Sunday 26 May 2019

How Do We Ask The Beautiful Questions

“Are you well?”

Are you well? It’s a strange greeting I probably hear several times a week. I don’t like it, as a casual greeting, I never have. It is direct and closed, not an open and welcoming greeting. It seems far too specific a question for a casual and friendly greeting. It also suggests that there might be something wrong with you.

The other day I responded to the question in a less than appropriate way. I said, “Oh yes my umeres are in perfect balance, and you?” The person looked at me as if I was mad.

Yes trying to be clever doesn’t always go down well and my friend was obviously not in the same humour that I was.

By the way it’s not that I think a question as a greeting is inappropriate. I quite like to be asked “how are you?” or “how are you doing?” These feel like open and invitational questions. They are welcoming and not closed greetings. It matters how we greet one another and the questions that we ask of each other and life itself. That said it’s not just the questions that we ask, but the spirit in which they are asked too.

This all got me questioning my questions. My questions about life, myself and the folk I meet. The adventure began by exploring the word question itself.

I found something interesting in the etymology of the word “question” It dates back to the thirteenth century meaning "philosophical or theological problem;" becoming an "utterance meant to elicit an answer or discussion," also as "a difficulty, a doubt," it is rooted in the Anglo-French questiun, Old French question"question, difficulty, problem; legal inquest, interrogation, torture," from Latin quaestionem(nominative quaestio) "a seeking, a questioning, inquiry, examining, judicial investigation,"

This fascinated me. Even in its roots there are examples of good or bad questions. In one form it is meant to elicit an answer or discussion an open and inviting form of communication and in another it suggests that a question is a form of interrogation or even torture. There are good and bad questions, there always was.

It brought back memories of watching Monty Python as a child and the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

A question can be an invitation or it can become some form of interrogation. It matters how me ask a question and how we respond to any question asked. It matters in what spirit we ask, whether the question is of ourselves, of others and or of life.

There is an art to asking questions.

David Whyte has said that “there is an art to asking the beautiful question.”

The beautiful question is one that has the power to shift our thinking, to be the catalyst to inner change and open us to new possibilities aligned with our deepest longings and truth. As he explained in an interview with Krista Tippet for “On Being”

“The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it, as it does by having it answered. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.”

The beautiful question ignites curiosity and encourages meaningful inquiry. As he has said “what would my life look like if I was to drink from a deeper source” and “what would it be like to start a conversation with myself that my future self would thank me for – what would it be like to become the saintly ancestor of my future happiness”.

Whyte’s point is that the conversations we are having with ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, are the foundation of our future. By asking ourselves “beautiful questions” we can begin new inner conversations, expand what is possible, and open up new interior frontiers that align with our deepest purpose in the world.

This is beautifully portrayed in his poem “Working Together.”

Be taught now, among the trees and rocks,
how the discarded is woven into shelter,
learn the way things hidden and unspoken
slowly proclaim their voice in the world.
Find that far inward symmetry
to all outward appearances, apprentice
yourself to yourself, begin to welcome back
all you sent away, be a new annunciation,
make yourself a door through which
to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.

David Whyte

e.e. cummings said “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

In the Gospel accounts you find Jesus over and over engaging people with questions, he had a question for everyone he met. Such questions were an invitation to follow him. Blind Batimaeus being an example, the Samaritan woman at the well another, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Asking beautiful questions is about opening a dialogue that leads somewhere. For example Jesus didn’t tell Bartimaeus what he thought he wanted he didn’t diagnose his problem for him, instead he asked’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’” It is a humble invitation, based around the principle of love and service.

What are the beautiful questions that you need to ask yourself, those you encounter and life itself? They will open you up to new and wonderful experiences.;Such questions will lead to a new curiousity,

A beautiful question is open in nature. Parker J Palmer asked the following question “When was the last time someone asked you an honest, open question — one that invited you to reflect more deeply on your own life, asked by a person who did not want to advise you or “fix” you but “hear you into speech,” deeper and deeper speech?”

When was the last time you were invited by an open question, invited to quest with the other? An open question is a a beautiful question and it is a wonderful gift that we can offer to others. This is beautifully exemplified in Denise Levertov’s poem “The Gift”

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

An open question, the beautiful question is a wonderful gift we can offer to ourselves, to one another and to life. It is a beautiful invitation to journey on to something new, to quest together. Of course it is not enough to merely ask the question, to truly invite the other requires us to walk with them and truly listen to their answer, to join with them in their struggles with the answers they uncover.

It seems to me that a good, beautiful and open question is an invitation to the other to journey and quest together. In many ways this is what a good sermon ought to be. It is an invitation to go on a quest. It is not so much an offering of a definite answer, but instead it is an invitation to journey, to quest together with others. It is an aspect of the creative interchange whose impact may not be felt immediately and hopefully will lead to more beautiful questions along the way. As Fran Peavy has observed “A very powerful question may not have an answer at the moment it is asked…It will sit rattling in the mind for days or weeks as the person works on an answer. If the seed is planted, the answer will grow. Questions are alive.”

The key is to be alive, awake and involved with the beautiful and open questing and questions. The key is to keep on inviting one another to journey on the beautiful journey, with the beautiful questions.

We need not quest alone. We gain so much more than the sum of our individual parts if we join with fellow travelers. We may not discover the same answers, we may not even have the same questions, but if we invite one another to join in the beautiful quest we will uncover incredible treasures in our own lives,  these are often life's beautiful gifts. Together we can support one another joyfully as we seek together; we can become companions to one another as we share our experiences in the beautiful quest.

So I’m going to end with a question. What is your question? What is life asking you today? Would you like to share it with me and others, would you like yo engage with me and others as me seek our answers to the beautiful questions of life.

I invite you to join with me and each other on the beautiful quest. Lets adventure together on the beautiful quest. Let begin with our beautiful question,

Sunday 19 May 2019

Memory is a Mystery to Me

As the silence came to an end during the meditation, I was sharing with my Tuesday morning friends, I felt overcome by a beautiful sense of peace within myself and for all of life. I felt awake to the moment I was in and connected to all of eternity. As the feeling flowed over me a memory awakened within my being. I was taken back to a childhood time. What today would be called year four, but in my day was the first year of junior school. I re-felt, I re-sensed a memory of being sat on the floor with my class mates listening to the teacher reading the end of day story. It was a lovely feeling as I re-felt the experience. There was not really a picture in my mind, other than a very vague one of the room, which even now I cannot see in my minds eye. I can’t even picture the teacher or even my class mates. What I remember is that lovely sense of well being. As I sat there, awakening from the silence, that Tuesday morning, I re-awakened that feeling, the experience re-incarnated in me.

The fact I can’t really picture the memory is not very surprising to me as I am not a visually minded person. I have friends who can visualize all kinds of memory, but I am not one of them. My memories tend to be more sensed than seen. Memory and memories are an utter mystery to me. Why it came when it did and in the form that it did, I have no clue of. I immediately shared the experience with the friends I was with and on Facebook as soon as I could. I felt the need to share it widely and thus make it more real.

Social media, particularly Facebook gets a bad press. It has been rightly criticised in some quarters. Young people consider it passé. The fact I favour it as my preferred social media option ages me somewhat. One of my favourite things about Facebook is that each day it reminds you of previous posts on that day over the years.

The other day I came across the following quotation, I had originally posted two years ago:

“A spontaneous flash of understanding came to me an hour or two after the birth of our first child: "He will never remember today. His birth is chiefly experienced by me, his other relatives, the nurses, and the young mother in the next bed in this war-time hospital. So it may be in death? Only others aware of our passing?”

Hilda Martin Hall

Sadly, I have no memory of where this came from. I find it beautiful. It got me thinking and re-feeling. Two of the most important moments of our lives, our birth and our death, perhaps the most memorable to our nearest and dearest, we have no memory and no real awareness of. If we do have awareness we have no way of communicating the experience through our physical senses. These moments though, as they are experienced by our nearest and dearest, can be some of the most memorable of their lives. They are a part of the natural experience of living and dying and yet the they are the most awe filled, they are awful in the old meaning of the word.

I have never witnessed the birth of a child, I am not a parent. That said I can still re-feel the incredible experience of first seeing my youngest sister Natalie as well as nieces and nephews, truly awe filled moments. I remember powerfully how it felt visiting my grandad those last few times before he died. As well as seeing the lifeless bodies of my father and little Ethan, that incredible outpouring and heartbreaking love as it felt like the whole of my inner being was being torn to shreds . I have also been at the bedside of several congregants as they have come to the end of their lives and witnessed the incredible power of shared love as I have been in the presence of their loved ones. The love experienced in such moments is overwhelmingly powerful.

These memories are etched in my soul. I cannot truly visualise them, they are blurred a bit like looking through frosted over glass. They are like the spiritual experiences I have had, when everything that surrounds the object of my focus appears frosted over.and what is at the centre becomes illuminated. That said while I cannot visualise the memory it feels so alive in my inner being, I can embody the memory. It is somehow more real than reality itself. It is a deeper and thicker kind of real.

The other day another memory appeared on my screen. It was of my grandad’s 90th birthday party, just over a year before he died. As I looked at the picture posted by “Our Troy” I remembered well the conversation we had that day. How he told me how grateful he was to have lived the life he had. I re-felt the feeling of awe as he recounted a tale from the war. He was in the Royal Navy and the ship on which he served was under bombardment. The ship was hit by a shell that went right through to engineering. Somehow it never went off and as a result he and his crew mates were spared. His friend Percy, who went to sea with him, was not so fortunate he never came back. He later said that he has been a very fortunate man throughout his life. Like everyone he has known his share of suffering, but he knows how fortunate he has been to have had the chance to live the life he has had.

I have shed many private tears as I have re-felt that conversation. I shed several more as I wrote these words.

A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of my grandad’s long time partner, “Auntie Hilda”. They were together from 1973 until my grandad’s death. She is our Troy and Samantha’s mum. They are both heartbroken since she died.

After the funeral I was sat talking with my auntie Lynne and cousins and she was recounting tales of my birth and early childhood to my fiance Sue, I could sense powerfully her deep love for me, as I always do around family, particularly those who have known me for longer than I have known myself. She is one of those people that witnessed my earliest moments that I have no memory of. As my grandad had of her and as we and so many others shared over those last years of his life. These are deep connections.

Memory is a mystery to me. The way I remember my own life and people I share my life with has changed many times. The changes seem to coincide with the way I have experienced and understood my own humanity, another mystery. The truth is that my life is made up of those lives that went before me, my life is built on their lives and those that follow me, their life will be built on mine and my contemporaries. The ancestors who walked before me and those that follow me are actually a part of me. I find that incredibly humbling.

It fascinates me how these memories take shape and form and often reshape as time goes by; it amazes me how these memories seemingly re-incarnate as the days pass. In many ways it is memory that brings the moments I am experiencing to life, as it did during meditation on Tuesday morning.

Sadly we cannot store the experience of memories. Memories fade as our minds lose their power. I noticed this the other day as I realised I had left the chapel lights on overnight. Something that Thelma pointed out to me as I returned from the gym and chatted with her as she was hoeing in the garden.

I have always been terrible with names, faces I remember, as I do details of peoples lives, but names they seem to fall through the sieve that is that aspect of my memory.

I am told that this is only going to get worse, I have already seen the signs of what is yet to come. Billy Collins captured this perfectly in this extract from his poem “Forgetfulness”

The name of the author is the first to go
Followed obediently by the title, the plot,
The heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
Which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
Never even heard of,
As if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
Decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
To a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
And watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
And even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
Something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
The address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
It is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
Not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
Whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
Well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
Who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
To look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
Out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

I cannot remember how many things I have forgotten this week. We all forget things and even more as we get older. And then there is Dementia and its cruellest form Alzheimer’s A disease which attacks the cortex of the brain forming bundles of tangled plaque that inhibit conversation between the neurons; as it takes away a persons identity and history as aspects of their humanity drift away. The longer we live the more likely we are to become one of its victims.

Now while the Alzheimer’s sufferer forgets, those who loved them never let them go. Those who shared memories with them hold their love, those feelings are felt in that deeper place that cannot be destroyed by time. Love is eternal, it is immortal.

For as Isaiah (49 vv 15-16) said:

15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.

These words awoke somewhere in me the other day as I was looking at the palm of my hand; as I looked at my life line and my heart line and remembered the love I have known and the love I have shared, with those people who have made up my life. Such feelings are surely Divine.

This is beautifully illustrated by Thich Nhat Hahn, who wrote in “Present moment, wonderful moment”

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

All that has been before is a part of who we are.

Life awes me every single day, it humbles me also. The more I learn the less things make any sense. Every day I have a growing sense of how truly ignorant I am. Nothing makes sense to me. I have no idea why I feel what I feel or why my mind remembers and forgets things. Clever people try to explain these things to me, but they seem to get it even less I. The sum of the parts they describe do not even begin to scratch the surface of the whole.

That said I am so grateful to be a part of this incredible mystery that is life itself,; that I get to share it with the people I do; that I get to experience the sensations of these memories coming to life in my body and spirit, enhancing my experience of life today.

I am grateful to have experienced this the most amazing trip that anyone could wish to be on. Thank you for being a part of it.

Sunday 5 May 2019

“I Do Not Regret this Journey”: Hope for the Future and Even the Past

“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.”

Jelaluddin Rumi

Words attributed to the Sufi mystic Rumi; words familiar to many Unitarians, or at least some of these words. We sing a version of the words in the “Singing meditations” I lead. Interestingly the familiar version is edited. We tend to sing “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.

The words “It doesn’t matter, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.” Seem to have been edited out. A large part of me feels frustrated at this editing. While I love the joyful welcome it is kind of dishonest. The truth is who amongst us has not fallen short of what they had hoped to be, who hasn’t broken their vows so many times? Who does not live with regret for the things they have done in life, or failed to have done in life? I know I do. I live with regret every day of my life

So I say to you come again, come again, come again, no matter how many times you have broken your vow. You will not be alone, we all have regret. We all live with regret. I know I do.

And the key of course is to live with it, to LIVE with regret, to come again and again and again, exactly as you are, warts and all and beauty spots too…

I find it interesting that one of the most popular songs played at funerals is “My Way” by Frank Sinatra and that famous line “Regrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention” Other popular ones are Edith Piath “je ne regrette rien” no regret. A more modern version would be Robbie Williams’ “No Regrets”

Is this really true though? Can any of us truly say that as our lives end that we have no regrets? I’m not sure I can. I cannot make the claim that I have no regrets about my life.

Now the thought of “No regrets” brings to mind a heroic tale I remember being told of as a child. It’s about one of those classic adventurer stories of heroic failure and sacrifice.

During the last days of March, 1912, Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott (an adventurers if ever there was one) and his two surviving companions sat freezing to death in their shelter, food and fuel running out and with no hope of rescue. A team of five had set out in the hope of being the first people to set foot on the South Pole. Sadly when they arrived at the pole two months earlier, they discovered that a Norwegian team had beaten them by a month. As they headed back, disappointed, they lost two members of the team. Scott and the other two survivors managed to shelter themselves, but knew that that there was no hope for survival. Month’s later a search party found them and with them Scott’s diary. One of the final entries ponders the meaning of the experience he shared with his doomed companions. In it he states “…I do not regret this journey…” and continues… “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”

In many ways it is a classic hero’s journey, except one in which the hero did not return with treasure to share. Unless you take his writings as the hero returning, perhaps they are. For in so many ways they have become the legend long after Scott’s and his team’s death., particularly those six simple words "I do not regret this journey".

Now I’m no Captain Scott, I’m no adventurer and I do live with regret. That said like Scott I do not regret the journey that has been my life. There have been many failures and mistakes along the way, but looking back I do not regret the journey itself. Would I like to repeat it though? Gosh no. Do I want to shut the door on it? No,not at all. I, like the great poet Robert Frost, live with not only hope for the future but also the past; for the more faithfully I live, the less guilt and shame I feel about the past. I keep on coming again and again despite falling short of my ideals, despite breaking my vows once again. I know I’m in good company here. Yes I live with regret, “Live” being the operative word. In many ways it is my regret that points me to try to live a better way and to create a legacy for others. I have faith in the capacity to make good from what has gone wrong before. I move forward in Hope both for the future and the past.

This brings to my mind the wonderful poem "Thanks, Robert Frost" by David Ray

"Thanks, Robert Frost"

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

From "Music of Time: Selected and New Poems", 2006

Regret is an interesting word, it is in itself a lament, from the Old French word ‘regreter”, meaning “one who bewails the dead,” which comes from a Germanic root meaning “to greet.” As Mark Nepo has said of regret “We always face these two phases of regret: to bewail what is dead and gone, and, if we can move through that grief, to greet the chance to do things differently as we move on.”

As we move on with not only hope for the future, but also hope for the past. The key is to truly “Live” with regret, to make something better from it.

Nepo notes something of real value here, it is a lesson from grief. Yes regret is a lament for what has gone, what has died, but if we greet it fully with love we can learn from the past and do things differently in the future. The response to regret is both of life and death. The choice is ours. By the way this is the one choice we have in life. We do not choose what happens to us but we can choose how we respond to what happens to us. This is the one ultimate freedom, that is open to all of us.

To quote Viktor Frankl:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

So the response to regret is ours. We can either choose life or death. We can close in and shut down or we can create with love.

There are two interesting examples of responses to regret in the New Testament accounts. They are found within the Easter story, following Jesus’s betrayal. Luke’s (Ch22 vv 60-62) Gospel depicts Peter regretting his betrayal of Jesus. He wept bitterly for his fear based denial and yet how did he respond. Well it was on Peter that the early Christian Church was built, Peter was the "Rock". For Peter Hope was once again born. Matthew (Ch 27 vv 3-5) depicts a very different response to regret that of Judas Iscariot. Who over powered with guilt and regret for his betrayal, tried to return the 30 pieces of silver and took his own life. How many people follow this path, are utterly broken with guilt and regret and take their own lives. There is a suicide epidemic in this country if only we could find a way to let people know that thy are welcome to come again and again no matter how many times they have broken their vows. It is never too late, but sadly sometimes it is.

Regret has its place, it does no good denying this. The key is how respond to it. We need to feel it and to respond in life giving and affirming ways. We need to live with both hope for the future but for the past as well. The key is to create new life from regret. For as Joan Chittister wrote in “The Gift of Years”

“The burden of regret is that, unless we come to understand the value of the choices we made in the past, we may fail to see the gifts they have brought us.

The blessing of regret is clear — it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming.”

To live without hope is to fail to live at all. To live with only regret is to die before our bodies die. I’m sure that Captain Scott must have wondered about the mistakes he had made even in those desperate final days, he must have wondered how different things might have been if other decisions had been made. That said he faced death with those immortal words “I do not regret this journey”. There is something powerfully life enhancing in this and a legacy that has lived on beyond his life. I suspect that the lesson here is that we should never regret the journey even if we do not reach the heights we aim for.

It’s not regret in and of itself that is the issue but what we do with our regrets. Yes regrets can eat away at our souls, but it we are wise, regrets can be powerful teachers too. To learn from them we just need enough humility and hope for both the future and the past, rather than allow them to gnaw away at our souls. Hope is the key. It is hope that will allow us to learn from our regrets and thus create a better future. Hope is born from humility. Just because life humbled us it does not mean that we cannot once again live in hope that we can create something better.

Do not regret the journey, I live with hope both for the future and the past. Let’s face and truly know those things we regret, no matter how many times we have broken our vows. We need not be paralysed, lamenting the past, nor do we need to close the door on it. Let us instead move through the grief of regret and greet the future with its possibility of what might yet be.