter when we need it the most.

As the years go by the meaning of Christmas has changed for me, as the meaning of life has. I suspect it means more to me today than it has ever done. Every year this meaning grows. Christmas is not just another day to me, in fact it has truly become a season, the season of the heart come to life. Religiously it means more to me too. As time as gone by I have connected more to the many and varied rituals of Christmas and there are many. Ok some may see these rituals as secular, but I am not convinced. I see the spirit at the heart of Christmas incarnating in all of them. I love Christmas, I truly do. I love it because it fills my heart with nostalgia, generosity and goodwill, it connects me to life, to God and to the people around me, it connects me to the past, to my ancestors and to those who touched my life, many who are no longer here. I shed many tears around this time of year. All this allows me to feel more alive. It opens up the present, the ultimate gift of life. The spiritual life is not about passively living in the moment, but truly bringing the moment to life.

Christmas is the heart of the year. Christmas is about Kairos time, not Chronos time. Time slows and our experiences thicken, if we allow them to. If we open our hearts truly to the spirit at work in the experiences. If we open our hearts to one another our relationships will deepen. What is more religious than this? For me to be religious is to increase our connections through they way we live our lives and to be spiritual is to increase our sensitivity, our experience of life.

An example of this are the many rituals that we all engage in each and every year. One example is going to buy a new tree, or fetching the artificial one from where ever we store it in the house. Getting out the decorations and placing them around the home. For so many people this connects us to our past and those who have touched our lives. There are so many memories tied up in these rituals. The memories will be mixed, as life is mixed, to misquote good old Moses “The blessings and curses of choosing life”. How many of us laugh and cry as we engage with these rituals and of course pass on the memories, rebind them, bring them to life, remember, reincarnate them. Isn’t this love incarnated. To me this is the very essence of religion.

Then of course there is the music, whether that be carols and carol singing or the many and numerous pop songs and classic songs from the old movies. For every service during December the congregations I serve insist on only singing carols and I’m with them all the way. The "pop" songs are no less religious, no less spiritual to me. They connect me to my past and those I’ve heard and sung these songs with and they help bring the moment more fully alive. They increase my experience of life too, they open my heart, they incarnate love. A taste of heaven.

Then of course there are the films, those great Christmas stories. For so many of us this is the heart of Christmas. What is your favourite? What film is at the heart of Christmas for you? I will be going to see a couple on the big screen in the next couple of weeks. It’s wonderful to go and see a classic film on the big screen and to do so in company, sharing that experience with folk that you love.

All these rituals to me are deeply religious and spiritual also. They connect us to one another, to life, that spirit at the heart of life, they connect us to our past and those who have touched our lives and they bring the gift of Christmas to life, the ultimate gift of Christmas, the present, the Christmas present. It truly increases our sensitivity to life itself.

Another universal quality is the journeying of Christmas. There is of course the "chronos" journey through the Advent season as we open our Advent Calendars and count down the days. There are the journeys to buy the gifts for loved ones. There is the journey to events and parties. There is the journey home also. Journeying is of course at the heart of the Christmas mythos. Whether that is the journey of the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary, carrying the Christ child in her womb on the road to Bethlehem, of the refusal and the rejection, of the magical birth and adorations and then of course having to flee for their lives, a journey we can all relate to in so many ways. Journey’s people have been travelling on for generations. Then of course there is the journey of the Magi, the wise men, who were called out to cross many lands in order to follow their bliss and bring gifts of love to the beloved.

These are journey’s of distance. But also journeys of depth. They are both "Chronos" and "Kairos" journeys. I will be doing some journeying over the next few weeks. As I am sure you will all be doing so too. They will be journey’s of hope and of sorrow, of joy and laughter and some pain. They will be religious journey’s and spiritual journey’s, journeys of the heart. Journey’s that will increase our sensitivity to life and deepen our connections to one another, to life, to our past, our present and the future. It will open our hearts and in so doing incarnate love here in our lives.

So let’s journey on through this Christmas season and truly open our hearts and engage in its spirit. May our hearts open wider, at this the heart of the year. May our experiences deepen as we remember to slow down as we rush through the business of our days May we know the true gifts of the season; gifts of love, compassion and acceptance. May we bring the spirit of the season alive and in so doing learn to make it Christmas in the days yet to come.

If we want to make it Christmas everyday, then we need to live by it spirit every single day...It is up to us...