Sunday 22 September 2019

Turning To Autumn: Our Ever Changing Seasons

Tomorrow is the Autumn Equinox. Where has the summer gone? Where has the year gone? This time of year can bring a feeling of melancholy for what has passed and will not return.

Yes summer has gone, but with its passing comes the beauty of autumn. There are new energies at work at this time of year. Tomorrow Autumn begins. Next Sunday we celebrate harvest and then move into the seasons of Remembrance before entering into winter and the many festivals of light and Hope born again in the new year. Yes the green of summer and spring is dying and the leaves are falling, but seeds of new life are also being born, each carrying with them the promise of new birth, new hope.

Autumn is about to begin. Here’s a poem “Love Wants to Know How” by that famous author “Unknown”.

“Love Wants to Know How”
author unknown

Autumn comes with its riot of death,
its clarion bells of color,
drives the living green to ground
even as it thins the veil between worlds.
The visible and invisible walk now together
with arms outstretched over fields
where workers hasten to the harvest
none may divide against itself.

So: where are you in this?
How long do you loiter
between the said and unsaid,
the done and undone,
between the half and true rhyme
of a life answering a life?

Geese mark the sky with dark wedges,
call with harsh tongues
to what thrives at the margins
of all we so reluctantly receive.
Go now,
quickly and with great force,
toward what burns in your dreams
at the dying of the year.

Who can say?
Perhaps you reap the whirlwind,
perhaps the harvest—
but is it ever enough to not know
the bonds and bounds of what will one day
forsake you for the grave?

We are in liminal space once again, tomorrow is the autumnal equinox. So as we step through the threshold of summer into autumn where are you in this time of transition? How long are you going to loiter between the said and the unsaid, the done and the undone? What burns in your dreams? How will you ride this great force of nature that is this changing season? Will you reap the whirlwind, perhaps the harvest before your time comes to an end? As we enter another season it is vital to recognise the potentials present in life.

Autumn offers so much potential, as every season does, but there is something unique about the Autumn.

There is a special beauty about the Autumn; it is a beauty is found in its deepness. There is a special depth in the Autumn. Yes. Spring is full of newness, springing to life. It’s an exciting time, a flighty time, a time when we have our heads in the clouds perhaps, blown by the wind. The summer with its long days are perhaps the days of joy of running free, perhaps for swimming in the waters of life. Winter has Christmas and New year at its heart, a time of sitting by the hearth and being warmed by fire. But Autumn is different, it has a depth, a deep, deep beauty. It’s about getting deep down into our roots, into the soil, it is a time for earthing our selves, for going deep down within, to reflect in the ground as summer ends and winter comes. Of all the seasons Autumn to me is the deepest season. There is a depth in Autumn's beauty.

I love Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year. Everything just seems that bit more precious at this time of year. Maybe the reason for this is because this is the time when things come to an end, or begin to come to an end. Maybe everything is that bit more beautiful at this time of year, because everything is dying. Or at least it seems that way. It’s an awareness of this, a real sense of this, in my blood and in my soul, right down in the marrow of my soul, that helps me fall in love with life in a much deeper way. I feel a sense of love for every leaf as it falls. For every leaf is a letter from God. Every leaf teaches us something about life. We are leaves ourselves. Everyone precious; everyone unique; everyone will one day fall.

Here’s another poem about Autumn by Rainer Maria Rilke

“Autumn” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We're all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It's in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

I love the beauty of Autumn. It took me a long time to truly appreciate it, but I am grateful that I finally do. I did not always, particularly in my teens and twenties. I did not see the beauty in its steady decline, my sensitive soul got caught up in its deep sadness. As the days grew shorter and colder and as the trees shed their leaves, their splendour, all I saw was the abundant beauty decaying and heading toward the bareness of the cold stark winter. As the colour died my spirit morphed into sadness as I watched what was beautiful die. All I could see was what was being lost. It would seem that the prospect of death consumed all the beautiful life, that was contained in this season of falling leaves. This season of change, that would bring something new. It wasn’t until the second third of life that I began see the promise in each falling leaf. That in the autumn new life was potentially being born, that new seeds were being planted as the leaves were being composted into the earth, preparing it for the new life being born following the Hope of Winter.

Now as I settle into the second half of life I feel a deep appreciation for Autumn both in natures turning and life’s turning too. Today I understand that we always live in liminal space, that life is always transitional, that life is always changing, being born, rising, flowering, dying and being born once again.

Youth was certainly wasted on me.

Here is "Autumn" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of Autumn, and maybe its most symbolic is the changing of the colour of deciduous tree leaves. Now as I’m sure you all know leaves are green because of chlorophyll. It is chlorophyll that gives leaves their distinctive green colour. Now this combined with sunshine is the key ingredient in the incredible, life-producing process, of photosynthesis.

Now what I find the most beautiful about the process is what is hidden. For the truth is that the leaves don’t actually become another colour The hidden secret of the falling leaves is that they don’t actually “turn” colour. What happens is that due to the lessening of sunshine the chlorophyll begins to be broken down and so the green disappears and the other colours, that were always there, the reds, the golds, the oranges, begin to express themselves. The leaves don’t actually change colour, its just that other colours are revealed due to the death of the green that had been masking them.

Perhaps it is the same with us. Maybe this is the point of Autumn to go deeper into our own roots, into the earth of our being and allow something new to be born again. Is there a hidden secret in the Autumn of each of us?

This brings to mind another favourite poem by Robert Frost “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

“Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

By Robert Frost

Everything is beautiful, because everything is dying. Nothing last forever. Nothing stays the same. Aspects of life must fall and die for new life to be born again. This humbles me, it draws me into the ground, the earth, to my roots, something beautiful that autumn reminds me of

Autumn is the season for falling more deeply in love with life; Autumn is the season of the earth, of the ground for going deep into our roots that sustain us. Autumn is the season when we once again see just how precious everything is. You see everything matters…Everything matters because it does not last for ever, it is finite. Every drop of rain, every thought and feeling, every word and every action matters. I hope and pray that you know that. Everything matters, because nothing ever lasts forever.

Everything has to come to an end, everything must fall into the earth so it can create something new and beautiful. To make room for something new to be born again.

Autumn I love you, I pay homage to all that you teach me…Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year…
"Autumn" by New Model Army

Sunday 8 September 2019

“Meeting Matter: It Matters How We Touch and are Touched By Life”

I recently returned from an intense week at Great Hucklow. I was a part of the Summer School team and together some 60 or more of us were exploring “Theology in the Flesh”: How Might Our Embodied Experiences Shape Our Answers To Life’s Ultimate Questions?”. As part of the week everyone attended or lead an engagement group. This year I was co-facilitating, with Rev Sarah Tinker, a group we had called “Sacred the Body”. We were exploring our bodily experiences and how we experience and live in the body of life, how this affects us and how we affect it. Looking at what life has done to us and what we have dine to life and to try and find better ways to recognise the sacredness of our lives and the whole of life.

I was grateful there was no major health problems this year. If you remember last year my co-facilitator was unable to attend and during the week about a third of the people at Hucklow were struck down by the Norovirus.

I was particularly grateful to work alongside Sarah. I feel we complimented one another. What we created together, along with the thirteen participants, was far more than the sum of the parts we brought to our time together. I know I have grown as a result of the experience and I believe that others did too

Each day we explored the theme “Sacred the Body” from a variety of perspectives. iI was fascinating to observe the ways that different people interacted with the subject, Sarah and myself and with each other. It was deep work, challenging at times, but I feel that we held them through the process. I am sure that many of us discovered new truth and understandings, I know that I did. The experience changed me, it opened me to new truths, but this was not pain free and my word it took a lot out of me. Summer School is like that.

Of all the themes that we explored I think the one that touched me the most was the one we titled “Aspects of the Body: Meeting with the World”. I noticed a shift within the group dynamic and people began to really get into the marrow of the subject this day. It was an attempt to explore what David Whyte has called the “conversational nature of life”, by reflecting on the two most visible aspects of our bodies, our hands and our faces. I introduced the subject by suggesting that our faces symbolise how life touches us and as a result how we face life in response to this “conversation”. While our hands express how we touch life. You see our hands are one of the tools, perhaps the most significant, with which we work with one another within this our material world.

Our hands and faces are the most exposed aspects of our humanity. If we look at them and at one another, they have many stories to tell. Our hands and our faces show our vulnerability, but also our power to both love, create and damage. Who we are is written on our faces and what we do is shown through our hands.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the human face.

“A human being has not only a body but also a face…A face is a message, a face speaks, often unbeknown to the person. Is not the human face a living mixture of mystery and meaning? We are all able to see it, and are all unable to describe it. Is it not a strange marvel that among so many hundreds of millions of faces, no two faces are alike? And that no face remains quite the same for more than one instant? The most exposed part of the body, it is the least describable, a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness. Can we look at a face as if it were a commonplace?”

Among many things Heschel says that no two faces are alike. Now I’m sure some will object and say “what about identical twins?”

Now I recently had an experience with two seemingly identical faces. A few weeks ago I conducted a wedding for a couple. The groom is an identical twin and I was told that his brother would be flying in from Australia for the rehearsal. Now when I first met them I could not tell them apart, after all they were genetically identical. They were the same, but then again they were not. After a while I began to notice differences in them. They were not as identical as they first appeared. Life had shaped them in different ways and I could see this in their faces and their bodies. One of them even appeared a little taller than the other, although I suspect that this was more about how they carried themselves.

So here were two identical faces that had been somehow changed by how life had touched them. Our faces show who we are to one another. Mine certainly does. I do not have a poker face. How I am feeling is written all over my face. I am particularly sensitive to how other people are feeling, I am aware of this as I look into the faces of others. Summer school revealed my deep sensitivity to the emotions of others; I see it in their faces, hear it in their voices and notice it in their body language. I find this exhausting at times. From a child I have always had a heightened awareness of the feeling of others. I used to consider it a great handicap, I no longer do so. I have to be careful of it though. For there have been times when it has been too much and as a result I have found myself turning away from life.

Our faces reveal so much of who we are, it I written all over them. Think about when you meet up with and old friend or relative, one who you have not seen for many years. How often do they say or do we ourselves say “come on let’s have a good look at you” and how often do they or do we then look into one another’s faces to see how we are? And isn’t the response often fascinating for it either brings immense joy or gut wrenching sadness as we see our loved one as they are, for it is written all over our faces. I remember in my darkest days how I used to hate people doing this to me, for I was afraid that they would be able to see right into my soul and know that things were not ok. For how I am, I know, is written all over my face.

Our hands say much about who we are too. There are stories in those lines and scars on our hands. There are many memories in our hands as there is in all of our bodies. Our bodies carry so much of our lives within them; we can express who we are in the world through our bodies, particularly through our hands.It is through our hands that we interact with the world. They express so much of who we are and what we do to the body of life that we interact with life. We are not passive beings in this life. We touch life as much as life touches us.

It matters how we touch life, how we interact with each other. For how matter touches matter, really matters. We need to be careful and loving with our hands, the world needs us to touch one another and life gently for all that we do impacts, it really matters. We are all a part of the co-creation of life.

Just think about all the things that you have touched already today, in fact think about the last few days. How many people have you waved at or gestured towards, was there love in the interaction? How many people have you physically come into contact with? How many hands of you shook, people you have hugged or patted on the back? Perhaps those you have kissed? don't worry I won't go any further. What have you picked up or dropped, opened or closed, torn apart or repaired?

What have you touched in life, how have you touched life? Have you done so loving, gently, or have you done so aggressively? Have you brought violence to life?

It matters how we touch life for how we touch life plays a part in the healing or the destruction of this thing called matter that we are all a part of. Matter really matters you know.

Life is a conversation and it matters, it really matters how we engage with matter, with the skin where in and the skin we live in, with life. We have all been touched by life in so many ways and we all touch life in so many ways. It matters how we do so. We can not alter how we have been touched, we carry that with us in our being, in our bodies and sometimes this really shows. We cannot change this. That said we are not passively blown about in the winds of life. We can do something about how we ourselves touch life. It matters how we touch life, how we take care of the little bit of life we interact with. We can do this with love and care, or we can do it violence and lack of care.

It is in our hands. So what is your choice to be.

How will you face life today?

How will you touch life today?

It matters it really does

Matter really matters…

Sunday 1 September 2019

Boomerang Spirituality: A True Realist Has to be an Idealist

I recently found something unexpected in the small schoolroom at the chapel. There on the windowsill was a boomerang. At the time I had no idea where it had come from and I spent the next week asking everyone I saw there, from a variety of groups, if they knew anything about it. In the end I did discover who it belonged to. It had been left there by someone attending one of the variety of 12 Step Recovery groups who use the small schoolroom throughout the week for meetings. He had brought the boomerang for his sponsor as it seems Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, had an obsession with the boomerang. It is regarded as a deeply symbolic implement in a variety of spiritual circles.

I was thinking about the boomerang as I drove to Sue’s the other evening. As I was doing so I looked up and noticed a small flock of Canada Geese flying in their usual V formation. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a fascination with Canada Geese. Of all the animals I regard them as my spiritual totem. It was a small group of geese and I thought to myself it seems a bit early for geese to flying to Europe for the winter. I had noticed far more Canada geese in the last few days swimming along the canal while out walking the dogs with Sue.

It took me some time but eventually I made sense of this. The geese that were flying above me were from the one family of geese, the young geese were the gosling of the gaggle who were now fully grown and taking to flight. It is the same with the small groups I had observed on the canal. They were no longer goslings. These geese were not native Canadian Geese, they were born here. Canada geese were first introduced to Britain in the seventeenth century and there are many to be found amongst the waters of the north of England and Scotland. So any that we see before the autumn, have not flown in from Canada, but are Canada Geese that are native to this land.

Now even these native Canada Geese do return to their homes, it’s just that they don’t travel as far as the ones that were born in Canada. They are like the boomerang in that they do in fact come back home, they return. They are deeply symbolic of the spiritual life in that they move in circles rather than in straight lines from A to B.

Now all this brought me back to the boomerang, I came back to my original thoughts. Did you know that modern day competitive Boomerang throwers have a special greeting. They say to each another “Full circles to you.” They are wishing one another that, whatever good they do in the world, that it returns back to them in full, if not more. The saying brings to mind some of the teachings of Jesus, from Luke’s Gospel (Ch 6 v 38) “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” Echoed in Paul’s writing (2 Corinthians 9 v 6) “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” and “It is more blessed to give than receive”(Acts 20:35). These are principles at the core of 12 step spirituality along with the idea of returning home having come through a great hardship, something else that is shared with the boomerang, isn’t this the “Prodigal Son.” As they say "Keep coming back."

For many years there have been boomerang throwing contests. One of the greats was Barnaby Ruhe, who is best known for his "William Tell Trick". To perform his "William Tell Trick", Barnaby would toss on a cape and cap, attaching an apple to his cap through the use of a wooden peg. He would then throw his knife-like boomerang, slicing the apple in half on top of his own head. An incredible feet don’t you think?

These thoughts on "Boomerang Spirituality" bring to mind a story based partially on an Ancient Greek Mythos, a re-telling of the story of “Echo”, symbolizing what we give off we get back in return.

A man and his son were walking in the forest.
Suddenly the boy trips and feeling a sharp pain he screams, “Ahhhhh.”
Surprised, he hears a voice coming from the mountain, “Ahhhhh!”
Filled with curiosity, he screams:
“Who are you?”,
but the only answer he receives is:
“Who are you?”

This makes him angry, so he screams:
“You are a coward!”,
and the voice answers:
“You are a coward!”

He looks at his father, asking,
“Dad, what is going on?”
“Son,” the man replies, “pay attention!”
Then he screams, “I admire you!”
The voice answers: “I admire you!”

The father shouts, “You are wonderful!”,
and the voice answers:
“You are wonderful!”

The boy is surprised, but still can’t understand what is going on.
Then the father explains,
“People call this ‘ECHO’,
but truly it is ‘LIFE!’ Life always gives you back what you give out!
Life is a mirror of your actions.
If you want more love, give more love!
If you want more kindness, give more kindness!
If you want understanding and respect, give understanding and respect!
If you want people to be patient and respectful to you, give patience and respect!
This rule of nature applies to every aspect of our lives.”

I have found that generally speaking this is true, although not absolutely, or at least not immediately. Generally speaking though I have found that the more love I give out the more it returns back to me.

I live with a genuine love for life and people and take a fairly positive view of most things. I am an idealist and I live in hope for humanity. This is why Universalism speaks to me; it is a hope filled faith. Yes it recognises the despair in life, but it also points to the hope that is rooted in this very despair. We do have choices in life. We can either live in fear or in faith that life has so much to offer us. There are many unanswerable questions re the nature of life and the nature of humanity, why wonderful things happen and why the most dreadful can happen. I am not sure that we will ever find the answers in the whys and wherefores.

I have discovered that meaning always emerges if we live with hope and courage; it does not come in getting bogged down within our individual suffering. By saying “yes to life” in answer to “no’s” fear, we manifest the courage to be, to live. This comes in those simple acts of self giving love; those acts that fill our cup with love as we empty it in service to and for others. Meaning comes as we give from our own cup of suffering in an attempt to help another in their hour of need.

The other morning I was chatting with a guy called Nick. He is a personal trainer at the gym I attend. He was apologizing to me as he had not responded when I said hello to him earlier. He said his mind was elsewhere. He is about to become a father for the first time and was worrying about how best to bring up his child in this world. Nick is originally from Iran and grew up under a repressive theocracy. He talked about not wanting to impose any religion on his son but to let him choose for himself. He knows I am a minister but doesn’t know much about the free tradition I am a part of. I listened and said I think that the key is to bring your son up with morals and respect, a love for life, a love for others and a love for himself. The key is to see the sacredness of life and to love it. We then went about our business with enthusiasm. Its funny but that morning I really pushed myself on the weights, I seemed to find more energy following the conversation. I had received far more than I had given.

The conversation brought to mind my favourite film on YouTube, the grainy old video clip of Viktor Frankl above. In it he says “We have to be idealists, in a way, because then we wind up as the true, the real realists. And so you know who has said this? If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be. This was Goethe. He said this verbally. Now you will understand: this is the most apt maxim and motto for any psychotherapeutic activity.

So if you don't recognize a young man's will to meaning, man's search for meaning, you make him worse: you make him dull, you make him frustrated. While if you presuppose in this man, there must a spark for meaning. Let's presuppose it and then you will elicit it from him, you will make him capable of becoming what he in principal is capable of becoming.”

I love Viktor Frankl. Of all the great 20th century thinkers he may well be my favourite. I love the twinkle in his eye that is so evident in this clip, as well as his obvious humour. He takes what he does seriously without taking himself too seriously. In this wonderful little clip he makes an argument for the idealist in all of us, as he points to what we are all capable of being, if we could just tap into our God given human potential.

As he says by definition the idealist always overestimates what is possible. Where as a realist will only estimate exactly what is possible and no more. In fact perhaps a realist will ever so slightly underestimate what is possible, just to be on the safe side. Just to ensure that they don’t over estimate things and aim too high. Just to avoid disappointment.

Is this truly realistic though?

Frankl suggest by aiming at a realistic level we always fall short of the mark. By taking a realistic view of people we are setting them up to fall way short of what they are capable of achieving. Where as if we aim high and become idealists about human nature we can lift people up to where they are capable of reaching and thus if they fall short of this mark, they fall to a"true" realistic level. For Frankl a true realist, must be an idealist. To achieve what we are capable of we must overestimate what is possible. To become our true selves we must be optimistic. To achieve what we are capable of achieving we must believe that we are capable of more than we actually are. And by giving out more than we think we are receiving we will receive back far more than we thought was possible. In so doing we will encourage others to do the same.

This is the strange mathematics of giving, classic uncommon sense. By giving out more than we receive; by overestimating what is possible, we encourage others to do the same and thus they will give out more and thus we will receive even more that we give. Love will somehow become multiplied by subtraction. All we have to do is take the risk. This is the beauty of the interconnected life.

Life is echo; life is a boomerang; life is like those Canada Geese. What we give out we get back in abundance, as that strange mathematics of giving begins to multiply by subtraction.

If we want to know love, we need to give out love into this our world, we need to risk our hearts to that love. We need to be true realists by being idealists about ourselves and humanity and life itself. This is not to ignore the darker side of life, far from it. We need to acknowledge what is wrong with the world, without becoming weighed down by it.

The Kin-dom of Love is truly within us and amongst us. It is our task to bring it alive through our lives. It is up to us to raise one another up, to aim as high as we can and become the people we never knew we were capable of becoming.