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.