Sunday 24 November 2019

Family: It takes just three cups of tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 17 November 2019

Welcome: On Becoming a Wished for Guest

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

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

Simply Rumi to most folk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 3 November 2019

Our History of Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.