Sunday 15 December 2019

Bringing Christmas Alive: Past. Present and Future

Last weekend I was consumed by a deep and heavy cold. I’m sure I wasn’t the best company and was probably wasn’t entirely in the Christmas spirit. I hope I wasn’t too Scrooge like. On Saturday night I did witness a beautiful joyful annual ritual. As I sat in the chair, feeling somewhat sorry for myself, I watched Sue and her daughter Lucy put their Christmas tree up and take out the many decorations. Everyone seemed to have a story, some had even belonged to Sue’s grandma, and others were her mothers, several more had been collected as her own children had grown up. I thought how lovely it was to connect those decorations to at least three generations. I wondered to myself if Lucy would keep up this tradition when she begins to create a family of her own, I suspect that she will.

I find it lovely how this simple annual ritual has an ability to connect the present with the past and the future, those three vital spirits of Christmas. Each telling its own story and each coming to life at the same time.

It brought me back to the quotation that I had ended last weeks "blogspot" with. Those beautiful words of Mr Scrooge toward the end of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

In the story Scrooge beautifully portrays the power at the heart of Christmas, how love can redeem even the most lost. It emerges through the journey of integration that he is taken on, of the past, present and future; of both the light and the dark of life; of hope and despair. During the telling of “A Christmas Carol” he was visited by three spirits, the ghosts of the past, present and yet to be.

“The Ghost of Christmas Past” forced him to not only look back at his past but to relive it, to truly feel it. He was made to remember what Christmas had once meant, before cynicism had taken hold. It showed him both the happiness and the sadness present in his past, there was no sugar coating. It is of course a true humbug to pretend that all the sadness in life is washed away at Christmas time. And yet while there is sadness present in all life there is also love and joy, there is much to be grateful for. It is the “The Ghost of Christmas Past” that revealed this to Scrooge.

As I recall the past Christmases I have known there is much joy, but there is also deep sadness too. This is life. I am at peace with my past these days as I feel it is truly a part of me. I feel these former ghosts, that once haunted me, are now fully integrated deep in the soul of my being. Those ghosts are a part of me.

“The Ghost of Christmas Present” showed Scrooge the full picture of the world in which he lived, especially at Christmas time. He saw the warts and the beauty spots too. It revealed the affluence as well as the want. It showed Christmas being enjoyed in far off places, on the high seas in lighthouses, it showed every heart being warmed by the season. This surely touched Scrooge, as his heart was warmed by the universal love, present in all life, regardless of material circumstances, expressed by the spirit of Christmas.

It is vital that we see the world truly with the awakened eye. To see life as it actually is, for the awakened eye is a compassionate eye. The world in which we live today is as mixed as the world of Dickens. We see poverty and want everywhere. Homelessness is a terrible blight of our time. Did you know that there are as many foodbanks in this country as McDonald’s restaurants? A terrible statistic don’t you think. And yet this isn’t the whole picture, there is a great deal of joy in coming together, often shown in times of trouble, people coming together in love, people helping and offering service to one another in a variety of ways,

“The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be” brought the reality of Scrooge’s own lonely and un-mourned death to him. People either did not care or actually cheered his passing. All that he owned was quickly stripped from him; it meant nothing in the end. They even took the curtains from his bed. When the spirit showed him his grave, he did not recognise it as his own, he tried to deny it, but the spirits finger pointed from the grave back to him. This terrified Scrooge who cried out that he was a changed man, as he begged for mercy clutching the spirits robe. And then from his lips came those immortal words, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all three will strive within me. I will not shut out the lesson that they teach.”

Scrooge became the Christmas hero because he brought the reality of what Christmas is all about to life; through him the spirit of Christmas came to life. It is the same for everyone, regardless of time and place. For surely Christmas is about honouring life in its wholeness; surely it is about reconciliation in its completeness. It is about giving birth to the love within each of by reconciling our past in our present and therefore creating a future inspired by love.

We are told that to truly live we must live in the moment. Now while I am not going to contradict this,but I do not think that this is not enough. I have come believe that the key to truly living alive is that rather than simply passively living in the moment, we must bring the present alive, by integrating our whole lives, past, present and future.

Christmas is about the past, present and future integrated as one. This is the love we must give birth to on Christmas morning, born in mangers of our hearts.

To truly bring the moment to life requires each of us to integrate the whole of our lives. This is especially true at Christmas time, in fact this is the beautiful Christmas paradox.

This all got me thinking about this great paradox of Christmas, it is found right at the core of the season. At Christmas we celebrate newness and rebirth and yet at the same time we revere tradition more than at any other time of year perhaps. Just think of all the traditions that you feel you must engage in just to make it Christmas. Christmas is a beautiful mix of the old and the new, inseparably intertwined in one gift-wrapped package, ready for us to open and enjoy. Christmas is newness, first and foremost, a celebration of birth and rebirth. It is a season of preparing, of focusing all that is within us on making ready the birthplace of the Christ child within the mangers of our own hearts. Isn’t this what happened to Mr Scrooge, thus heralding a new future.

Every Christmas is a chance to integrate the whole of our lives. We recreate our pasts through traditions. We hear and sing again the same carols, they stir something deep within us. How many of us engage in the same ritual that Sue and Lucy did, tenderly and lovingly unpacking and displaying cherished decorations. Don’t they bring to mind former days, former joys and sad memories too, especially as we remember lost loved ones. What about the cards that we write and send, posting greetings to distant and not-so-distant friends and loved ones, remembering all those who make up our network of mutual love. Even the most secular amongst us participate in ceremonies, keeping alive the traditions of Christmas that are so rich and meaningful in this season.

Christmas is a beautiful blend of the old and the new. We need the old to truly give birth to the new, it is a part of who we are. In order to give birth to the love waiting in the mangers of our hearts, this Advent season. Advent is about waiting to give birth to this love. How do we do this, well by following the lead of Mt Scrooge, by simply integrating the past, the present and the future.

In so doing we will give birth to that love during the moment of magic on Christmas morning.

Here is my favourite adaptation of a "Christmas Carol"

Sunday 8 December 2019

The Spirit of Christmas in the Secular and the Sacred

On the 22nd December 1946 George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter to the “The Reynolds News” stating:

“Christmas is for me simply a nuisance. The mob supports it as a carnival of mendacity, gluttony, and drunkenness. Fifty years ago, I invented a society for the abolition of Christmas. So far I am the only member. That is all I have to say on the subject.”

To which editor responded:

“Mr. Shaw’s campaign has met with serious obstacles. The public read his books and went to his plays, but they read Dickens, too. They couldn’t be made to stop singing carols, lighting up Christmas trees, making presents, and feeling more than usually amiable toward their relatives, friends, and the world in general. Many of them paid attention to Mr. Shaw’s ideas about other things, including vegetarianism and Fabian socialism, but they would not pay attention to his ideas about Christmas. His failure is as apparent to him as it is to the rest of us.”

I do love this editors response. It was written just days after the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Frank Capra had premiered. I wonder what Shaw thought of this film and the spirit that flows through it. The film was a flop when it was first released and yet today, along with one of the many versions of “A Christmas Carol” has become an embodiment of the Christmas spirit.

By the way Shaw is not the only well-known figure who sought the abolition of Christmas. It was once banned in England. During the period of the Commonwealth, following the English Civil War, the Puritans in Parliament wanted the people to focus purely on Sunday as the holy day and wanted rid of all the other festivals, such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which they considered both heathen and Catholic. Christmas became Christ-tide. In 1647 they passed an ordinance abolishing all three festivals. That said as much as they attempted to enforce them the laws were hard to maintain and the people continued to celebrate these feast in the ways they always had. The measures were completely swept away following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 when all legislation passed between 1642 and 1660 was made null and void.

Now of course theologically speaking the Puritans were quite right in most of their objections about Christmas and the time that it was held. That said Christmas was never a celebration of theological correctness, of biblical literalism, of doctrinal purity of historical factuality.

Christmas as we understand it today and certainly its spirit has a deep and rich history and has been fed by many traditions both ancient and modern. Christmas is for everyone, in every time and place. It matters not what name we give this festival of the heart that comes alive at this time of year. It matters little to me the variety of roots that formed it either; they certainly do not diminish its power. Quite the opposite actually the universality of it enhances my faith in that universal and eternal spirit that I name God, that light of hope that finds a way through in the darkness of winter and warm our hearts and hearths, that runs through it.

The heart of Christmas is what many call “the Christmas spirit”. And what is “the Christmas spirit”? well it’s joy, it is the reassessment that at the core of life is a goodness, that there is a deep warmth in human relations, that we are capable of coming together in love, something that is beautifully portrayed in the film that was released just days before Shaw’s letter was published, “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

“The Christmas spirit” reminds us that we are one people and that we are here to offer our gifts of service to one another. The stories we tell and the activities we engage in remind us of this spirit and brings it to life. Sadly though its only for a season, if only it could become a spirit for our life times.

Sue and myself went to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the big screen last Advent. It worked its magic. It got into those places that it needed to. 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 into the marrow of my soul as I relived so many feelings that I have experienced over the 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. It reawakened me to the spirit of the season at a time I really needed it, as I was getting somewhat stressed with the work. The spirit came to life 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 that year. I felt the spirit of the season come to life in my heart that can get lost in the tinsel, the lights and the ever heavier traffic, so often at this time of year. I was touched beautifully by the spirit of Christmas.

What are your favourite Christmas films? What brings you into the spirit of the season? Go and see one on the big screen if you can. 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. If not there are many channels dedicated to them these days. Take time to take some of them in. Sue and myself will be going to Home in Manchester once again, just before Christmas, to see "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen.

It is not just in the films though that the "the Christmas spirit" comes to life through. There are of course the Christmas songs, whether they be the carols we sing or the multitude of songs played on the radio. I wonder what your favourite carols are. What about the supposedly secular ones, they bring the spirt to life in each of us too. What are your favourites? The ones you never get bored of. The ones that sing “glad tidings of comfort and joy” to you and all. The stories and the songs may not be ones of reason and fact, but then again life is more than merely this. These songs bring to life a spirit in each of us.

The spirit of Christmas does something to us, there is a magic to it, it is more than reason and fact. It can’t be quantified and it cannot be measured, but it surely can be experienced and known, but only if you let it have its way with you. We just have to risk greeting strangers more openly and warmly.

So don’t go Bah Humbug at those homes that are overly decorated. Be inspired by that same spirit and multiply the joy. Go decorate your own homes and hearts with light and colour and joy. Be freer, be kinder, be more generous abandon yourself to the spirit of the season and you know what you might just carry that on into the new year and beyond.

The magic of Christmas is there in its spirit. For it is this that enables us to open up to our true nature. Christmas is wonderful, powerful and special because it helps us to become more comfortable about being open and giving. Its spirit helps us to give the goodness that is waiting to come to life, within each of us and that is why we love it so much.

The Spirit of Christmas is one of joy. It reminds us of the goodness that is at the core of life, symbolised in the prospect that a baby, a special infant, or any new born, that has the potential to bring us the saving power of love to life once more.

This is the spirit waiting to come to life once more. The time is now, it is upon us. May we be open to it. May we fulfil its promise. May we sing to one another “glad tiding of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, glad tidings of comfort and joy.

So I will not be joining Mr Shaw’s club. I believe and love this time of year more and more as time goes by. I know I need this spirit to open my heart and to try and make it Christmas every day.

Instead of Mr Shaw I will follow Mr Dicken’s in the spirit of good old Ebenezer Scrooge

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

I believe in the Spirit of Christmas and that little bit more than Christmas, than everything,that can be found in everything..

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.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Family: It takes just three cups of tea

Last weekend Sue and myself made a trip over to Yorkshire to catch up with some of my nearest and dearest. We have spent quite a bit of time, in recent months getting to know one another’s family and letting them get to know us. It is lovely but it is also challenging. Both families have their history and their stories. Mine is of course much more complicated. It is certainly bigger. Our wedding guest lists are not balanced at all.

When you enter into any family you have to take it completely in all its joy and suffering, we have both experienced much of this already. Last weekend was another experience of sharing in joy and suffering also.

Most of us started out in a family of some kind. Now whether we remember our childhoods fondly or with dread, I bet we all have some complicated feelings about our families of birth and upbringing.

Families are complicated things, they always have been by the way. My mum is a family history expert, purely self taught . Over the years she has spent a great deal of her spare time exploring people’s family histories. One thing that she has noticed is that they have always been complicated, full of mystery and secrets. People are the same as they have always been. Families are complicated things, therefore it should come as no surprise that so many of us have complicated feelings about them.

Most of us are born into a family of some sort, within these families we learn the basics of living and at some point we break away and establish our own emerging adult personalities. For of all of us the day eventually comes when we leave the nest, yes some are pushed, but leave we do. In the end we begin to make our own complicated families, merging with others and blending in all kinds of fascinating ways.

Families are fascinating and complicated things. The place of some of our greatest joys and desperate sufferings, no matter how they are made up. There are many ways to make and create family by the way. Once again this has always been so. Family is not just some idealized image of a 1980s sit com, thank God. If you take a proper look at your family history you will see so.

More than anything a family is made up of stories. Families tell stories, just as cultures and religions do, they are held together by the telling of these stories. Some of the stories are ones of deep suffering and others of incredible joy, so many funny stories too. Mine certainly are. I am told that my brother is currently collecting many stories for his best mans speech at my wedding next year.

These family stories are not static things, they are constantly being rewritten and re-told. Last weekend we recounted an amusing story from last Christmas, of playing “Family Fortunes” with a happy and mixed blend of my ever forming and reforming family. Please don’t ask me to explain exactly who belongs to who of those that were gathered together that day.

A family is a place of stories. Another word for this is “gossip”. We connect by telling our stories of each other, keeping up to date with varied members. The stories are not just of the past, but also of the present. Family members gossip about each other. Now such “gossiping” can be hurtful and diminishing, I am sure all have bad experiences of this from our lives. That said healthy gossip is shared too. Now this is closer to “gossip” in its original meaning. The word “gossip” is derived from words for God and sibling. It originally meant “akin to God”. The word originally described a person you were connected to in spiritual kinship, either a sponsor or God parent. So when we share such stories we are connecting people together in shared concern. Sadly, gossip these days almost means the exact opposite to its original meaning. It seems more to be akin to separation than connection.

Now this might not surprise you to hear, but the word family had changed in its meaning over time too. Family never meant the classic image of mother, father and 2.4 children. The word itself originally meant all members of a household, property or estate, this would include servants as well as relatives. The Latin word familia did not refer to parents and children exclusively, the word “domus”, from which domestic was thus derived. actually meant this.

Rather like the word itself, family has changed over time. What we consider as our family may well be different for all of us. I think that a healthy family is something that is constantly opening and changing shape. It ought to be a place of welcome and not one of exclusion. To live healthily by family is to not make the other the un-familiar. it is to instead invite them to become familiar. It takes time to get to know the un-familiar. Not too long though. Actually all we have to do is begin to relate, to “gossip”, in the old fashioned way, to tell our stories.

How do we do this, well simply by sharing time, usually over a meal or simply a cup of tea or coffee. In so doing we begin to relate to one another, in real ways. It doesn’t take long you know. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said 'We are most real when we are drinking tea.' In fact some suggests that all it takes is three cups of tea. This is beautifully illustrated by the following passage from “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson. The following passage describes the author being taught its meaning by a Balti tribesman in Pakistan, that  he was working with.

" 'The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die. Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.' "

Perhaps all it takes is three cups of tea for the un-familiar to become familiar. For once we have shared our stories, once we’ve gossiped for a short while we will already have made deep connections, we see ourselves in the other, and the other in ourselves. We see that we are kin. Kindred spirits bound together by a simple ritual.

This I believe is the case for all of humanity. All it takes is the time to share our stories for all of us to truly see that we are related, kin, kindred spirits, part of the one human family.

Sadly, so often in life we do not see one another as kin, we see the other as different and not part of the one human family. The religious traditions at their worst have often perpetuated this and yet I’m not convinced that this is the essence of their teachings, just the way that some have taught and been practiced. The first book of the Bible Genesis, in chapter 1, depicts humanity being created in God’s image. So if one is to be a follower of the book then surely every act done by one person to another is done by and to a person made in that image, that all are part of the one human family. There is a similar suggestion in the Qur’an which in the fourth chapter declares 'Oh people, be conscious of your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from her, her mate; and from them, many men and women scattered far and wide.' Thus suggesting a deep unity within the one human family and that all people are not only created by God but are descended from a single soul.

Buddhism extends this familiarity beyond merely humanity but to all sentient beings. Seeing all individual beings as being like waves on the ocean. Although each wave has a sense of its own separateness (its 'lesser self'), it is better understood as part of the ocean (its 'greater self'). Suggesting that the key is to awaken to the larger truth that not only are we a part of the ocean but that we are in fact in essence the ocean. Or to paraphrase Jesus “What you do to the least of them you do to me. This is more than interconnection it is deep kin-ship, it is the family of life itself.

We are all part of the one family of life. We share a common heritage, but not only that, we share a common destiny too. We are deeply interconnected, in deep kin-ship. Thus no one is really un-familiar, we just haven’t shared three cups of tea yet.

There are two things in particular that all of us share, joy and grief. We all know joy and we all know grief. When one of those we call family have a success in life, we all celebrate, we all share in this joy. I witnessed this recently at my sisters wedding when all of hers and Howard's loved ones came together to share in this joy. It is the same with grief , when we gather as we lose someone we love. These are feelings that the whole human family share in. We are united in joy and grief. Feelings that are familiar to everyone. So often these are the very stories we share as we drink those three cups of tea.

I'm going to end this little piece with a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition. It illustrates ways in which we can connect and bear witness to our common kinship and familiarity to one another.

"Soyen Shaku, the abbot, each morning took a walk accompanied by his companion from the monastery to the nearby town. One day, as he passed a house, he heard a great cry from within it. Stopping to inquire, he asked the inhabitants, 'Why are you all wailing so?' They said: 'Our child has died and we are grieving.'

"The abbot without hesitation sat down with the family and started crying and wailing himself. As they were returning to the monastery, the abbot's companion asked, 'Master, is this family known to you?' 'No,' the abbot answered. 'Why then, Master, did you also cry?' The abbot said simply, 'So that I may share their sorrow.' "

Isn’t this our common humanity to share our sorrow and of course to share our joy. To become family to make the un-familiar familiar…Apparently it only takes three cups of tea…

Sunday 17 November 2019

Welcome: On Becoming a Wished for Guest

"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come."

Words of the Sufi mystic Mawlana Jala-al-Din Rumi

Simply Rumi to most folk

I’m told I’ve got one of those faces. One that’s easy to talk to, easy and approachable. I’m not sure how true it is, but I do find strangers come and talk with me. It happened on Monday afternoon. I’d just come back from the act of Remembrance in Urmston and went to the gym. I set off for half an hour on the cross trainer before getting stuck into some resistance work. I’d only been moving a minute or so when an old guy came to the machine next to me and began to engage me in conversation. I think he told me his life story in about 20 minutes before he’d had enough, not of talking, but of the machine. He told me about his career, his family, his religious beliefs and his politics and a whole lot more. He told me how he’d been a good salesman and that this was down to the smile and his open face, something that his granddaughter had inherited he was proud to say.

I smiled as he left and I got on with the rest of my routine. I wondered if that’s how it works. All you need is an open face and folk will feel welcome. There’s probably more too it than that, but it’s a good start I thought.

Over the years I’ve developed a bit of a ministerial catch phrase. I wonder if anyone reading this can guess.

I am often hear sating “Come as you are, exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition.” It is my play on those words of Rumi’s at the beginning of this post.

It is my attempt to make feel people welcome wholly as they, but to also keep them open to the possibility of change. For I do belief that life is flux, always changing. As Heraclitus so beautifully put no one steps in the same river twice, because the river is never the same and neither is the person stepping into it. Change of course is something to be celebrated, my hope is people will always feel welcome exactly as they, without apology. I want everyone to feel welcome in my company and this community. So, I’m kind of glad that folk find me approachable.

And when I say come as you are, exactly as you are…but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition, I really mean it.

I hope that people always feel welcome in my company...

“Welcome” is one of those very interesting words. It is derived from and old English and Germanic word meaning a wished for guest. So when we welcome people it is more than just accepting folk as they its about wanting nay wishing for what these guests bring. So in the communities I serve when we say all are welcome here, we mean that you truly are wished for guests, although we are not yet sure exactly what it is we are wishing for.

Who you are as you are is wished for…No need to explain or apologies for who you are…

Now of course people don’t always feel welcome in certain company. People have been rejected for all kinds of reasons, whether that be race, gender, sexuality, beliefs or lack of. I and the communities I serve aspire to make no such exclusions, but I know we fall short of our own ideals at times, who doesn't . We do attempt to make no exclusions. We say all are welcome as they are, you are a wished for guest as you are.

It is not just we ourselves who sometime do not feel welcome, sometimes we do not wish to welcome all of life. Some aspects of life and some people are not welcomed by we ourselves. What is unwelcome in our personal guesthouses? What are life’s unwished for guests?

This brings to mind another one of Rumi’s better known poems “The Guest House”

The Guest House

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.

I, like so many folk, love the mystical poetry of Rumi. I particularly love his notion here, that being human is like being a “guest house”. In life we are visited by all kinds of guests, so many unexpected visitors occasionally show up and stay for a while, including some you’d really like to throw out. Such guests are certainly not wished for. And yet perhaps such guests are the ones that we ought to be wishing for the most, because if we do welcome them then they may have something to teach us, they may lead us to some new truth, new experience. Perhaps these are the guest we ought to be wishing for, maybe they are the true gift givers in life.

If only we could just simply do that. Just let all life in without fear of what might happen to us, if we could live without stranger danger, whether that be people, situations, feeling and thoughts. Rarely do any of us make the uncomfortable feelings and situations welcome guests.

There are conversations in my life that I avoid, that I would rather not have, that I swerve around. I did it on a couple of occasions with the man I the gym, especially when he moved the subject to politics. I’m sure most folk experience this with family and friends in these increasingly divisive times

Not that I ignore what is going on in the world around me, quite the opposite actually. Sometimes I get a little stuck in the troubles of life. Yes of course there are people places and things that I would rather not listen to; things I would rather ignore avert from my eyes, than pay attention to. There are things in this world I don’t like and do not approve of; there are actions in my nearest and dearest that I don’t agree with; there are aspects of myself that I wish were different. Should I turn from them? There are those who would say so and I have certainly done so in the past, but I try not to these days. Nobody is perfect, no one is complete, but that does not mean that they should be shunned, they should be locked outside love’s gate. They should become un-wished for guests, unwelcome.

This brings to mind a passage from Luke’s Gospel Ch18 vv 9-14 In the passage a prideful Pharisee, who considers himself better than others, is described. He follows the laws and commandments to the letter. In the same passage a tax collector is also described who recognises his imperfections and does not feel he is worthy of God’s love. In the passage Jesus holds up the tax collector and not the Pharisee as being the exalted one. Jesus says “For everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbelth himself shall be exalted. You see the Pharisee turns from the tax collector and others who he believes are beneath him. He sees their wrongs and thus believes that unlike himself they are not worthy of God’s love. The Pharisee fails to see that by rejecting his neighbour he is also rejecting God.

There is something in this teaching, a theme repeated in the Gospels, about being a good host and a good guest. It’s about accepting our humanity and the humanity of one another. It’s about love and acceptance of ourselves and one another; it’s about universal love; it’s about perfect love. I believe that the only thing we can do perfectly is love. This requires us to love all, without prejudice. In my eyes this is how the love that is God comes to life, how it incarnates. I fall short of this mark every day, but I believe that it is possible to attain such love, not just for myself but for everyone. We can accept all people, we are capable of love. The key is to make all of life a wished for guests.

Now of course to truly love someone requires you to get to know them and this can be both scary and at times painful. And of course to know someone requires us to understand what a person loves and what causes them pain. To truly welcome someone means we welcome all of them. We can’t ask the guests we wish for to leave part of themselves outside of the guesthouse

There is a wonderful story told by Madeleine L’Engle in “Walking on Water”, which describes this oh so beautifully.

“(Here is) a story of a Hasidic rabbi, renowned for his piety. He was unexpectedly confronted one day by one of his devoted youthful disciples. In a burst of feeling, the young disciple exclaimed, “My master, I love you!” The ancient teacher looked up from his books and asked his fervent disciple, “Do you know what hurts me, my son?”

The young man was puzzled. Composing himself, he stuttered, “I don’t understand your question, Rabbi. I am trying to tell you how much you mean to me, and you confuse me with irrelevant questions.”

“My questions is neither confusing nor irrelevant,” rejoined the rabbi, “For if you do not know what hurts me, how can you truly love me.””

To know someone is not only to share in their joy, but also in their suffering. To welcome someone is to welcome them wholly, to make every aspect of them the wished for guest.

I believe that one purpose of religious communities is the development of intimacy, real intimacy, something that is lacking in our increasingly isolating culture. Something that modern day consumerist spirituality does not offer. It does not offer the intimate encounter that community brings. Spirituality cannot occur in the privacy of our lives or hidden away on mountain tops it can only come to life in real lived encounters with other people. In awkward difficult encounters with people like you and me, perfectly imperfect people who know both joy and pain. With folk who practise what t it means to truly love. Who worship wholly in all areas of life, not in a superior way, but humbly and because they love life and their souls need this worship and love of life.

The communities I serve say all are welcome, we say come as you are exactly as you are...but don’t expect to leave in exactly the same condition.

We say we accept people exactly as they are in their faith, doubt and confusion, in their joy and sadness. This is true hospitality. Welcoming the weary traveller with open arms, whoever they are and where ever they have come from. Welcoming them wholly body, mind and soul; that they leave no part of themselves at the door. All that we ask is that those that we welcome are good guests and hosts themselves, that they accept us as we are and others who come as they are.

We say this is a community of love, where we aspire to offer perfect love, to accept people as they are.

So come as you are, exactly as you are, become the wished for guest, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition…

Sunday 3 November 2019

Our History of Inspiration

Sue and myself recently spent a weekend in Edinburgh. It is beautiful city full of history and culture. It has a mystery and magic about it too. You see clearly how it inspired JK Rowling in writing the Harry Potter books. It has its darker side too, not just in its history but also its present. It has its fair share of homelessness and addiction issues. We spent some time on the Friday evening helping the Sisters of Mercy as they fed many suffering people. By the way this is an order of nuns who work every day serving such people and not the Leeds based Goth band from the 1980’s. It was deeply humbling work and made me appreciate all that is my life. How different it could have been if circumstances had worked another way.

It was a gorgeous journey north as we drove to Edinburgh. Driving through beautiful countryside and watching the colours change as autumn set in. We passed many landmarks depicting historical sites and places. At one point I was taken back to university and my first degree, which was in “Politics and Modern History”. We had not long entered Scotland when I saw a sign stating that this was the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was a leading philosopher and historian of the Victorian age. He is perhaps best known for the “Great Man Theory”. The central claim of the theory is that history is shaped by highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, or divine inspiration, had a decisive historical effect. A classic example for Carlyle being Napoleon Bonaparte who shaped the Napoleonic era named after him. As Carlyle stated "The history of the world is but the biography of great men", reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration. For Carlyle history was shaped by the decisions, works, ideas, and characters of "heroes". He depicted six types of hero, these being the hero as divinity (such as Odin), prophet (such as Jesus), poet (such as Shakespeare), priest (such as Martin Luther), man of letters (such as Rousseau), and king (such as Napoleon). He believed that if an individual studied such figures that they would be inspired to uncover their own genius within. Carlyle was not saying that no other factors were involved in shaping history, just that these great figures were the decisive the ones.

Now obviously there are many other theories of history that disagree with Carlyle’s view. His theory may well be true of the history that I was taught in school, but I’m not convinced it is entirely true when we look at our own experiences, our personal histories, that have shaped our lives. I bet the most important people of our lives won’t have statues built in their memory. Having said that do I wonder what Carlyle would make of our age in what has become a culture shaped by the Uber celebrity. I also wonder who shapes our lives? What will our history say about us?

I wonder who and what has been significant in our lives? Who and what has touched and shaped our lives? Who are the significant people, what are the significant moments and events? It’s the moments that we remember, of course it is, that shape our lives, but I am also convinced that our lives are shaped by the many unremembered moments that effect us without us even being fully aware of them at the time. Our lives are surely shaped by every moment and every person that we share our lives with. I bet that those homeless people in Edinburgh will remember those Sisters of Mercy and other volunteers who give of themselves to ensure that they at least get a warm meal.

I’ve been thinking of the people who have inspired me. Who gave to me and kept me going in my darkest days. I was thinking of this as I enjoyed the sites and history of Edinburgh. One the great figures of the twentieth century came to mind. I remembered a favourite quote of Albert Schweitzer, it began to sing in my heart

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

There are many people who have inspired me, who have lit the flame, when all was dark, there are many who have taught me life enhancing, nay life changing things. I was thinking of many of them yesterday during the All Souls service as we remembered those who have touched our hearts but who are no longer physically with us. There are so many souls who have inspired me and who continue to do even though they have long gone.

Now “Inspire” is one of those words, like so many in common usage, that has been reduced in meaning as time has gone by. We have reduced its power as our lives have become secularised. It originally meant “immediate influence of God”, especially with reference to the writing of a Holy book. Coming from the French “inspiracion meaning “inhaling, breathing in inspiration”, coming from the Latin “inspirare” meaning to breath in, to inflame. To inspire means to breath upon, to blow into, to excite, to inflame, to affect, to arouse, but to do so through spirit or soul, it is a Divine activity. Therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that when we inspire others we are engaging in Divine activity. To inspire others is to engage in one of the highest forms of love, as it is Divine love in human action.

Thomas Carlyle saw the great figures of history as the ultimate inspirations, to him they were geniuses. Nowadays many people are labelled as geniuses, some say that is overused. I think that actually it is an under used word. I think that it ought to apply to anyone who inspires another to be all that they can be. For surely the real genius of anyone is to inspire another to truly come alive, for in so doing you are breathing new life into another. Maybe we ought to build monuments to each and every one of them. Now wouldn’t our towns and cities look interesting if we did.

Edinburgh, like any major city, has many monuments to the great and good. Each telling something of its history good and bad. Many are quite controversial. I remember as I walked round  and about Edinburgh Castle and explored the exhibits of Scots who had fought in countless wars I was moved by many of their personal stories. As I walked out of one museum I saw in front of me a mustachioed figure mounted on a horse. I stepped closer and realised that it was Lord Haig. Instantly I thought of all the stories I had been thinking of and remembered the line said of the sacrifice of the First World War “Lions led by donkeys”. He is certainly one of those controversial figures. That said there were many other statues that remembered the many war dead etc, something that I will perhaps talk more of next week.

Now of all the statues that I saw the most memorable was not of a human at all. No it wasn’t Gey Friars Bobby, although I did love it. Instead it was a huge statue of a Bear in Princess Street Gardens. The statue is of “Wojtek” the “Soldier Bear” who was adopted by Polish troops during the second world war and helped carry ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino. After the war he lived in Scotland at Hutton in Berwickshire, before ending his days in Edinburgh Zoo. The statue is actually not only of Wojtek, but also a Polish Army Soldier "walking in peace and unity". It makes a statement about fighting for freedom and showing support and comfort to those who are suffering. It celebrates the ties that have been established in Edinburgh and Poland between the communities that have settled there over the last seventy years and strives to further strengthen this bond over time.

Of all the statues of the great and good and not so good I witnessed in Edinburgh I somehow found this one the most inspiring. It was not so much the statue but what it represented that inspired me, that awakened something within me.

Everyone we meet, and everything that we absorb through our senses can be an inspiration. There are inspirational people all around us, as there has been throughout human history. Some have been the greats, those that have shaped history, they even had statues built in their memory, but most were probably never recognised., except in our own hearts and memories.

Nevertheless they inspired us, they awakened something within us and helped to become the people that we are today. As we enter the season of Remembrance perhaps, we ought to remember all these people and dedicate our lives to create acts of Remembrance from the love they inspired in us. In so doing we will inspire future generations and those struggling around us to become all that they can be. In so doing our lives will become worth dying for by the legacies of love that we leave behind.

May it be so.


Sunday 27 October 2019

Not To Worry, But How?


I worried a lot.
Will the garden grow,
will the rivers flow in the right direction,
will the earth turn as it was taught,

and if not how shall I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing,

even the sparrows can do it and I am,well, hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up.

And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Mary Oliver. Swan – Poems and Prose, 2010 Beacon Press

...Mary Oliver had such a beautiful and yet practical way of speaking to the heart of the matter...I love her simple and practical theology...She was a gifted blessing...

Having said that there is something that I must admit to. I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I am worried. I am worried about many things, the usual things. I;m worried about the world we live in and how we treat it and one another. I'm worried about the people I love.I'm worried about Poppy's creaking hind quarters, she is 10 now and I'm worried about my ability to minister to the people I serve. I'm also worried about the aging process too.

 I read an article the other day that suggested that “walking slowly is a sign of aging fast”, or so the headline read. That walking at a plodding pace at 45 may be a warning sign of dementia and early death. The study by Duke University found that people who walk at a slower pace are more likely to look older too. It suggested that tests carried out at this age and at as young as three years old could suggest who amongst us were at a higher risk of accelerated brain-aging and other diseases and that as a result treatment could be given earlier to treat such things. So a bit of good news there then.

So I’m a little worried. I’ve been a slow walker all my life. In fact I was a very late walker as a child. As my mum loves to say I could talk long before I could walk. I was born with a birth defect that caused my late development, and other physical problems too. This is why I’ve always been a plodder, I’m not someone who dashes around from one place to the next. By the way it is not only walking that I was a late developer in; I’ve been a late developer all of my life, in every sense.

Now if truth be told I’m not really worried, well not about my slow walking at least. Not that I’m dismissing the research, it’s just that I know I look after myself fairly well these days, so I’m not going to live in fear of brain degeneration due to my stiff gate. I’m also aware that you have to be careful with regard to such research. Every week we hear of one item of research or another suggesting that something or other will kill us and quickly. It seems that everything is bad for us these days, and we have worry about everything. As “Lard” sang in the “The Power of Lard”, “avoid everything, avoid everything, avoid everything.” The suggestion being that everything is bad for you.

I suspect that if anything is going to shorten our lives it is probably constant worry and anxiety. If it doesn’t shorten the length of our lives it will certainly make them miserable. It is no way to live. So I’m not going to worry about my plodding on through life.

Worry can be deeply crippling and life reducing. Now of course we should not dismiss the challenge of life and live like some kind of delusional Pollyanna, but to live in and through worry destroys any joy in life. I remember a few years ago speaking with Rev Jill McCallister who was visiting from the US. She told me how she worried about her congregants; she worried how she could help them with their crippling anxiety about life. She described them as people of privilege and yet they were still ruled by worry. I have the same concerns about the folk I serve as well as well as friends and family. I wonder how much of our energy is spent worrying about the people in our lives? Is this the best use of our limited resources? Surely it would better to put our energy into something more constructive.

I spend a lot of my time listening to people. They tell me of their worries and often end their time sharing with the classic line “Oh not to worry”, which of course is precisely what they are doing. That said I know that by sharing our worries they do somehow occupy less of our head space.

The thing about worry is that, as Mark Twain observed, most of the things that we worry about never happen. And yet as we go through our day the worry machine is there chugging away in our minds stopping us experiencing this life we have been given. How many of us worry so much about being on time that we ruin every journey we take. This is one of mine by the way, especially on the Washway Road. How many of us worry about the weather when going on holiday. How many of us spend our days worrying about how we look, what people think of us, will the world come to an end, the political situation of the day. Our children and what their lives will be like and a myriad of other possible troubles.

Now please don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting none of these are real, of course they are. Surely though wouldn’t it be better dealing with the things that trouble us as best we can rather than wasting our days worrying about every little thing.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we waste so much energy on worry? Why are we so afraid of things going wrong? Why do we believe that we can stop such things happening, that we can somehow control life? Well we can’t. Things will go wrong. And do you know what that aint always a bad thing.

Even the most gifted of us can be plagued by worry. You hear stories of great artist who are constantly beset with by it. I recently saw the film “Judy”, a biopic depicting the last years of Judy Garland’s life. It seems she suffered greatly from stage fright and was consumed by worry about so many things. There was a scene early in the film when she attends a party with her daughter Liza Minnelli who was just beginning to hit great heights in her own career. Judy asks her daughter if she suffered from fear singing in front of these great audiences. It seems she did not, much to Judy’s surprise. For Judy was utterly plagued by it.

Not that worry is wholly bad, it has its place. We have the capacity to worry for good reason. As we anticipate that something bad could happen, the discomfort of worry spurs us to avoid that unfortunate something or at least mitigate against it. No doubt it is something that has evolved in humanity to guard against danger and to prepare for troubles ahead etc. Such as storing food for winter. The problem is though that we go too far with this and become paralysed by worry.

It would seem that the key is where we focus our attention. Worry and concern can help us to do so in positive ways. Likewise, it can paralyse us too, as our attention becomes purely focused on the worry and not what we can do about it. The problem is not so much the worry and concern, but what we focus our attention on and how it leads us to act. For what we focus our attention on really matters.

Throughout the Gospel accounts Jesus is often portrayed as being concerned with what the people he is with focus their attention on. When he said “consider the lilies” he was turning their attention on the lilies, to experience them. Likewise when he said “the kingdom on heaven is at hand,” he was pinpointing the exact location of where attention ought to be in order to enter the kingdom. And when he said “fear not, judge not, love one another.” He was suggesting that the focus ought to move away from images that generate fear and judgement towards ones centered on love. This it would appear is a solution to being dominated by worry. Worry was as troubling 2,000 years ago, just as much as it is today.

The key it would seem is to focus our attention in loving ways in the moment that we find ourselves rather than being paralysed by worries of what might be.

We cannot escape the trouble of life. Life is by its nature a risking business. It does us no good to waste our days worrying about what might go wrong. Instead what we need to do is embrace the risk of life. I’m not saying to go involve ourselves in foolish risking things, no what I mean is that we need to give ourselves away to something useful, something beautiful, something life enhancing. The key is to “risk ourselves for the world…to hazard ourselves for the right thing.” As David Whyte wrote in his essay on “Longing” from his wonderful book “CONSOLATIONS:The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.”

To quote David:

“We are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world. We are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. And in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way….”

I just want to repeat the last sentence ‘in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way….’

Worry can eat away at any chance to be happy in daily living.

None of us knows what the future holds. There will be joy and there will be troubles ahead for all of us. That said we cannot waste this life worrying about what might be before it ever happens. Rather surely it is better to risk our lives to some greater love, whatever that love might be. It is love of course that leads us to a sense of wholeness and connection with all of life.

So, I am not saying to you, don’t worry. What would be the point of that? Instead what I am saying is turn your worry into concern, be inspired by it and act in this world in loving and more beautiful ways. You never know but by doing so you might just allow yourself to be happy along the way.

So don't worry, be happy...

Sunday 13 October 2019

Deep Is Your Treasure

At a recent “Living the Questions” Adie Tindall led an excellent conversation on how art speaks to us. Art does have a way to reach those parts of ourselves, deep in our hearts, that other media perhaps cannot, maybe this is why we value it so much. So many of us treasure such works of art and artists too. During the conversation John Poskitt told of a limited edition copy of a piece of Bob Dylan’s art that cost him a lot of money and that he was paying for in instalments. John is a great lover of the arts.

Art had been in the news earlier that day. A work of art by “Banksy had sold for almost £10,000,000. It eclipsed anything else he had produced in the past by more than five fold. As someone pointed out whoever was behind “Banksy’s” promotion was a genius. He had after all begun as a gifted graffiti artist. Now no doubt the piece had gone up in value due to its subject. It goes by the title “Devolved Government” and is an image of a Parliament of Chimpanzee’s arguing in the “House of Commons”. I don’t believe it would have raised such a price a few months earlier. I wonder what raised the value so much?

Now as talented as “Banksy” is, and regardless of his mystique and clever promotional work, and regardless of the satire of the piece, how the heck can a painting be worth £10,000,000. It just seems obscene to me. Although it is not just painting’s and other art treasures that seem valued way beyond reason. Football is another example. I love football, but surely no footballer is worth £200,000,000. It seems ridiculous but this is the market value for the best of the best.

Now I am sure there are things that we all value above anything else in life, that we treasure beyond measure. I wonder what it is that you treasure the most? What is beyond value in your life, your pearl of great price, that you would sell all that you have for. Is there anything or anyone that you treasure so much that you would give everything for. Something to ponder perhaps. Some folk devote their whole lives to these things that they treasure the most

The great stories of human history speak of heroes going on epic journeys in search of great treasures. “Mythos”, from a variety of cultures, tell tales of questing for such treasure whether they be material objects or perhaps attempts to reach a certain goal or to manifest a dream. Think of the Arthurian legends, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail. Think of the biblical accounts, Moses and the Israelites, or Jesus's journey into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, a journey of sacrifice and transformation. Or perhaps the Native American initiation tradition of Vision Quests. Such journeys often included climbs to the summit of mountains, like the climb to the summit of Parnassus, the ancient mount of the Muse. While watching the rugby the other morning I noticed the symbol depicting Mount Fuji with the Red Sun rising behind it. The Japanese people consider Mount Fuji, to be the point of contact between heaven and the underworld. Perhaps the ultimate journey, the final one.

Many of these great adventures described mythical themes depicting great feats such as climbing a mountain, or going off in solitude into the desert, or perhaps going into the heart of a forest forever searching, seeking, and questing. Until it is time to return home with treasure to share.

It’s not just the great heroes that go on such quests, ordinary people do too. Increasingly people are going on Pilgrimage. It’s nothing new by the way. All the great religious faiths have a tradition of pilgrimage within them. What is interesting though is that there seems to be a growing need to seek pilgrimage in our time and space, in these secular times. I even attended a Unitarian pilgrimage recently, as I led worship at the triannual “Rivington Pilgrimage”. I have to be honest though and say that it isn’t a true pilgrimage as we didn’t really walk very far. Although for some of us it was a journey just getting to Rivington due to the severe flooding. Several folk could not get there and had to return home in the end. And of course there was the amazing trip earlier this year to Israel and the magic that Sue and I shared by the Sea of Galilee. The whole trip was life transforming on so many levels. A deep and beautiful treasure of the heart.

I know several people who have walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. The Camino is a path to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Since medieval times, people have made the pilgrimage to the cathedral there. And pilgrimage is of course central to Islam, where, every believer is called to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in his or her lifetime.

At the core of these calls to pilgrimage is a universal human longing for growth, for becoming more than we were by going father than we ever dared. Now in these physical pilgrimages these longings manifests themselves in walking and somehow in this walk transformation occurs. The destination of such pilgrimages is a new horizon, the one we glimpse from a distant and are drawn to. Like the sun rising behind Mount Fuji.

Now while such physical pilgrimages can be beautifully transformative I have discovered another for more important pilgrimage. This is the pilgrimage to the heart. Not a physical journey but a deeply arduous one. A journey not only to the heart, but of truly awakening the heart, the true frontier of humanity. I suspect that most of the ancient pilgrimages were really about this. The stories were certainly journeys of transformation.

I suspect that this is our greatest treasure of all, our hearts. The Talmud says, 'God wants the heart.' All life stems from and through the heart. In ancient times is was believed that the heart was the center of human intelligence and the seat of the soul. According to Augustine of Hippo the heart was a metaphor for our deepest and truest selves, believing that union with God could only be achieved through it.

It is through the heart that we begin to connect to our truest and deepest selves. And through connecting to our deepest selves and thus awakening our hearts we begin to act in loving meaningful ways in the world. We will not act with compassion without our hearts. We will not act with true reason without the heart. In fact reason can be deadly without compassion, without being led by the heart. This is the true pilgrimage, the journey to the heart. As Howard Thurman once said 'the longest journey is between the heart and the head.' Thurman, the great mystic, theologian and educator was critical of the tendency in the modern age to separate the heart from the intellect. You see it is not only the body that is nourished through the heart but
our whole humanity. This is why it is so vital to take care of not only our physical heart but the heart of our spirit too and this requires an inner pilgrimage, that of silence.

Silence has become an important and treasured aspect of Unitarian worship. I spend time in communal silence several times a week. It enables me to reach that treasure at the core of myself and others too, it is vital to my life as food, water and exercise. We shared a special moment in silence last Sunday at Dunham Road. Some thirty or more human hearts and perhaps twenty dogs all sharing in reverential silence together for several minutes in the middle of the “Blessing of the Animals” service. You could feel a deep power at work in this pure silence, so deep I could almost hear our hearts beating. It was one of the most beautiful silences I have ever shared. Although when I think of it I have shared many such moments with strangers and friends throughout this year. It has been the year of the heart. Last Sunday I was not the only one to feel it either. Several people commented to me afterwards just how special the experience was. 50 hearts beating as one, is there a greater treasure in life. It was a beautiful spiritual journey to share together as we entered the caves of our hearts and helped awaken something beautiful within each and every one of us.

We each of have a great treasure within us, a treasure that needs to nurtured and cared for and brought to life. It’s a treasure that the world needs us to share with it. We need to take care of this priceless treasure and live from it. And if we do we may just begin to bring alive that love that is Divine. To bring the Kin-dom of love alive that dwells within in each and everyone of us, in everything.

The world awaits us, let's take that great journey together.