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.