Wednesday 30 December 2020

Turn, turn, turn again


“The King's Highway” author unknown

Once a king had a great highway built for the members of his kingdom. After it was completed, but before it was opened to the public, the king decided to have a contest. He invited as many as desired to participate. Their challenge was to see who could travel the highway the best.

On the day of the contest the people came. Some of them had fine chariots, some had fine clothing, fine hairdos, or great food. Some young men came in their track clothes and ran along the highway. People traveled the highway all day, but each one, when he arrived at the end, complained to the king that there was a large pile of rocks and debris left on the road at one spot and this got in their way and hindered their travel.

At the end of the day, a lone traveler crossed the finish line warily and walked over to the king. He was tired and dirty, but he addressed the king with great respect and handed him a bag of gold. He explained, "I stopped along the way to clear a pile of rocks and debris that was blocking the road. This bag of gold was under it all. I want you to return it to its rightful owner."

The king replied, "You are the rightful owner."

The traveler replied, "Oh no, this is not mine. I've never known such money."

"Oh yes," said the king, "you've earned this gold, for you won my contest. "He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

Remember those words of wisdom as you travel the road of life!

"He who travels the road best is he who makes the road smoother for those who will follow."

This is the turning season. The day light hours are beginning to get longer, we have passed the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. We are coming to the end of the Calendar year and will soon be stepping into 2021. What has the year been like for you? A year like no other ever experienced before, not in our life times at least.

If it has been like mine it has been a mixture of many things, some beautiful, some painful. This is life it and brings to mind those words of Moses, during his final sermon as the people were about to step out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, without him. In Deutronomy 30 v 19 he said   I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,”

I love that phrase “Choose Life”. Not necessarily an easy ride, but definitely one worth taking. There will be bumps in the road and troubles to face, but there will often be treasures too. Those treasure can often be found in those very obstacles, rather like those faced by the man in the story we heard earlier. That said if we face the obstacles and do not flee them we will know a life that is both rich and rewarding and we may well become inspirations to others too. By doing so we can lead the way to a freedom open to everyone

In life we are faced with many decisions each and every day. We are constantly making decisions about which path we are to follow. If you are anything like me you won’t always make the right one; if you are anything like me sometimes you will try to avoid having to make the decision, you will wander around in the wilderness of life, hopefully not as long as Moses and the ancient Israelites, before daring to enter into the promised land of life. Also, truth be told, by not making a decision we are actually making a decision. Passivity, doing nothing, is an action in and of itself. In the end we all have to make a decision one way or another; we all have to turn down one path or another. Standing still is not the nature of life.

It is an interesting phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. It brings to mind a pantomime that is very popular at this time of year “Dick Whittington”. Pantomime is another of those wonderful traditions that we cannot enjoy this year, we will again. Dick Whittington is loosely (very loosely by the way) based on the life of Richard Whittington who was in fact made Lord Mayor of London four times, despite what the rhyme says. He did all kinds of good public works during his career. Now in the pantomime he comes to London from Gloucestershire to make his fortune, “where the streets are paved with gold”, accompanied by his cat. Initially he meets little success and is about to return home. As he turns back and climbs Highgate Hill, he hears the sound of the Bow Bells of London ringing. The bells though seem to be doing more than merely ringing, they are speaking to him. He hears them say...

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

So he turns again, he turns around, he does not return home instead he turns back to London and a whole host of adventures. One such adventure is on a ship where his cat is employed as a rat catcher, which leads to him gaining many friends. The adventures continue and eventually he becomes very prosperous and marries his master’s daughter Alice Fitzwarren and is made Lord Mayor of London on three occasions (Well actually four it would seem).

Now like all great tales, some of it is true and some of it is not. The fact that not all the tale is factually accurate does not mean that the story has no meaning. There is a universal truth in this tale that has spoken to those who have seen the pantomime or heard the story and it is in the rhyme and the voice Whittington heard through sounds of Bow Bells.

“Turn again Whittington, once Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, twice Lord Mayor of London!

Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

Whittington did not turn away he stepped forward into the unknown. He chose the heroes path. Like in so many of the stories of life he heard the call to adventure and he answered it.

It is a curious phrase to turn, or to turn again or even to return. Did you know that to turn or to re-turn was the original meaning of the religious word “conversion”. Conversion is rooted in the Latin word “convertere”, which meant to turn around to transform.

Now for a long time I use to think that if a person had been converted that this was the end of a process. Thankfully I no longer live under this delusion. Today when I think of conversion I think it as the beginning of something of the start of a journey, down another direction perhaps or perhaps not, maybe we can turn and keep on turning down the same path. Today I see conversion as an ongoing process, not a once or perhaps twice in lifetime experience. We turn, we turn and we turn again.

This is also how I view this beautiful Unitarian tradition that I have chosen to walk down and continue to do so breath by breath, moment by moment and day by day. This is not something that comes easily to me, I am not someone who came naturally to religion. In fact I only became interested because of life changing spiritual experiences. I came to religion seeking answers, this eventually led me the Unitarian tradition, where the search has gone on. Have I found the answers? No if truth be told what I have actually found are more questions as the experiences have grown and developed. Do I believe that one day I will uncover the answer? I very much doubt it. Unless the answer is simply the question itself. That said what the last few years have shown me is that this spirit of humility and openness will lead to experiences way beyond my imaginings. I am sure I will be born again and again and again, I will keep on turning and resisting and turning again. I believe that this is the best way to travel, “platinum class” if you like.

In his seminal work “Varieties of Religious” experience William James talks about those who are religiously inclined as being once born or twice born, born again as some would describe it.

Both concepts, especially with regard to the spiritual life seem problematic to me. Both definitions too static and nothing in life is static, everything is forever changing, thus the spiritual life must also be constantly in flux. To me it would appear that we are often born again and again and again or perhaps what actually happens is that we keep on waking up and going back to sleep. We are forever turning and returning over and over again. The nature of life is forever changing, nothing moves in a straight line, there is no straight path. Our return to live as we once knew it will not be smooth and we will not return to things exactly as we were. We are going to keep on changing as is life itself. Beware the dangers of nostalgia, for it is a form of homesickness.

I think what I love the most about our free religious tradition is that it not only recognises this continuing process of continual process but it does more than that it celebrates it. It’s kind of accepted that Unitarians will keep on turning and returning that your understanding of your faith will go down many avenues. This does not make the tradition woolly or empty in any sense, just honest. I believe one of the roots of our tradition is that we make the space to hold one another in our searching. In many ways it is probably harder to be a Unitarian than to follow a more orthodox tradition or to reject religion all together. We do not offer absolutes instead we ask that you search, that you trust your own experiences. We ask you to seek and ask questions not only of yourself, but of each other and to actively engage with each other; we ask to search the holy books of human history and of modern inquiry but not to be chained down by any of them. We say keep on turning down that road and keep on returning. Don’t be afraid to discover what is on offer out there and in here.

We do not all think in the same way, we don’t all believe exactly the same things and we celebrate this. This is a joyous thing. Because even though we may not “believe” exactly the same we still journey together in this our fellowship of love and attempt to carry what we experience and understand into our daily lives together.

I believe that by being so we can become beacons to others and give them the courage to do the same, to keep on turning and returning. So let’s continue on, let’s keep on turning and not fear what we may or may not uncover on the way. You never know it may be a real treasure.

So here we all stand at the turning point of the year. Ready, I hope, to let go of what has been but without regret and to step out into the unknown; to keep on turning down that unknown road, to keep on choosing life; to keep on being born anew, again and again and again...You never know by doing so you may just make the road smoother for those who follow.

Monday 14 December 2020

Angels Without Wings

Last Monday was one of those days when I just couldn’t get going, I was constantly interrupted by people either by telephone or coming to the chapel. I found myself getting somewhat frustrated by this, but by the end of the day I found myself laughing about it all, especially my frustrations. The truth is that everyone was bringing gifts of the heart, I suspect that I was visited by angels, if ones without wings.

That morning as I got back from the gym I noticed I had a message on my mobile phone from Rev Angus Parker. Angus is a retired minister living in Tameside. It seems he recently read an article I had written for “The Inquirer” back in September. He was concerned about my well-being and had gone all around the houses to get in touch with me. We had a lovely conversation and then I tried to get on with my work. I could not as Aled arrived to take the toys we had collected to “The Wood Street Mission”. He also had a few other matters to discuss. I tried again to get back to work but seemed to be interrupted over and over again, by people wanting to talk with me. In the middle of this I received a wonderful email from Oliver with a poem he had written in response to the toy service he had taken part in. This led to more conversations with folk at Unitarian headquarters as we might use the material as part of daily offerings to support people at this time . Then Aled appeared again this time with Mrs Khurana and a woman named Katie, they had come baring gifts both for me personally and also for the toy collection. We talked for some time and then I returned to try and get on with my work, all the while Aled was loading up the toys. It wasn’t long before there was another knock on the door, this time it was Barbara again with gifts for the toy collection, again we talked for a while before I returned to my work. I sat and began to smile to myself as a theme for the this week began to form in my heart and mind, my homiletic consciousness had awoken. As I thought about all the conversations I had had I realised that I had been visited by angels, all be it ones without wings. I call them angels because they had visited or communicated messages of love and concern for others and they had brought those gifts to me. It brought to my mind the following verse from Hebrews ch 13 v 2  “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares”.

Thankfully I was able to show hospitality to all those visitors and everyone of them were angels, they brought messages of love, I had indeed entertained them unawares.

Angels are central to the whole Nativity mythos, actually you will find them throughout the Bible, both in the Hebrew and Christian books. By the way you will also find them in many other religious traditions too. Many people today speak of a belief in angels as well. Do you believe in angels?

Now I have to be honest with you and admit that there is much in the Christmas mythos that I cannot literally believe, but then mythos has never been about historical accuracy and more about universal truth. There is a truth within the stories that can teach us a great deal about how we should live with one another and I count the angels as part of this.

The Hebrew and Greek words for angel (malak and aggelos) simply means “messenger”. In the Christmas mythos, the Nativity, it is the Arch Angel Gabriel who delivers the news that Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist and that Mary will soon be carrying Jesus. These are both described as miracles as Elizabeth cannot have children and Mary is a virgin. Gabriel appears again to the Shepherds and it is said during the Easter story too. Within the Judea-Christian tradition angels are seen as the deliverers of the “good news”.

The Jewish scriptures are littered with individuals encountering angels. In some of these accounts it is suggested that not only are these angels delivering a message from the Divine but may well be God itself. They are sometimes referred to as “the angel of the Lord” and not just simply an angel.

Angels are holy messengers, delivering a holy message, that has to potential to transform our lives or the lives of others. Now in my eyes everything is holy, for everything matters. Therefore everyone and everything can be a holy messenger. Anyone who delivers goodness, wisdom, hope, who lifts us up when we have fallen is an angel; anyone or anything that delivers the message that everything matters and cares for that matter is delivering a holy message, they are a holy angel, even if they don’t have wings.

You do not have to be a beautiful androgenous figure from a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings, to be an angel. You just have to be an ordinary person delivering a gift of love in some form or other. I was thinking of the children and parents from Mrs Hare’s dance school who answered the call to bring all those gifts of toys for the children last week and those from both congregations who brought their gifts too. I thought of Christine placing Paddington Bear at the top of the bag and OIliver noticing him peeking out which led to the poem he wrote right there on the spot. I thought about all those angels that have done small and great things these last few months, finding ways to help people in their time of need, despite the truly difficult circumstances that we have all been living through. As I was writing these words I heard of the 90 year old woman Margaret Keenan who was the first to be given the vaccine and the second man from Coventry the wonderfully named William Shakespeare who was the second, I heard of another wonderful man named Martin Kenyon, again 91 years old who was announcing to the world that he would be able to hug his graddaughters at Christmas, something that they didn’t even know yet, but he was going to tell them, what a beautiful message that would be for the whole family. It is hoped that life will begin to get back to normal in the not too distant future and save some many lives from this horrific pandemic. If the vaccine is not a message of holiness then I don’t know what is. Our lives, everyone of our lives matter so much. Oh there are angles everywhere, none of which have wings, although they have certainly earned them.

By the way not all angels walk on two legs. I was greeted by a little furry four legged one as I walked into an empty home last Monday night. Little Charlie was delivering a message of love as I arrived home. She even came upstairs to be with me as I took a long relaxing bath.

An angel doesn’t even need to be a living breathing thing either. Nature has the capacity to lift us up when we feel we have fallen once again, it can deliver a message of love too. I can feel that message at times in the wind, whispering a message of faith, hope and love; or in the calm that falls after the storm; or in one of those red dawn rainbows; or in another heroes sunset as you think about going home after a long hard day.

Angels come in many forms, rarely with wings it seems, although the wild geese and the song of the blackbird certainly teach of the holiness of everything, so sometimes they have wings. However the message comes I know that I have encountered an angel when it teaches me of the holiness of everything, that everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed, that all is holy.

The messengers may not be bringing glad tidings of comfort and joy, they may be bringing a message pointing out what is wrong in the world or in our life. One angel might be a friend pointing something out to you, or someone reaching out for your help, or it might be something you see or hear on the news that leads us to respond in loving ways, to use our own holy love to bring repair to the fabric of our world, this is holy work. The messages and messengers are angels for they are delivering holy massages about holy matter and of course life really matters. If the messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking of what is holy to us. Everything matters, so everything is holy, thus those who deliver such messages are angels, even if they don’t have wings. To repeat those words from Hebrews (Ch 13 v 2) “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares”. Even if the message appears unpleasant, apparent bad news please do entertain them, welcome it all in, for it may be delivering something holy to you.

Brings to mind those wonderful words of Rumi “The Guesthouse”

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 are 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 whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

The message is to welcome them all in, whatever they might be, for they are baring holy gifts. We need to be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the seemingly mundane, for we do not know what gifts of the holy might be in that message. Rumi reminds us that even that which shakes us up may well be clearing us out for some new delight. Do not keep out the holy for it may be preparing us for something wonderful, some holy action, just like those angels did in the Nativity.

The message needs to be heard and then acted upon; It might be to go on some adventure like Mary and Joseph or the shepherds or in more subtle ways like the wisemen responding to the star and their ancient knowledge, their reason and their dream. They sought out the holy infant and did not tell Herod where he was, they responded to their holy messages. Or maybe its that message that we need to “bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Just like the angel brought to the shepherds, a message that we have failed to hear or at least create.

Maybe now is the time, maybe that is the massage of Christmas, the universal Christmas, maybe that is the only massage that really matters. That this is our holy duty, that this is how we make all life holy, that we make all matter really matter. Maybe that’s what we are all here to do, to finally bring peace on earth and goodwill to all and then when we do so maybe we will all finally receive our wings and love will finally be born in the mangers of all our hearts and lives.

So listen my friends, there are angels everywhere.

Monday 7 December 2020

Peace on Earth Goodwill to All: No Way! Yes Way!

Christmas is going to be different this year. This year has certainly been different, of that there is no doubt. Our usual Christmas rituals are not going to be the same. We are going to have to adapt our usual patterns and activities. This may well feel like we are somehow losing out on something, that we will be lacking something from our lives. This need not be case. Yes we will not be doing the things we would normally do, but does that mean that we will still not feel the spirit of the season in our lives, perhaps we can find ways to multiply this spirit at the heart if the season in our humble human lives. Well I have already noticed this happening. One lovely example is taking place on our street. One of our neighbours has come up with a lovely idea of creating a neighbourhood Advent Calendar. Each day an Advent theme will be revealed in someone’s front window. It is an attempt to bring something of the Christmas cheer to the neighbourhood as we unable to mix as we would normally do. I have learnt that is an idea that has been around for quite a few years. The historic town of Saltaire in Bradford have doing this since 2006 and other towns throughout the land and other lands far away have being doing similar projects. The tradition is believed to have begun in Stockholm in Sweden.

We are taking part in “The Living Advent Calendar”. Our house has been given the 12th December. Our theme is based on the carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” written by the Unitarian minister Edmund Sears, whilst serving the congregation in Wayland Massachusetts. It was written during a time of personal turmoil as well war in Europe and between Mexico and the USA. It seems that the world at the time was not hearing the Christmas message. Now while the carol is inspired to some extent by the verse from Luke Ch 2 v 14 it is different to most other carols as it is actually a commentary on the times that Sears himself was living through.

Last Sunday Oliver James Lomax and I recorded a wonderful contemporary, poem/carol. Oliver’s poem “How still we see thee lie” is a moving observation on our contemporary world while linking his words to the classic hymn, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”. I see echoes in Oliver’s poem and Sears carol. Both are perhaps retellings of the original Christmas mythos, something that can get lost in many of our Christmas rituals.

Our window on the 12
th will say “Peace On Earth Good Will To All” Bethlehem today is not place of stillness either. Is there peace on earth good will to all? There certainly isn’t in contemporary Bethlehem. Would peace on earth be the gift of Christmas. There is much work to be done in order for us to bring the spirit of Christmas alive here on earth.

Maybe while we think about the things that we will miss this Christmas that we ought to consider what we can give instead during this season and in the years to come. This brings to mind some powerful lines from my favourite carol “In the Bleak Mid Winter”

“What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what can I give him: give my heart.”

Now carol singing, in church and chapel, or indoors at all is something we cannot do this year. Gosh this is going to be tough. Like most people I love singing carols, well as you know I love singing anything. We can though sing outdoors and perhaps we need to find creative ways to do this.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” may well be my favourite carol. Yes I know it is not the jolliest, but I suspect it is the most beautiful. It is certainly the one that touches me the deepest. There is a version of it in the Green Hymn book, but I prefer the one we sang earlier, it is the one I remember from primary school. It is the final line that has always tugged at my heart strings. The words “Yet what can I give him: give my heart.” This to me is the message of the whole Christmas story; this is the message of the universal Christmas “mythos”. This is the religious message of Christmas and the message that the life of Jesus brought to humanity. It is a message that applies as much today as it did then. What shall we give? We give our hearts. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to one another. Perhaps this is how we bring about “peace on earth, goodwill to all.”

The story is echoed in John Midgely’s piece on Poinsettia. “Even the most humble gift if given in love will be acceptable.”

“What shall I give him? Give my heart” or if you prefer   “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable”

Perhaps this is the spirit that we need to bring to life through our lives this Christmas season and beyond. We are going to need to as we attempt to rebuild once we eventually come through the other side of this pandemic. Good news about that this week of course as the vaccine will begin to be offered in the next week. Spring is coming, even now in deep mid-winter, let’s keep that light alive.

The Christmas “Mythos” is that of perfect love incarnating in human form. That love can manifest itself today in our hearts and lives. We all have the capacity for great good, if we would but feed the good wolf within each of us. It is surely here that the hope for the whole of humanity lies. If we feed the loving wolf within us the wolf of hate and fear dies off. If we do we have already begun to spread love and we begin to bring joy to the world.

Isn’t this the true spirit of Christmas? Found, I believe, in those simple words from my favourite carol “In the Bleak mid-winter” that we sang earlier “What shall I give him? Give my heart”

Gordon B Mckeeman once said “Christmas is not so much a matter of explanation and interpretation as it is a mood and a feeling. It is a time in the cycle of the year set apart by hope and fellowship and generosity. Christmas is the season of the heart.”

We can bring the gift of Christmas alive and it comes by giving our whole hearts, whole heartedly. In so doing we can once again truly know and experience joy, but not in childish way, in a childlike and yet mature way.

I believe in Christmas, the soul of Christmas, the spirit of Christmas, the heart of Christmas the religion of Christmas more today than I ever did at any moment in my life. Today I believe everything about Christmas and a whole lot more than everything that we think we know.


Now don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that I believe that everything that the Gospel accounts recounted actually happened. I really can’t answer that, I wasn’t there. Were any of us who argue about it actually there? No of course not. What I mean when I say I believe in Christmas more today than I have ever done before is that I believe in the universal mythos that lies in the soul of the story. I believe in the story and what it has to teach humanity regardless of time and or space. That in giving our hearts we bring to life the spirit of Christmas and in so doing we begin to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all. Don’t we all need this so desperately.


I believe that we need Christmas more today than at any other time before, for we mock the bells at Christmas time probably more today than we ever did before. The problem I suspect is that we do not hear the message at the heart of Christmas…Maybe we have forgotten how to listen or perhaps we have forgotten how to deliver the message

So let’s begin to bring the spirit of the season alive once again, let us listen for those old familiar carols. Let’s bring peace on earth and goodwill to all. For if we do we may just begin to make it Christmas every single day. Can this be done, well it can if we still believe in the spirit at the heart of this beautiful season.

Let’s bring peace on earth and goodwill to all.


Thursday 26 November 2020

Hubris and its Antidote: Five Smooth Stones

I recently enjoyed a rather excellent television series titled “Goliath”. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as this once great lawyer who has pretty much lost everything. He is persuaded to fight a case against a gigantic corporation, that produces weapons of war and that is represented by the top law firm that he started along with his partner. It is a wonderful series and as you have probably guessed in the end the little man prevailed, not without casualties and deep suffering, but in the end they won out. The mighty did indeed fall. Goliath actually runs for three series and the lawyer cobbles together a raggle taggle bunch who keep on fighting the good fight, all people with struggles and complex relationships, all broken by life in some way and through the three series they eventually bring down the Goliaths, that they are up against, whether they be political or business exploiting the people around them. They overcame, against the odds, some day. They do so at a cost to them often personally, but somehow in the end justice prevails.

We shall overcome,
we shall overcome,
we shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe,
we shall overcome someday.

I also recent watched another film, a true story this time called “Dark Waters” this tells the story of another lawyer who takes on the might of Dupont who through the production of Teflon had been poisoning the locals who worked for them and who lived in the locality, over many decades. It’s a fight that still goes on. Again, through this man’s hard work, this little David managed to win a multitude of lawsuits for the people who have been horribly affected by this mighty Goliath. All kinds of cancers and infant deformities were caused by a chemical element that was used in the production of Teflon. Again, it is not without personal cost. There is a lesson here me about sticking at things if they are just, but accepting that whatever we do in life, if we sacrifice something for a greater good, that there will be a personal cost. Sometimes the results don’t come when we want them, but in the end hope does prevail. There is always though a price to pay. Are we willing to pay the price?

It lifts my heart to see the little person prevailing against the mighty, that this is not some ancient myth, that decency does still prevail. I also like the fact that to be the hero you do not have to be pure, you do not have to be perfect, in fact in some ways being imperfect can often help. We are all far more human than otherwise and the acceptance of our own imperfection ought to keep us humble.

I am sure that most folks know the story of David and Goliath found in 1 Samuel Chapter 17 of the Jewish scripture what Christians have called “The Old Testament” of the Bible.

David and Goliath tells the story of those old enemies the Israelites and the Philistines being at war once again Their armies were faced one another A giant of a man, walked out from the ranks of the Philistine army and challenged Saul and his army to send out their best champion so that they might engage in a two-man winner take all contest.

This champion named Goliath was nearly ten feet tall. His armour and weaponry were of equal gigantic measure, a terrifying sight. He issued his challenge. “I will fight your best soldier.”

Saul and the whole of Israel tremble in fear, for they did not have a champion willing to face Goliath that day. Goliath repeated his challenge every day for forty days and still Israel had no champion. Young David was sent by his father to bring food to his three older brothers who were soldiers in Saul’s army. When David arrived, he saw Goliath come forward and heard him issue his challenge. When David saw the Israelite soldiers flee from Goliath in fear, he volunteered to fight Goliath. He proclaimed that “he would not be alone but would have the Lord God of Hosts on his side.” David was propelled forward by his faith, not his wisdom, strength or experience as a soldier, but his humble faith.

David was a boy not a man, he was small and had no experience as a soldier. In the end though King Saul agreed to send David as his Champion. He offered David the use of his own fine armour and sword. But David declined, saying that he was not used to wearing armour and using a sword. He preferred the simple tools and methods that were familiar to him, he would prevail over Goliath in the same way that a shepherd prevails over threats from bears and wolves who seek to kill sheep. David walked out to meet Goliath with his shepherd’s staff, his slingshot and five smooth stones he had carefully selected from the riverbed.

You can imagine Goliath laughing and taunting David, but David had faith in those five smooth stones and, his simple methods and his God. Goliath rushed forward with a battle cry waving his sword, David let fly the first stone from his sling. His aim and his launch were sure and true. The stone hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead and he fell to the ground. David and defeated Goliath.

Sometimes even the most powerful and most confident can be defeated with integrity and faith and justice, humility and of course hope. Maybe these are those five smooth stones that David carefully selected. Integrity, justice, faith, humility and hope. The mighty and most powerful do sometimes fall. Hubris is a very dangerous thing and can bring even the mightiest down, when they least expect it. You see even the mightiest have a weak spot and sometimes it is their Hubris, their utter self belief, that is their weakest of weak spots. I am reminded here of the Death Star in the Star Wars movie. Isn’t Luke Skywalker just David in another setting? I am sure that the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, delighted in this when he consulted on the film.

Public figures whether celebrities or politicians should take heed of this. Something we have seen continually, including the last couple of weeks. People who live with integrity, faith, humility, justice and hope do have the capacity to eventually defeat even the mightiest of Goliaths. These five smooth stones have the capacity to defeat Hubris however it may manifest itself.

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for overstretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers, who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Perhaps those that rule our world, our leaders, the financiers, the media moguls and even the celebrities who many of us lookup to in awe in the same way that the ancient Greeks looked at their God’s should take heed of these stories. The Empires do eventually fall like the walls of Jericho or burn like Rome. Or they are brought to a standstill by nature or in our case this horrific pandemic.

Hubris of course manifests itself in many forms. The one place it appears where you’d think it ought not to is in religion. Yet it is probably more obvious there than in any other area of life. Those who believe they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for themselves is, but what it is for everyone else do appear to be suffering from the worst form of hubris.

My response to such thinking is usually “Come off it who do you think you are?” By trying to convert a person to your way of believing seems like the worst kind of Hubris to me.

Although of course if I am honest I’ve suffered from it myself from time to time.

I could be accused of it now.

Sceptics are no different. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is deeply disrespectful. It certainly does not honour or respect their humanity. No one can ever truly know what is to have walked in another’s shoes and to have lived their lives.

To be smug about one’s personal so-called rationalism seems like the worst kind of arrogance to me. The question I would like to ask is why we need to spend our time proving what someone else genuinely believes as wrong or false or immature, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum?

That said, once again, I have to hold up my hand and admit that it’s not something I’m immune from.

As I heard someone say many years ago “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong”

I need to remember that one more often.

“To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong.”

Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves.

Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.

Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility! I suspect this was the stone that David defeated Goliath with, although it is the one he lost sight of at times in his own life, particularly when he became the all powerful king. David was as human as anyone and power can corrupt anyone. Why? You may well ask, because power can lead to a person thinking that they are some kind of God.

Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own;  which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

Hubris can be the most inhibiting and potentially dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other end helps us to see the truth about ourselves “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in.

The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.

Life has taught me many things. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons is that people who laud their power over others, those who act in supremacist ways, are not as strong as they wish to appear. It is generally the weak who desperately hunger for power in order to compensate for their feelings of vulnerability and fragility. It is one way in which they can delude themselves into believing that they can somehow hold back the tide. It can be so terribly destructive. So often of course we surrender ourselves and our own power to such figures. Some bully their way there and others do it through manipulation.

The solution, I have come to believe, is to find ways to access the power we all have within us, to become our own authority and to play our role fully in the sea of life; the key I have come to believe is to become the drop in the ocean, to fully contribute to the sea of life; the key is to stop seeking power from without by attempting to control others and see that there is a power and responsibility within each and everyone of us. You see when we wake up to the power we already have within us, that same power that is at the core of all life, a loving power, a connecting power that does not seek supremacy, when we awaken to this power we become our own authority. In so doing we do not need to seek power over others, nor surrender to those who we perceive to be more powerful than we are. In so doing we become authors of our own ideas and actions and we participate fully in the ocean of life. This is essentially true leadership, because by doing so we inspire others to do the same. To inspire is to awaken the spirit within another, to that source of power within us all. This is true leadership, this is what the great spiritual teachers throughout human history did. This is our task as people who congregate in a free spiritual community.

We simply need to live by those five smooth stones of Integrity, justice, faith, humility and hope and to live with responsibility for ourselves and this world that we share with others and it begins with humility, by accepting that we are not God, but human, beautifully finite humans and go swim in the ocean of life.

I am going to end this morning with a poem by Mark Nepo “Look Around”

“Look Around” by Mark Nepo

If you try to comprehend air
before breathing it,
you will die.

If you try to understand love
before being held,
you will never feel compassion.

If you insist on bringing God to others
before opening your very small window of life,
you will never have honest friends.

If you try to teach before you learn
or leave before you stay,
you will lose your ability to try.

No matter what anyone promises—
to never feel compassion,
to never have honest friends,
to lose your ability to try—
these are desperate ways to die.

A dog loves the world through its nose.
A fish through its gills.
A bat through its deep sense of blindness.
An eagle through its glide.

And a human life
through its spirit.

Monday 2 November 2020

“Life is a Circle: Despair May Last for a Night, but Joy Comes in the Morning.”

“Two Frogs” by Christopher Buice

Once, two frogs were hopping through the forest when they accidently hopped into a big churn of cream. The sides of the churn were so slick and slippery that there was no place to hold on to, so the frogs had to swim in circles to stay afloat.

After a long time one frog said, “There is no hope. We’re doomed to drown in this churn.”

The older frog said, “Don’t lose hope. Life is a circle. There are bad times and there are good times. One must endure the winter to see the spring.”

The young frog was not so sure and he said, “You’re wrong. We’re going to die, I tell you!”

And the older frog said, “We must keep hope alive! For if hope dies, we, too, will die. But if we keep hope alive, we will live to see another sunrise.”

But the younger frog was already starting to lose hope and he began to sink down into the creamy liquid.

“Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!” cried the older one.

Then the younger one started repeating, slowly at first, “Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive.”

The more they repeated the words, the stronger they felt. And the more strength they had, the better they could swim in circles.

As they swam and swam, around and around in circles, an amazing thing happened. They realized they weren’t sinking any more. The cream had turned to butter!

The two frogs were able to hop off the butter and out of the churn. They landed on the ground just in time to see a beautiful sunrise. The older frog said to the younger one, “Remember my son, life is a circle. Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” And the two frogs hopped away into the woods.

I love this story a friend sent to me a while back, particularly this line that comes at the end.  “Remember my son, life is a circle. Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Such beautiful wisdom. There is indeed much suffering and potentially despair in life, but joy can still come in the morning. That said it won’t just come because night follows day, it will come if we work with faith and hope, if we keep on “churning” on and on for joy. It won’t just be given to us, unbidden, as some unearned Grace, or at least this is what life has taught me. Now of course some times the only work we have to do is pay attention to everything going on around us. Sometimes the work is not to churn madly, like those two frogs, but to focus on everything, that is going on around us and of course within us. Sometimes all we focus on are the things that are wrong, the things that we have lost or are under threat of losing, this causes suffering and potentially despair. We need to see the bigger picture, the gifts all around us, which are of course a free gift. Yes I do contradict myself at times.

There is no doubt that this is going to be a long and difficult winter. We are in the midst of autumn. The clocks fell back last weekend. The day light hours are getting shorter. We are living under stricter restrictions due to the pandemic. We are going into four weeks of "Lockdown" again from Thursday. We are no doubt experiencing so many emotions, a mixture of fear and frustration due to this. Our lives may feel reduced as we face a long winter. The restrictions are unlikely to be lifted I suspect until the spring. That is not me being pessimistic, more realistic. Therefore we need to take care, pay attention, find ways to help one another, support each other and find ways to discover joy, perhaps new ways, to find meaning to help us when life seems too much and thus not be overcome by despair. We will do this, but it will take combined effort, like those churning frogs.

We must learn to surrender to things that are out of our control, to accept the reality and once having done so we can then find the courage and strength to do what we can, for ourselves and one another. We will of course need wisdom to know what these are. We need to remember the good old “Serenity Prayer” “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” A beautiful moving and universal prayer that is known the world over and has brought comfort to many in difficult times. It is not a passive prayer as good prayer should never be. Prayer is about finding the strength and direction to do and act in the ways that you must do.

I have shared with many people about the power of “The Serenity Prayer” in so many situations and settings. I recalled one the other day during a trip to Transylvania over eight years ago. One day I found myself speaking with folk in a little place called Ikland, a village that did not have running water and virtually no electricity, there wells in every garden. After I spoke a women in attendance shared about “The Serenity Prayer” and how it helped in dark times, especially when caught up in worry about her children and grandchildren; she constantly worried about what the future might hold. I will never forget the look on this woman’s face. Her name was Elizabeth and I can picture her right now as I remember that beautiful and touching moment. I could see the struggle in the those lines on her face, but I could also hear the faith in her voice and the joy in her eyes as she spoke of her children and grandchildren. It was truly beautiful to witness such deep soulful emotion, she touched a place deep in my heart. The people of Transylvania have struggled and suffered for generations and yet there remains in them a beautiful soulfulness; they know the suffering of life, but also the joy of living, in all its mystery. You should hear them sing. It is a thing of soulful beauty.  

We are living through difficult times, but there is joy to be found, to be uncovered, in our lives. It requires us to pay attention though and to work at times. We need strength and courage to do so. We have to keep on churning and encouraging each other to do so when we feel dispirited.

Sometimes paying attention to the season can help. There is a beauty and a joy even in the falling and dying season that is autumn; a falling and dying that is required for the year to move through its circle that is the re-birth of spring. We do not have to wait for Spring though, or the end of the pandemic, to know and experience the joy present in our very lives. There is a joy in natural beauty of autumn as well as in encouraging one another, despite our sorrow. This brings to mind the rather beautiful poem “Reduced to Joy” by Mark Nepo

“Reduced to Joy” by Mark Nepo


I was sipping coffee on the way to work,
the back road under a canopy of maples
turning orange. In the dip of woods, a small
doe gently leaping. I pulled over, for there
was no where else to go. She paused as if
she knew I was watching. A few orange
leaves fell around her like blessings no
one can seem to find. I sipped some
coffee, completely at peace, knowing
it wouldn’t last. But that’s alright.

We never know when we will blossom
into what we’re supposed to be. It might
be early. It might be late. It might be after
thirty years of failing at a misguided wayM.
Or the very first time we dare to shed
our mental skin and touch the world.

They say, if real enough, some see God
at the moment of their death. But isn’t
every fall and letting go a death? Isn’t God
waiting right now in the chill between the
small doe’s hoof and those fallen leaves?


We do not need to be reduced despair, despite the very real troubles we all face, we can be reduced to joy. We just need to the courage to pay attention. Sue recently sent me "Brain Pickings" fourteenth anniversary email by Maria Popova. Popova suggests that despite our real suffering, we can choose joy. She is someone who has found herself suffering deeply at times during the pandemic and in this piece she suggests an antidote to despair, something she can do, as like most of us she can offer little by way of vaccine to the virus. She suggests that we can choose joy. “Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim "yes to life, in spite of everything." — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, "the little joys"; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.”


The key it seems is in focusing our attention on the little things and the moments that are around us, things we may not always notice. Now these things may be different for each of us. Although one key that is open to us all is the focus and the discipline of paying attention to what is natural and beautiful. Whether that be the falling leaves, that will return with new life in the coming spring, something we can witness from our windows, or in the voice of the people in our lives. In the dogs that are everywhere at the moment. I love to watch our little Charlie as she frolics with other dogs in the park. I also appreciate the conversations I am engaging in in so many settings. Even deeply difficult ones at times. An example would be last Monday’s “Colours of Grief” on Zoom. It was deeply moving and painful at times and yet its depth turned to joy as we shared our pain and struggle together. There was such a feeling of joy in our shared suffering. A joy not caused by the suffering of course, but in the fact that we were able to share it  with others. We opened our hearts to one another, we shared, we encouraged, we kept on churning and churning, like a zoom room full of those frogs.

We can't control life. We cannot wish life’s troubles away. That said there are things that we can do. It is important how we respond to our personal and shared suffering. Think of the wisdom of “The Serenity Prayer”. We can choose our response as Frankl discovered; it is the final freedom. We can respond with respect, compassion, and kindness. We can honour our sadness and that of others. Instead of resisting the sadness and suffering we can accept them as the natural and necessary griefs of a life lived in and by love. In so doing we connect to the core of our being and in so doing we can be lead to joy as we open ourselves to life and the joy of living that is all around us.

We can find joy even in the hardest stuff, as Frankl did in Auschwitz. If you only find joy in the things we really love then we will become joyless if these things are restricted or removed from our lives. You see there is a joy in the core of us, as there is a joy in the core of life and no one and no thing can take this from us. Our task is to bring this joy to life through our fragile human being and share it with others.

This though is not always easy. We will have to practice, we will have to work for it and we will have to find ways to encourage one another when we feel dispirited and want to give up, just like the frogs in the churner. We are always frogs in the churner. Let us always remember that.

As the older frog explained: “Remember my son, life is a circle. Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

So lets keep on churning on and on and on.

I’m going to end this morning with this beautiful poem “Welcome morning” by Anne Sexton

“Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton

"There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry 'hello there, Anne'
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
let it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.”

Monday 26 October 2020

Floella and Mr Rogers: Heroes and Inspirations

A few years ago I was invited to Parliament to participate and speak at a “Men’s Health Forum”. It was hosted by Baroness Floella Benjamin. Floella is perhaps the most genuinely wonderful human being I have ever met. The other Friday Christine Anstey, a member at Dunham Road Altrincham, sent me text message telling me that Floella was appearing on “Desert Island Discs”. I listened to her wonderful life story and enjoyed her song choices. What was clear was the deep love and care within her, exemplified by her life. She spoke of her struggles as a black immigrant growing up the 1950’s and 60’s and how she worked hard to develop her career. She has been a campaigner for so many groups of people. She also spoke about being appointed the chancellor of the University of Exeter and how instead of shaking hands with graduates she breaks tradition and hugs every single one. As someone who has received one of those hugs, I have never known a more loving one. Floella is one of those special people who lives by and through love and I believe is a wonderful example of what we can be if we live this way.

Now Floella came to fame as a children’s tv presenter on “Playschool”. Well that very evening after listening to her on “Desert Island Discs” Sue and myself watched a wonderful film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.” It tells the story of cynical journalist going to interview the much loved American children’s television icon Fred Rogers. It is a beautiful film about reconciliation and transformation, as the cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel, who is a new father struggling with his demons, is transformed by the presence and love exemplified in the life of Rogers. Vogel reconciles with his own father who is dying and who abandoned him and sister during their childhood and not long before their mother died. At one point in the film it is suggested that Rogers could be seen as some kind of saint. Roger’s wife Joanne, who like Floella is a hugger, disputes this and says if he was a saint then no one could aspire to live a life like him. I would imagine that both Floella and Joanne must be struggling with being unable to hug folk at this time, but I am sure that they will adjust being the women that they are.

While speaking with Vogel Roger’s exposed his own vulnerability, he spoke of his own challenges as a parent of two sons. Despite the claims of not being a saint it must have been be challenging to be the child of such a person, just as it must have been to be the child of Floella too. They are both icons of millions of children’s lives, so loved. Well it would appear that Floella’s son struggled at times with her fame and because of this she withdrew from presenting and put her energies into other areas. I suspect that she would not have been made a life peer if she had remained a television presenter, but you never know.

Trying to live up to any ideal is never easy, that though should not mean that we shouldn’t attempt to rise to all that we capable of becoming. Although it is important to always remember that even the greatest examples were always human, they had feet of clay. Remember nobody is perfect, we must always be somebodies.

I have had many heroes in my life, people who inspired me. As a young boy they were mainly sporting ones and musicians too. My current sporting hero is probably Marcello Bielsa, “El Loco” or the “Bucket Man”, the current manager of Leeds United, who has brought the club back to the Premier League. That said my heroes today tend to be more of a spiritual nature. Like David Whyte who has inspired me to live on the frontier between the self and the other, upper and lower case. I love the way that he speaks of the “conversational nature of reality”, or Mary Oliver’s cry of the wild geese crying out that I we do not have to be good, perfect, to know that we are loved as we are, that we just have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love, we just have to let our vulnerable bodies, no matter how broken, love what they love. Or Rainer Maria Rilke and his urging for patience “with everything unresolved in my heart” that instead of desperately seeking answers to all the questions all I need to do is to “to love the questions themselves.” It is a beautiful lesson in humility and oh so helps me to love the limits of my humanity and to remember that of others too, when we all fall short. It is utter vanity to think I will ever get a full answer to the spiritual questions I ask and seek. That said I know that by engaging in the courageous conversation I will experience something far more than I could even begin to imagine. All that I have to do is to live on the frontier and to live my way into, if not an answer, a new experience. Viktor Frankl’s call to find meaning by living meaningfully has enriched my experience if life. It still blows my mind that whenever I turn in faith to life that meaning continues to emerge, even when experiencing extreme suffering. No one can avoid suffering, but we do not need to know despair, meaning emerges if and when we embrace life and one another. I no longer seek a particular purpose or meaning in something instead I have discovered that by living at the frontier of life that I come alive and I learned a while ago that this is what the world needs, “people who have come alive,” at least according to Howard Thurman.

On Saturday I was out walking the dog by the canal. I passed a man I often see. We pause and talk for a little. We mostly talk about football. He asked me waht I thought about Marcus Rashford and what he is doing "for the kids". I told him I thought it was wonderful to see a young man doing what he could to help those who are struggling at this timer, that he uis wonderful example, that it was great to see a footballing hero using weaht he has to help others. he agreed and then said "I cannot imagine George Best would have done something similar"/ I laughed and agreed. 

So these are some of my heroes, I wonder who yours have been, either from your childhoods or now. Who are the people who have or who still inspire you? Do you see them as humans or as saints? Perhaps this is something to ponder and perhaps continue to aspire to in this time of struggle and need.

 Heroes tend to be ordinary folk, they are not saints, thus we can all aspire to be like them. They are not superheroes. There is no Superman or woman, something that Christopher Reeve himself discovered later in life. He said:

“When the first Superman movie came out I was frequently asked, "What is a hero?" My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a courageous action without considering the consequences...

 ...Now my definition is completely different. I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Well this one time superman certainly exhibited great courage in the last few years of his life, following the accident that left him a paraplegic. I don’t know if you know this but he became a Unitarian later in life.

Anyone can be a hero; we all possess those qualities within us. All we need to do is uncover those virtues within each and every one of us. We have all had to overcome many obstacles of varying shapes and sizes, no life is without problems. Further, we can all do little wonderful and caring things that can change our world a little bit at a time. It begins by recognising that we are special unique wonderful and needed just as we are, something I know that both Fred Rogers and Floella Benjamin have tried to teach so many children and adults throughout and through their lives. Well we can do the same.

It is going to be a long winter for all of us. We will need sources of light to help us through these difficult times. Maybe by reflecting on our inspirations it will help us aspire to be the best that can be and in so doing we might just bring some light to those in need, if from a physical distance.

So let’s bring to life the love within each and everyone of us, let’s bring that spirit to life and thus become the hero, the inspiration that we have all been searching for.