Sunday 24 February 2019

“This Land Belongs to You and Me: A Visit to “The Holy Land”

“This land was made for you and me”, so sang Woody Guthrie.

I have always been baffled by the idea that land or place belongs one set of people and that others are excluded for whatever reasons. A feeling that seems to intensify when the exclusion is for faith or lack of, gender, colour of skin, politics, or sexuality. Who decides what and where belongs to who and who not?

I recently spent a wonderful week in the “Holy Land”, Israel – Palestine depending on your point of view. A land that has been fought over for thousands of years. By the way it is unique in this is it? Much of the land of this world has gone through similar experiences.

It was an amazing trip, filled with some incredible experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Some deeply spiritual experiences and trans-formative too, on so many levels. I also proposed to Sue and she accepted, what a beautiful blessing. I did not see the whole place and or experience all aspects of it. I saw very little of the Palestinian perspective, from their point of view. I am not going to talk here about the current situation, I’m not sure I’m qualified to do so. I will though reflect on the spirit I encountered as well as a reflection on holiness and the holy.

Our week began and ended in Jerusalem. We arrived Thursday night having flown direct from Manchester. The flight out was an experience in and of itself. It seemed like some kind of extended family outing. So many people on the flight knew each other and there was much conversation to observe and listen to. We were given some lovely tips on places to visit by a man who spends half of his life in Jerusalem and the other in Manchester. All of his children now live in Israel. He even knew one half of the couple we were staying with.

We arrived late Thursday night. The next morning we went to give the talk I had been invited to deliver, at an AA gathering there. It was a beautiful experience. What wonderful fellowship, we shared. Afterwards we went for a walk around Jerusalem before returning for the most beautiful Shabbat meal with Steve and Lynne, it was deeply moving and fulfilling experience. The food was incredible, but it was more than that. We connected deeply with the spirit of the occasion. During the meal and throughout the stay we were shown the essential Jewish teaching of "Kadmah derech eretz et ha-Torah", 'the commandment of good manners or considerate behaviour. This teaching predates the revelation at Mount Sinai and originated with Adam and the creation of humanity. It suggests that while God could imagine humankind existing without the Torah he could not imagine humanity doing so without civility. So it seems to be a law that trumps other laws.

It is a teaching that lays at the core of all the Abrahamic traditions, which teach respect and civility to the stranger, to the other. Something that humanity has failed to do these last two thousand years or more. We experienced civility and welcome and the most wonderful hospitality throughout the trip except perhaps in the driving habits of the natives, which are very different to those in this land.

It was strange walking round Jerusalem on the Saturday, during Sabbath, everywhere was closed as we walked towards the walls of the ancient city. We found a none Jewish shop open, so we stopped and ate in a small garden built in gratitude to the former American President George W Bush. We then continued on towards the city and climbed up the walls. As we walked round we observed the housing and the Dome of the Rock. We came down in the Muslim quarter and then walked towards the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, past the shops and the other tourists and pilgrims, some of whom we had observed at the museum earlier as walked round the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. We then headed back to be with our generous hosts.

The next day we returned to the ancient city for a guided tour of the the underground tunnels of the western wall of the Temple that was destroyed in the first century. Before spending time praying outside at the wall. Following this we went down to the ruins of the ancient city of David, just outside the city walls as well as visiting “The Burnt House”. As we were guided round the stories came to life as the ancient history of the Jewish people came to life with it.

Jerusalem is central to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. The temple both of Solomon and the second temple which the Romans destroyed during the first century rebellion was built on the spot where it is believed that Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed as a sign of his obedience to God. This is sacred to Christianity due to death and resurrection of Jesus much of which it is believed took place on the site of what is today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Dome of the Mount is built on the same site as the temple, the believed spot of Abrahams sacrifice, the same place where the Prophet Mohammed's “Night Journey” to heaven is believed to have began. So the whole place is Holy to all three faiths and has been disputed for centuries, going back to the “Crusades”. It has been a place of deep worship and so much violence and hate. Sadly so little hospitality and considerate behaviour towards others has taken place here.

For so long holiness and sacred respect for other people has not been practised by a variety of people at these holy sites. We humans have at times failed to be holy to one another. I remember as I walked round and took in the history the words of Wendell Berry, sang in my heart “There are no unsacred places, only sacred and desecrated places.” These holy places have been desecrated for centuries by the bloodshed of so many in the name of the holy. It makes me weep. There are so many wailing walls around these parts.

This brings to mind some words by Sarah York on sacredness and the holy.

"The Spirit reveals itself to us in our relationship with our world and its inhabitants; it is the source of all that is holy, sacred, and true. The word spirit comes from the Latin word meaning 'breath'; the word holy derives from before the Christian era from words for whole as well as health, good luck, and happiness. The holy intimacy of strangers, then, is an experience of the Spirit's promise and power, breathed into human interaction and calling us into personal and spiritual wholeness — into the kind of harmony that yields health and happiness.”

This to me is what it means to live in a holy way and to create sacredness in life. It is where I have known holy intimacy with others in my life and something I certainly experienced during my time in the “Holy Land”. It is also a principle at the core of all the Abrahamic faiths, although something that has at times been sadly forgotten.

Now while I experienced holy intimacy and sacredness in relationship with others and also in nature too as I connect to life, I began to experience something rarer in the “Holy Land”, something I have not noticed as intensely before. I noticed something happening to me as I visited the Holy sites and connected to the stories, history and people of the time. It came deeply as we walked around the walls of the city of Jerusalem, I felt as I touched the western wall of the Temple. I actually felt it more intensely underground than the exposed area outside,. I felt it deeply and powerfully as I walked up Masada and experienced the story come to life as I stood on the ruins at the top. I didn’t feel it as I floated on the Dead sea. I felt it deeply and beautifully as I gazed out at the Sea of Galilee, as we walked through the ruins of Capernaum towards the rocks on the sea shore and I knelt down by the rocks and proposed to Sue and she said “yes, yes, yes, yes” We had both felt an incredibly powerful connection to love that day, although Sue had no clue what was coming. All day long one verse from “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” had been singing in my soul. The verse was “O sabbath rest by Galilee! O calm of hills above, where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity interpreted by love, interpreted by love!” I found the spot and love came to life. There was also the despair of “Yad Vashem”, the Holocaust museum, a sacred place that marks our human history of desecration, a history that sadly still goes on, that we seem to hear ever louder echoes of throughout the world today. It is a powerful testimony to what happens when we see others as somehow different to ourselves, to the horrors of supremacy of any kind, the root of all evil.

There were so many deep and connective, holy experiences. There was one that was different though. This happened on the Saturday and it came unexpectedly in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was not while looking at any of the grand religious shrines but as I touched a humble slab that is said to be the stone that Jesus body was laid upon. I saw women wiping and touching the stone and emotion pouring out of them. Now I don’t know what happened to me, but something stirred within. So I knelt down, as the women had, I did not have a shawl or scarf and so I touched the stone with my hands and then my cheek and I just began to weep. I stood up and continued to weep. Something happened, something took over me in that moment. I have had several unfathomable spiritual experiences in my life and this was one of them. It was similar to others I have had in the past and yet it was different, it had a unique quality. I cannot explain or even truly describe it, but something happened. It awakened something in me. It was sacred and it was Holy.

It was a beautiful and incredible experience, no doubt you will hear more about it as I reflect over the coming months. Today I feel more connected to my own humanity and I hope that of others, I feel a deeper connection to the sacredness and preciousness of life, to the holiness of one another and what our purpose here as human beings is. This life belongs to you and me. We are connected to one another by a sacred bound of love and I believe it is our task to bring that love alive, to make sacred once again all those places on earth that we have desecrated by our inhumanity to one another. This is our holy task, our holy work, this is how we make all life Holy Land.

May it be so.

I’m going to end this "blogspot" with the following reflection “The Breath of Life Is Not Mine Alone” by Kristen L Harper

I do not wish to breathe another breath if it is not shared with others. The breath of life is not mine alone.

I brought myself to be with you, hoping that by inhaling the compassion, the courage, the hope found here, I can exhale the fear, the selfishness, the separateness I keep so close to my skin.

I cannot live another moment, at least not one of joy, unless you and I find our oneness somewhere among each other, somewhere between the noise, somewhere within the silence of the next breath.


Sunday 17 February 2019

Speak what your heart must

I love listening to people, to connect with what they are sharing, what they are struggling with. I love to identify with others, to connect heart to heart. What I identify the most with is the struggle; the struggle to put into words the questions and the experiences.

I love listening to words, they are powerful things, they touch deep places within us. And yet all that words are, when reduced to their merely physical components is vibrating air. This is true and yet it really isn’t true. Words are so much more than there merely physical components. They connect people to deep, deep, places in one another’s being. They are imitations of the Divine I suspect, they are like seeds in so many ways, they begin to bring salvation or utter destruction. And yet they are just noises formed from vibrating air.

I love listening to people when they speak their heart, they speak what they must speak.

I have particularly enjoyed listening to the many and varied people who have attended the groups I lead at both congregations I serve. The other Sunday I was chatting with Aled and Adie about the last “Living the Questions”, I said it was a great conversation, to which Aled replied something like “You always say that”. This is true, it is always a great conversation and yes I do always say this. Now it may not go the way I would have liked it to, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I always enjoy the conversation and am fascinated by what comes from those in attendance. I just love listening to folk as they try to articulate their varied understandings of life and their personal spirituality to others; others who can at times seem baffled by what is being said. What I love about the groups is that they manifest in an understanding, loving and respectful spirit. We speak the language of the heart and we listen with the ears of our hearts, well at least most of the time.

Being listened to and especially being accepted and understood is so vital to people. I have noticed this particularly in the grief group I host. Whenever a new person attends the one common feature for everyone is this sense of loneliness that they express after the loved one has gone, how they feel unheard by others, like their words are not being accepted or that others have tired of hearing them. The beauty of the group is that each can come and speak freely and are truly accepted. I have witnessed some moments of deep connection within the group. I have truly seen love incarnated in the air and words that we share together, it is a truly beautiful blessing.

There is something truly beautiful in speaking words, heart to heart. The language of the heart is not really about correct use of language but a way of being with each other, it is an intention, it is about invitation, it is about allowing others to be who they are in your space, this is true openness by the way. Openness is not about telling another all about yourself, instead it is about inviting another to be themselves in your space.

Words connect us in some very special ways, they can be incredibly powerful. They can begin to bring deep healing or can be deeply destructive. What matters is the intention behind them. What seems to matter is the condition of our heart and soul as we speak what we must speak.

I recently heard the following little tale…Like the tales about Nasruddin it spoke to me…

There’s a story about a Unitarian minister’s new car breaking down just after the Sunday service. Come Monday morning, the minister managed to drive the vehicle to the town’s one garage for repairs. “I hope you’ll go easy on the cost,” he told the mechanic. “After all, I’m just a poor preacher.”

“I know,” said the mechanic. “I heard you preach yesterday.”

Now I hope this isn’t true about the worship I create. I know I perhaps don’t speak perfectly. In fact I’m sure sometimes the language I use takes some getting used to but I do hope that what I share touches those who engage in it and not only speaks to the mind. If I fail to touch the heart and soul, occasionally at least, then I know I am a poor preacher.

It matters what we say and it matters how we say it, in the spirit that it is delivered. When we speak is it about creation or destruction, separation or connection, is it about authority above or is it about inclusion. It matters you know it really does.

Words are powerful they can be either destructive or creative. Perhaps an example of their creative power comes at the beginning of John’s Gospel and the following lines:

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.'

According to John the "Word" can literally create life, in fact all life. Now of course in the original Greek, which these opening words were written in, the word for “Word” was originally “Logos” which roughly translated actually does mean merely “word,” but also “speech,” “principle,” “meaning” or “thought.” In Greek philosophy, it is also referred to as universal, divine reason or the mind of God. So it could mean God speaking life into being, linking it to the first verses from Genesis when God is said to have breathed life into being, remembering always that he saw this creation as “Good”. So “word” here means, in my view, that life is the meaning coming into being and Jesus is the example of this in human form. Not the one and only example, but one we can all aspire to. For we can all incarnate Love, we can all be a part of the Divine creation. It begins in our words and how we say these words for they are an expression of our meaning.

When we speak we are not merely flapping our lips, vibrating air, we are engaged in Divine activity, we are creating or destroying life.

I believe what we say and how we say it really matters, as everything really matters. Others beg to differ. They say that nothing really matters, especially what we say. This is exemplified in the following rhyme, familiar to us all.

'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names (words) will never hurt me.'

Now if this is true then words don’t really have power, that they can’t really hurt us. What do you think? Do words have power? I believe that they do, in fact I believe that they can be so powerful that they can either create or destroy life. The rhyme though suggests otherwise.

I believe that the spoken word is very powerful. That said it is not just what is said that matters but how and in what spirit. I have come to believe that the words we speak are actually expressions of our spirit and where we are spiritually. They express whether we are part of the creation or the destruction of life. Words do become flesh and they do dwell amongst us, the spoken word far more than the written word I believe, for they are far more of an expression of our spirit.

Yehuda Berg an author on the Kabbalah, a mystical form of Judaism, said:

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”

Words are very powerful, what we say and how we say them have power. We affect people and life just as we affect ourselves with our words. So are we speaking creatively or destructively? Or has Proverbs 18 v 12 put it (written words I know) “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Gary Chapman in his book, “Love as a Way of Life” uses a similar metaphor for words as being either ‘bullets or seeds’. When we use words as bullets or like sword thrusts we are playing a part in the destruction of life, we are building barriers of separation and or exclusion; where as if we speak from wisdom and love we become part of the creative process we are part of the love becoming flesh, we are building bridges of healing and restoration and holding out our hands in an inclusive and embracing way.

Be careful what you say and how you say it, in what spirit, for what you say and how you say it, will play a part in the creation or the destruction of life. It matters what you say and in what spirit you say it.

Words are powerful, it matters what we say and how we say it, and in what spirit. We hear words and how they are spoken before we can understand them with our minds. We hear them from the moment we are born, perhaps even before we are born in our mother’s womb. Here in the powerless and utterly dependent moments the words we hear and digest have a powerful influence on the people we become. Words are very powerful, the words spoken and the spirit that they are spoken in have the power to create and or destroy life.

Everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every action and every word spoken. What we say and how we say it is not the only power at work, of course not, but never ever let anyone tell you it does not matter. You have no idea the power that you are involved in with the words you speak. Your very next sentence maybe the beginning of something beautiful in the life of another, it may well play a part in changing or giving life to someone. Or on the other hand it may aid in their destruction.

So choose your words carefully, ensure they are spoken in the spirit of love of creation.

Speak your whole heart, what your spirit compels you to do.

May your words be like seeds that create life and not bullets that destroy life.

Sunday 3 February 2019

Lessons from Stan and Ollie: Betrayal Forgiveness, Friendship and Love

It’s funny the things that you grow up with and love, the things that you remember. It’s always the heartwarming things or the distressingly painful ones, that stay with you. For some reason a couple of cultural ones from my mum and former step dad have been floating around in my consciousness. The first is a Drifters Album of my mum’s “Saturday Night at the Movies”. I have over the last year spent many Friday nights at the movies and just like the Drifters sang

“Saturday night at the movies
Who cares what picture you see
When you're hugging with your baby
Last row in the balcony?”

I have enjoyed some wonderful films and some less so, and shared some heart filling experiences.

We have seen quite a variety of films and recently went to see something that takes both of us back to our childhoods, as well as our parents and grandparents childhoods. By the way it also links to my nieces and nephews as I know my brother's children share in this love, a love for “Laurel and Hardy”. Sue and I recently went to see “Stan and Ollie”. It was truly wonderful. Now I do have a tenuous family link to Stan Laurel. A lady known as auntie Nancy, she was actually my mum’s husband’s Godmother,  her mother was Stan Laurel’s cousin. She helped with the research on the book “Laurel before Hardy” about Stan’s early life, some of which was spent in my home town of Batley. and I know that my mum helped Stan’s daughter Lois do some family research a few years ago, she helped her solve a family mystery. My mum is a family history detective, an expert genealogist.

The film got me in all the places one would hope it could. It was funny and beautifully moving and enabled me to connect heart to heart with so many people I have known and loved, it brought back some beautiful memories. It was a true love story, a very human story too and funny with it. It is a love story in so many ways, a story about philia love. The ancient Greeks saw this kind of love, that between friends, as one of the highest, certainly higher than Eros.

Now the film is not your classic biopic. It focuses on a tour they both made to Britain when they had fallen on hard times and were both not in the best of health. Ollie was seriously ill with a heart condition. It was an attempt to relaunch their film careers, which never happened. It beautifully portrayed their loving partnership and how they struggled on. There is obviously a deep love between them, the wives are brilliant too. There is an interesting aspect to film that caught my attention. It looked at betrayal. Stan felt betrayed by Ollie as he had made a film “Zenobia” with another actor in 1939, this was due to them having separate contacts and Stan being out of contract at the time. Stan believed that this was what put them in the predicament they were in during the 1950's, struggling playing small venues in Britain. During the tour resentment rises to the surface: “I loved us,” Stan claims. “But you never loved me,” replies Ollie. Stan, the brains and the workaholic, loved the double act, but for Ollie life is more about real people and real relationships.

There is a scene later in the film where they have an almighty public fall out, although those present thought that they were acting. A few days later Ollie has a heart attack and is told he can no longer perform. Despite this being the end of their working dreams the two men make up as the love they have for each other is stronger than the resentment they feel. Stan is about to go on stage with another character but finds he cannot do so and then Ollie decides he can’t break up the partnership and they go together to Ireland to a heroes welcome. They both return to America and Ollie dies within three years, Stan lives a few years longer continuing to write material for Laurel and Hardy until the day he died.

It is a beautiful and moving story about friendship, about love. The love for one another and the power of that love to touch hearts when things work together. It’s also a story about betrayal and forgiveness too. How love is the most important and powerful emotion there is.

I loved the film, it touched my heart deeply and connected me to so many deep memories. It helped me to re-feel so much love for the people I have loved and still love in my life, many no longer here. Many who at some point I have let down and even betrayed and who have done the same to me and those I love too. It is a beautiful human story about the power of love, family and community, past, present and future. I laughed and I cried and felt so alive.

I think the key component for long term relationships, of any kind, is love and the capacity to forgive. For the truth is that if you spend enough time with anybody, no matter how deep the love they will at some point or another let you down, even betray you in some way or another, as you will them. They may not mean to, but they will all the same. I have heard it said that when you meet someone, if you want to develop a deep bond its best to get the disappointment out of the way quickly and move on, because it is going to come sooner or later.

The forgiveness and the healing that comes is about the power of the relationship, it is never an individual act. It is about something greater than merely ourselves. For Stan and Ollie is was about their partnership and what it gave to them and so many other people, this was greater than their individual resentments and disappointments. There is so much more power in reconciliation than resentment. It builds bridges, it builds community, it certainly beats walls and separation.

This brings to mind a wonderful story in Jack Kornfield’s “The Art of Forgiveness, Loving kindness, and Peace”. He writes:

"In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe."

For the Babemba it seems that healing and reconciliation is far more important than individual wrong doing.

Wow can you imagine what things could be like if we all lived this way. Sadly though, too often, we live with resentment and seek revenge. Too often folk want pay back. An eye for an eye, which as Gandhi pointed out, leaves everyone blind. Now interestingly even an eye for an eye doesn’t mean exactly what we might think. When Hammarubi came up with this code is was actually an attempt to limit punishment and revenge. He wasn’t so much recommending that we take and eye for an eye, instead he was suggesting take that much, but no more. Then came a more radical idea. If you are injured do not seek revenge, instead offer forgiveness. Just think of the prayer that Jesus taught “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A radical idea even now, but an acknowledgement of our shared humanity, because in the end we all let someone down at some point and forgiveness is about connection, it’s about building bridges, not those walls of separation. It’s about seeing the other as ourselves and not as someone separate and or different.

No one person is truly a single separate human being, we are who we are in community, we are part of one family, the human one. This brings to mind Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu’s thoughts on the African term “Ubuntu”. He said:

" 'We say a person is a person through other persons. We don't come fully formed into the world. We learn how to think, how to walk, how to speak, how to behave, indeed how to be human from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. We are made for togetherness, we are made for family, for fellowship, to exist in a tender network of interdependence.”

Tutu devoted his life to reconciliation, having grown up under the horrors of Apartheid, a system that saw some people as being less than others, due to the colour of their skin.

This speaks powerfully of Jesus teachings on love, perfectly exemplified in forgiveness. Put simply in the Golden Rule of Compassion, the basic teaching of virtually every religious tradition that has ever existed. He said 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . (and) you shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Mk. 12:30-31).

Sounds simple hey, well yes but it aint easy. I know that. The truth is though it is vital. Our world so desperately needs more love, needs more bridges and reconciliation and less walls of separation.

There is a love that can come to life in this world; a love that is in all of us; a love that so desperately needs our bodily experience to live and breath through. It comes to life when we begin to see that we are not so different; that we are all made form the same stuff; that we all need, community and companionship. A simple love that is so wonderfully exemplified in the charming humour of Stan and Ollie, two every men, two seeming losers, but ones that had an ability to tap into something simple and beautiful in each and every one of us. A love that lives on long after they have gone and a love that connects so many generations. When I think of Stan and Ollie I think of both of my grandfather’s and I also think of my niece Scarlett and so many other people I love and have loved deeply, people who I have let down and who have let me down too. As I think of them I laugh and I cry, I live and one day I know we will all die. That said I also know that when we die, the love that we shared will live on,beyond our bodily mortality.