Wednesday 29 December 2021

Odyssey: Returning from a Fog

I drove home last Monday. As I passed through the moors on the top of the Pennines, on the M62, the highest motorway point in England, I entered into dense fog, it continued all the way home, and it only really dissipated as I pulled into the drive . It was the same driving back to Altrincham, although it cleared as I joined the ring road. It was not an unfamiliar feeling as I have felt like I’ve been living in a bit of a fog these last few months, haven’t we all. I have to say my personal fog seems to have lifted ever since Christmas morning, for this I am oh so grateful.

Life is often described as a journey, although the truth be told it is a road to nowhere, we don’t go anywhere. We go round in circles and end up returning to same place many times. That said we return often changed in all kinds of way, sometimes with treasure to share. The lovely thing about returning home of course is that the return comes with the sense of belonging, to a place where you finally belong. I suspect it is the same when we go on our final journey. I have been thinking of the many folk, this Christmas season, I have journeyed with during my life, who are no longer with us, but who shared their treasures with myself and others. For this I offer thanks and praise.

 Tom I want to share with you a short poem by Tom Leonard titled “Odysseus”

“Odysseus” by Tom Leonard

it took me so long to get back to who I am
why was I away so long why was the journey so tortuous
all those false masks against a backdrop narrative to do with authenticity

but now arriving back there is still much debris to clear
the clearer to see the point from which I started

that from which I set out confused in sundry identities at war with themselves
now to find calm on that setting-out point as the final destination

As I was coming back to my home in Altrincham I found myself singing one of the chants I have shared in “Singing Meditation” the words were: “The Earth, the air, the fire, the water, return, return, return, return”. It was the final words “return, return, return,” that kept singing round and round in my heart.

This got me thinking about a conversation I heard on Oddysseus and the Odyssey, I think a friend had seen the old classic Hollywood movie. Now while we might not be fighting mythical beasts we are all on an adventure, a kind of Odyssey. That throughout our lives we step out we get lost, we find ourselves in the dark of winter lost in a fog, but that eventually we return home, or at least yearn to return home, often enlightened by the adventure. The call for home is a powerful one.

Human history is littered with stories and adventures inspired by the search for treasure, for wisdom, for enlightenment. Think of the great figures of religion Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, they all stepped out into the wild alone and returned enlightened. Think also of the heroic figures from the great stories, they did likewise. They were called out into the unknown, only to return with something new and inspiring. They stepped into the dark, but came home in the light. Stories such as Jason and the Argonauts or many of the other Greek tales, Pilgrims Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Lord of the Rings the list is endless. Human history is littered with folk tales and myths which teach us so much about what life is in all its potential both for beauty and horror.

Joseph Campbell, who spent years exploring such myths, believed that these stories helped us to fully understand how each of us at some point in our lives or at many moments of our lives are called out to journey forth. He identified four distinct stages of the journey. The first stage Campbell named “The Call to Adventure”. This he claimed is caused by discontent, which draws us out of the comfort of our lives to risk something new; the second stage is a form of initiation where the hero goes through a series of ordeals that test their mental and physical skills; The third stage is the time of revelation the discovery of truth and treasure; the final stage is the return to one’s community. With wisdom gained and with treasure to share. Coming home in the light, coming out of the dark or a thick fog, if you like.

These adventures began and ended with a call. They began with a powerful call to adventure, but they also ended with an equally powerful call, to return home. Just think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and those immortal words as she clicked her ruby slippers “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Similar to those three words that came to me as I drove through the fog, “return, return, return.

The call to return, especially to return home is a powerful call. This call though is not just about returning to a place, it is also about time I believe; about returning to a time in life when everything was simpler and safer. I’m sure that this was Dorothy’s call in “The Wizard of Oz”.

This is the call of nostalgia. To return to the place of safety the place of paradise, where we were cared for and looked after. Nostalgia though is often blind and perhaps senseless. It can also be painful. Things are never quite as we remember them.

Nostalgia is an interesting word. Like so many words it has changed in meaning over time. Originally it meant “severe homesickness considered as a disease” from the German heimweh (home+woe) homesickness. It is rooted in the ancient Greek words “algos” meaning pain, Grief, distress and “nostos” meaning homecoming. Nostalgia is a painful homecoming.

There is a similar Welsh word “Hiraeth” which is a mixture of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past. The Cornish and Breton equivalents are "hireth" and "hiraezh". The truth is that reality and memory are not always the same.

The physical return home can also be painful, especially if what we are returning with is seemingly not wanted. Sometimes you might be rejected on the first return. Think of Jack and his beans in the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.” There is an account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus returning home and being rejected and almost mocked. As he said to his disciples ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’

Sometimes we might not be recognised when we return home, how painful can that be. We can feel like a stranger in our own land. Think of Odysseus who is recognised by no one on his return. It is only as he begins to speak that his old, now blind, dog recognises his voice and his tail begins to thud with joy and love and recognition.

I remember a painful experience in my own life many years ago. There had been quite sudden and dramatic changes in my life, I have never been quite the same person since. I remember over the months that ensued that I would go home for a few days and return quite frustrated, with this feeling that my family and my loved ones were not accepting me as I was. I remember going to see my minister at the time, John Midgely and voicing this. I remember John calmly saying to me, after listening to me going on with myself for quite some time, “Danny you have gone through some quite dramatic changes and while you have adjusted to this it will take others some time. People are not quite sure how to be with you. They are used to you being a certain way and it will take them some time to adjust to the new you.” I remember thinking to myself how wise these words were. I also reflected some time later that perhaps I’d not changed that much as it was still all about me. Instead of me wanting them to adjust to and understand me, I was the one who ought to have been adjusting to and understanding them. These days I rarely feel unaccepted wherever I go and am gratefully received if I come to preach in my home town. I am loved amongst my kin and welcome in every home. I am recognised as I truly am too.

Well at least this has been the case until recently, when I found myself in that fog. I felt unaccepted and unwelcome, not that anyone else made me feel this way. I did this to myself and thankfully I have moved through this and come to a place of self acceptance once again, the fog has cleared thank God. The truth is I have always been loved and accepted as I am, I just haven’t always felt this way. The journey home this week has shown this to me once again, “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” It was wonderful to share stories and laughter once again. I also remembered some rather beautiful experiences of being with folk who are long gone, who I have not thought of in a long time. The warmth and love I remember feeling in their company and homes, as a little lad. Recently all I have been remembering are less than lovely feelings as I have been in a less than lovely personal space. Just shows to me once again that we remember our past through the lens of our current experiences. Some say you cannot change the past. It is true that the facts remain the same, but they way they are remembered are under constant change.

Earlier we heard the wonderful poem “Art of poetry” Jorge Borges. Like Joseph Campbell Borges recognised a common theme in all the great stories. In this poem he explores some of the great ancient Greek stories. One being Ulysses (which is the Latin translation of Odysseus) and his painful return to Ithaca. He also talks of the philosopher Heraclitus who suggested that we can never return to the same river. This is because water continual flows on and on and the water we step into is never quite the same, but also because we who stand in the river are not the same person either, life will have changed us too…Like the river our lives, go on and on, ever changing. The lesson is that it is not about yearning to return to some mythical ideal, but to fully experience the adventure, the beautiful journey as the poem by Constantine Cavafy, “Ithacca” suggests. This is the lesson of Homer’s Odyssey and perhaps all the great stories. The treasure is the journey itself.

Life is a journey and a beautiful one at that. One in which we are constantly turning and returning again and again and again. It is not always an easy one and one where there will be troubles and difficulties. There will be times when we will not be recognised and may not even recognise ourselves; there will be times when we will feel completely lost and won’t know where to turn for sanctuary; there will be times of darkness too, when we find ourselves lost in a fog, but we all must journey on. In the end of course we return from where we came. We return, return, return, from the beautiful Odyssey. We step out of the fog, out of the darkness for the final time and return into the light…

Please find below a video devotion
based on the material in this "blogspot"

Tuesday 28 December 2021

It comes in the little things

I love the farmer poet Wendell Berry. The following “Sabbaths” is a favourite. It is sometimes thought to be about death, a bleak piece. It isn’t really, what it is about is generosity; generosity is about living and doing so by giving.

Sabbaths – 1993, I

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And you have become a sort of tree
standing over a grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

Generosity is about the heart; it does not require material abundance to live by generosity When I think of the gifts that have been given to me in my life, I do not think of material things, what comes to mind is the loving gift of their presence that folk shared, their love and their support, and their inspiration. They gave of themselves, truly from their own often breaking and vulnerable hearts. To me this is the true spirit of Christmas.

This year, the last two years, have been a difficult struggle for most of us. It has been hard to keep going at times. I have struggled myself in so many ways. Yes, I have given all that I have, perhaps more, as have so many others. I am not alone. I have also gratefully received from so many too, haven’t we all. I was approached in the street the other day. The person just wanted to ask how I was and to thank me, to simply say “ thank you for all that you do.” Gosh I cannot tell how grateful I felt in that moment. I have known and witnessed so much love, born in the human heart. On Christmas Eve as I shared our Christmas Eve service I do not believe I have known and experienced a love anything like it. It was so beautiful I could have wept. I did as I refelt it all a little later. As I awoke on Christmas morning I did so with the broadest most beaming smile.

This Advent season has not been easy, a struggle at times. I know it has been for most of us. What has lifted my heart and kept me going has been a simple phrase “it comes in the little things”. It all began the week beginning 13th December. I had gone to bed in a bit of state. I was stressed, I was exhausted, my gland had swelled up below my chin. I was dehydrated and utterly exhausted. My mood was very low, the next day I decided to take things a little easier. I felt I had hit another rock bottom. I found myself going deeper into prayer. I went for a walk that afternoon, in an attempt to connect with life. When I retuned, there was a lovely gift left on the step of the chapel house. There were two tubes of milky bar buttons, left by a friend who knows I am a bit of a “Milky Bar Kid”. As the day continued I found the following phrase singing in my heart “it comes in the little things”. So, I posted online about the gift and the things I noticed that day. I have been doing so ever since.

On awakening each morning, I have considered the day before and expressed my thanks by talking of the little things I have noticed in my life that have lifted my heart, that have given me hope, that have helped me stay connected and thus overcome any sense of despair. It has helped and I know it has helped others. It has been my attempt to offer thanks and to live in and through gratitude. I have decided to continue it into the New Year. Each morning I am going to share those little things, that are truly everything. Maybe it is something we could all try. Think each day what are the little things, that lift your heart, that connect you to life and others and inspire you to live in love and gratitude throughout that day. Please feel free to share them. In so doing we can keep these gifts alive; in so doing we become givers ourselves, as we pass these gifts along. To paraphrase good old Wendell Berry, every day we have less reason not to give ourselves away.

The phrase is inspired by the following poem “Immanence” by Evelyn Underhill

“Immanence” by Evelyn Underhill

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord;
Not borne on morning wings
Of majesty; but I have set my feet
Amidst the delicate and bladed wheat
That springs triumphant in the furrowed sod—
There do I dwell, in weakness and in power;
Not broken or divided, said our God!
In your straight garden plot I come to flower;
About your porch my vine,
Meek, fruitful, doth entwine,
Waits, at the threshold, Love's appointed hour.

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord;
Yea, on the glancing wings
Of eager birds, the soft and pattering feet
Of furred and gentle beasts, I come to meet
Your hard and wayward heart. In brown bright eyes
That peep from out the brake, I stand confest.
On every nest
Where feathery Patience is content to brood
And leaves her pleasure for the high emprise
Of motherhood—
There does my Godhead rest.

I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord;
My starry wings I do forsake,
Love's highway of humility to take;
Meekly I fit my stature to your need.
In beggar's part
About your gates I shall not cease to plead
As man, to speak with man
Till by such art
I shall achieve my immemorial plan;
Pass the low lintel of the human heart.

Obviously it is the line “I come in the little things, thus saeth the Lord”, that has inspired my musings and awakened my heart. That the Divine love is present in everything, although sometimes it is easy not to notice. The last few weeks have reminded me I need to keep paying attention to those little things. It is not in the glitz and the glammer and the loudness, I don’t notice it there. I witness it in the little things, those that we don’t always notice. Annette, the editor of our magazine reminded me to “Keep on enjoying the blackbird singing, the scruffy (scratty actually) magpie and the wild geese flying over. There's also the cherry blossom which will appear surprisingly soon in the scheme of things.” These are the beautiful and natural things that lift my heart, when sometimes it feels like it has fallen. It comes in the little things, the ordinary things, these are the true blessings of life.

“I am done with great things” wrote the philosopher and psychologist William James in a letter to a friend. Sharing his conviction that his focus was no longer on big or grand things, but with the small almost invisible decisions. He wrote:

“I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.”

The Letters of William James, ed. by his son Henry James (Boston: Atlantic Monthy Press, 1920), 2:90; letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, June 7, 1899.

It comes in the little things, the miraculous is to be found in the mundane. Annie Dillard wrote: “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” She had a way of unmasking the extraordinary dimensions of the ordinary life. In “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” (1974) she describes how a simple act of adventurous generosity can bring joy to the ordinary.

“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.”

There are ways to bring simple joys to one another’s lives, often through our playfulness and generosity, just like that friend who left those “Milky Bar” buttons on my doorstep.

It is the little things that keep us going through the dark and difficult. Sometimes we can lose sight of them, or we can forget about them. Thankfully there are others who can help remind us of these things, that lift our hearts, when they have fallen, when we feel we cannot go on.

There is a wonderful example of this in the final pages of JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”

Frodo and Sam are nearing the end of their quest, they are desperate and struggling as they try to reach the cursed Mount Doom to cast the ring of power, a device that held much of the dark lord Sauron’s power, into the fires and destroy it. The closer they get to the mountain the more desperate their situation grows. They are weakened physically and spiritually, all hope seems to have gone. Frodo the hero is dispirited and so Sam, his loyal and constant companion, does his best to lift up his hopes. He asks him if he remembers the taste of strawberries and cream, the sound of water, the beauties of spring in their far-off home, the Shire. Sam lifts up Frodo’s spirit, by reminding him of the little things and thus he finds the courage to carry on, to go and complete his task. The power was found in the love of such little things. Afterall it is the little things that really matter, that make our lives what they are. “I come in the little things, thus saeth the Lord”

It matters what we do and what we do not do, they impact on one another’s lives. Some say what does it matter what we as individuals do, it will make no difference. It isn’t true though is it. I just have to think of those “milky bar” buttons, they made a world of difference to me. Or at least they helped to turn me around. I responded in love and I know by simply sharing the little things, I have been able to impact positively on the lives of others. Who knows what positive impacts that might be having on many others too. Just because we cannot do everything, we seem insignificant, yet what we do can make the world of difference. As Edward Everett Hale said:

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale

Like everyone I feel deep sadness at times. I have felt it recently, as I have struggled with my personal life and the suffering of so many others. That said I do not descend into total despair, I get lifted up once again by some simple ordinary gifts of life. There are blessings everywhere, we just need to pay attention.

I have never known a love deeper, than I have these last few days, “no greater love has there ever been, than what felt for you, what you gave to me, you saved my life from this…So many tears, so many tears…”

It comes in the little things, the almost unnoticed things. All we have to do is pay attention and share what we have with one another.

“I come in the little things, saeth the Lord”

Below is a video based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 13 December 2021

Seeking the Spirit of Christmas

Last Sunday after I’d finished my third service at Styal Kath Walker said to me “It feels like Christmas has begun now.” I heard others expressing similar sentiments over the weekend. I heard after the Brass Band Carol Concert on Saturday. A deeply emotional occassion for so many, including the band themselves. They told us that it was their first concert since they played att eh chapel two Christmasses ago. The Eccles Borough Band are a talented and successful competion band. It has been a hard time for them. I do hope that you are getting into the spirit of the season, don’t we all need it. This is such a difficult time. I do hope at least, despite everything, that folk feel that Christmas has begun.

Now to be factually accurate we are wrong you know. Christmas hasn’t begun at all, well it hasn’t if you wish to be theologically accurate. Christmas doesn’t begin until sunset on Christmas Eve. I remember a rather Bah humbuggy Baptist tutor saying that he tried to stop his congregations singing carols in Advent, but never succeeded. I am glad to hear so Christmas is not about reason and fact, where are the glad tidings in this? Christmas is about heart and spirit and not theological correctness. Christmas is the ultimate universal mythos, bringing light and joy in the darkest and coldest time of the year. Something we all need, particularly at this time in our lives.

Do we need to believe in the theological accuracy of the Biblical accounts to believe in Christmas? I don’t think so. You can’t in any case as even they don’t agree. That said what is at the heart of Christmas? What is its universal message? What is the mythos deep within the story? Are you a hypocrite if you say you believe absolutely in Christmas but not that the events took place exactly as they are described?

Mythos isn’t about fact it is about universal truth. Well, there is a deep universal truth at the heart of the Christmas mythos, a truth that speaks through every generation. A truth that is needed today in 2021 just as much as it was in any other times and places. Gosh how I need to feel that spirit alive in this life. So yes, I believe in Christmas.

My mum recently shared a story of my brother coming to her distressed asking if Father Christmas was real. Apparently, a girl at school had said that he wasn’t. My brother is nearly two years older than me. I remember him telling me this was the case that evening. I simply said I know, I’ve known a long time. He asked why I said nothing. I said I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone else. Besides which I still believed in the power of Father Christmas and I believe in him even more today.

Yes, we all know that Christmas has its root in pre-Christianity. And yes we also know that Christmas has seemingly been taken over by consumerism. Many today say there is no spirit left too, that it is basically a secular holiday. There are many forces who do not seemingly believe in the spirit of Christmas. Mr Scrooge is not the only Bah Humbugger around. There are those who say it is just another day, what does it matter. I heard someone say recently it is just a slightly fancier meal.

Christmas isn’t just about the day its about giving birth to love and hope and don’t we all need that. I’m not interested in getting tied down by reason and fact, I believe in mythos. Christmas fills me with so much. It is a time for nostalgia, for connecting the past, to the present and building hope for the future, a bit like the three spirits who visited Mr Scrooge. Christmas reminds us how important generosity of spirit and heart is. It breeds goodwill to all, it helps us to see that there is one human family, despite all the forces around who would to divide us. Sadly, we live in such divisive times. The core of my faith is the search and creation of meaning in every moment and in all life, to sanctify life, to bring love to life though my humble humanity. The heart and spirit of Christmas helps me to bring that to life through my frail human being.

The fact that Christmas allows folk to pause and slow down and pay attention is a cause for celebration for me. Isn’t this worthy of decorations, of light, of music, of celebration. Isn’t the selecting and wrapping of gifts a symbol of generosity of the heart. As I once heard said “There is religion in the ribbons and wrapping paper” it is not just secular materialism, there is so much love that goes into the gift giving and selecting. Surely this fills our hearts and reminds us that life is about giving, that these are symboloic of that and that generosity should fuel our days. Isn’t self giving love the core message that was exemplified through the life of Jesus. Isn’t this what we celebrate the birth of. Aren’t these the true Christian values, that so often get lost in ridiculous theological arguments. Isn’t this the gift that humanity is still waiting for, the gift that can still save us all from ourselves. Isn’t this what will bring us back together in these deeply divisive times. My hope is that we take the risk to give birth to this love through our fragile lives. Christmas is a risk you know. As Rexford J. Styzens so beautifully put it.

“Christmas is a risk for us to take. Shall we allow ourselves to be touched by sentiment? Awakened by song and story? Drawn into festivities, when our joy depends upon the goodwill of others? Dare we risk the disappointment of hopes raised high and excited expectations? May we have the courage to celebrate the season fully.”

We need to take that risk. We need to in order to bring that spirit to life. Lets be holy fools and take the risk. Our world needs us to. Don’t we all need to.

Now of course for some of us it feels like too much. It feels like we can’t go through it, or we are just not in the mood for it. Or if you are like me, you just don’t have the time for it. I have to be very careful of the “I haven’t got time for this” mantra. Some times “ho, ho, ho!” is a bit too much for me, as it is for all of us. Sometimes it all seems too much and we are just not ready for it all.

Well, it comes anyway, regardless of us. There again I see something powerfully humbling. It comes even if I’m not ready, if we are not ready, sometimes others carry the burden and bring the spirit to life, even if we do not want it.

Regardless of the state of our hearts, the season of the heart is born again. Symbolised in the birth of the Christ child. We tell the story regardless. As we do we are reminded of his message of universal equality, compassion, forgiveness, and love. This is born over and over again, sometimes in spite of the state of our individual minds and hearts. And isn’t this the real miracle, that we cannot deny the possibility of hope, despite the state of our hearts and lives.

Here in December 2021 in the midst of so many troubles don’t we all need to contemplate the potential for peace and healing in our lives and world. Sometimes it is hard to find, especially in times of literal or metaphorical darkness, like now. Then it comes. It comes as Christmas comes to remind us and it comes in the hearts and lives of those inspired by its spirit. It comes even if we do not want it to come. It comes and it saves us once again, if only from ourselves. It comes even if we do not believe we are worthy of receiving it, gosh we are, if only we believed it. We are all worthy of love, we are all loved as we are, isn’t that what is at the core of the love born in that stable.

We all have our struggles, our various griefs, our pain, our suffering, all of us. Let’s not forget that. Let us also not forget that Christmas reminds us that light was and is born within us, even in the darkest nights of our souls. That this light can be born once again within us.

So let us open the inn door once again, lets prepare the mangers of our hearts, even if we don’t feel up to it, even if we don’t want to believe in it. There is a love waiting to be born in each of us. We need it and our world needs it too.

Please never forget that we are each of us children of love, children of the universe. That in each birth there is this love, even it seems obscured at times. Isn’t Christmas the ultimate reminder of this. To quote Sophia Lyon Fahs “That every night a child is born is a holy night”. That love is waiting to be born in us again. Someone recently suggested that this should read "Each night a child is born is a holy night". Perhaps to be read correctly it should. That said I find something univeral, something about all time in the phrase "every" and I suspectt hat this is what Sophia is getting at.

So let us turn on those twinkling lights, play the songs and sing the carols. Buy those presents and wrap them, invite the strangers in the midst into our lives. Pay attention to the needs in our lives and if we are feeling alone and afraid, let someone know and let their love flow. For you are not alone, even though it can sometimes feel like you are, for we all feel like that some time.

The spirit of Christmas does something to us, there is a magic to it, it is more than reason and fact. It can’t be quantified and it cannot be measured, but it surely can be experienced and known, but only if we let it have its way with us. We just have to risk greeting strangers more openly and warmly.

The magic of Christmas is there in its spirit. For it is this that enables us to open up to our true nature. Christmas is wonderful, powerful and special because it helps us to become more comfortable about being open and giving. Its spirit helps us to give birth to the goodness that is waiting to come to life, within each of us and that is why we love it so much.

So let’s journey on through this Christmas season and truly open our hearts and engage in its spirit. May our hearts open wider, at this the heart of the year. May our experiences deepen as we remember to slow down as we rush through the business of our days. May we know the true gifts of the season; gifts of love, compassion and acceptance. May we bring the spirit of the season alive and in so doing learn to make it Christmas in the days yet to come.

Below is a video devotion based

on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 6 December 2021

Mr Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas

I noticed I was feeling a bit “Bah Humbuggy” the other morning when talking with a friend. They were asking me what I would be doing for Christmas day this year. I am asked this question a lot. At the time I said I kind of want to spend the day quietly and peacefully on my own. I have done so once before, it was important at time in my life. I will not be doing so of course. I am not Mr Scrooge, but like everyone I am capable of being so.

Another friend asked the other day what people’s favourite Christmas horror film was, I think he was being a little “Bah humbuggy” himself. I thought about it and suggested initially “Gremlins” in the end though I decided on Dickens “A Christmas Carol”. Now of course it is really a ghost story, more than a horror one, but hey that is splitting hairs. In this incredible story we see the full spirit of Christmas, the extremes, the many spirits in all of us and of course the possibility of redemption, that the spirit at the heart of Christmas can still transform our lives, if we just open our senses and let it

Dickens, like everyone was a complex character, he had an incredible way of speaking of the heart of his time and like all great story tellers the heart of all time, the universal. He also had a magical way of both naming and describing the characters in his tales. I Love the following description of Scrooge from the second page of “A Christmas Carol”

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

What an incredible description of this character who is the antithesis of Christmas, who of course becomes its ultimate hero.

“A Christmas Carol” was first published in 1843, it tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of his former business partner Jacob Marley and three other ghosts on Christmas Eve. Earlier that day Scrooge is visited by two benefactors who wish to make provisions for the poor. Scrooge refuses and tells them that prisons and workhouses were the only institutions that he his willing to support and the badly off must go there. When one of the benefactors points out that many can’t go there and would rather die Scrooge goes further with his Malthusian view that the poor, ill and infirm are surplus to the needs of society and that “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Sounds shocking I know and yet haven’t we all heard echoes of this in the last couple of years. I certainly have about the weak and the vulnerable at the beginning of the pandemic and once again in recent weeks with regard to refugees who have tried to cross the water to safety too, many who have died trying. Are the lives of such people worth less than those of others? It seems that the spirit of Scrooge is still with us. Thankfully it is not the only spirit alive at this time and at all times.

“A Christmas Carol” was an attack on the social injustices of the time, particularly the indifference of wealthy towards the poor. The introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act took away local parish help for the poor and institutionalized the process with Union workhouses. In return for food and shelter, the poor had to live semi-incarcerated lives in institutions where families were often split apart and made to do menial tasks to earn their keep. Scrooge views the poor and economically inactive, which he calls idle, as a burden to society, better off in a workhouse or even dead.

Scrooge is transformed by the visions that the ghosts show him. He is shown visions of the present, where he sees the impact of poverty on Crachit’s family, particularly his disabled son Tiny Tim who he is warned will die unless his life alters. The ghost repeats Scrooge’s callous remarks back to him “If he be likely to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” This is more graphically shown by the two figures of an emaciated boy and girl, known as “Ignorance” and “Want”. When Scrooge is touched by their plight, the Ghost again uses his words against him, saying to Scrooge “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

“Want and ignorance” are still with others, as is this attitude that some lives are of less value than others. That said the spirit that transformed Scrooge is also still with us. It is the spirit that is at the heart of the original Christmas mythos of two thousand years and is at the heart of the message exemplified in the life of Jesus. If a heart as frozen as Mr Scrooge’s could be thawed then so can all others.

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.

Some say that we should not give too much, you will have nothing left. Well such people have not yet learnt the strange arithmetic of giving, which multiplies by subtraction. The more we give from the heart, the more the love increases.

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.

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.

There is so much that is wrong with our world. Watching the news each night highlights this. “Want and ignorance” are still with us. There is so much that mocks those bells at Christmas time and there does indeed seem to be a deficit of “peace on earth and good will to all.” I do not believe that it has to be like that. We can incarnate that love in our lives and we can begin to spread it out into our world. I do believe in the chaos theory of compassion and hope that you do to.

This brings to my heart the beautiful words of Mr Scrooge toward the end of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Scrooge became the Christmas hero because he brought the reality of what Christmas is truly about to life; through him the spirit of Christmas came to life. It is the same for everyone, regardless of time and place.

We must do more than that though, we must respond in love and do what we can in this our shared world, as Mr Scrooge did.

This to me is the heart of Christmas, this giving of ourselves in love and service for others. Self-giving love is a love that grows the more that we give it away. A love that is at the core of each and every one of us if we would but nurture it in the mangers of our own hearts and give birth to it in our living and breathing.

This is what Christmas means to me and why as the years have gone by I have come to believe in Christmas more and more. That said, like everyone, I still have my own “Bah Humbug” moments.

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.


As the old song goes “Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day.” Well it can be, but we must give birth to it in our hearts and lives.

Below is a devotion based on the material in this "blog spot"

Monday 29 November 2021

May we become the light we have all been waiting for

I was walking through Altrincham the other morning. I was feeling good; feeling more settled as I feeling more at home, back in the chapel house. It has been a difficult few months; it has been a difficult couple of years for all of us.

Altrincham was busy that Saturday morning, the town was bursting with life. It was a challenge to weave my way through the burgeoning crowd. I found myself caught up in what appeared to be a bit of bottle neck and I soon understood why. There in front of me was a very old man, looking like he was being held up and walked down the street by what was obviously two young adult granddaughters. They were carefully and lovingly guiding his every step. His face was an absolute picture, I do not believe I have ever seen a happier one. The whole image light up my heart and soul. A light shining bright in this time of darkness. Don’t we all need our hearts and souls lighting at this time; don’t we all need to bear witness to hope coming to life in human form. Well, there it was, a little light shining bright, in a time of darkness.

We all need to see our Immanuel’s, the promise made to humanity of the coming of love, in human form, in a time of darkness. Immanuel means that God is still with us. Well, there it was shining bright on the streets of Altrincham, love come alive in human form. If we look for it, we will find it; if we live from it, it will come alive in our lives for others to see.

Advent is the time of waiting, of preparation for the light to come alive, to be born again. Well, it can do so in the manger of our hearts, in our frail human lives. We don’t need to wait for something to come at some time in the future. Instead, we need to prepare for it in our lives and give birth to it for all to see. Not just in the manger in an ordinary stable, but in our homes, in our families, on our streets, in our communities. Let us become the gifts we have all been waiting for. Our world needs it right now. Don’t we all need to see a little Hope. Let us become that Hope, the Immanuels we have all been waiting for. May we see in one another’s lives that God is still with us.

So let us become the light, but at the same time we do not need to either fear or decry the darkness. In this time of darkness, it is important to not only look for light, but we must also learn to love the dark. The Divine is there present in the dark, just as much as the light. If it were not, then the dark winters would be even harder than they are.

Christmas and Advent is a season of Joy, but what if we do not feel so joyful, does this mean we are not welcome, of course not. When we say come as you are, exactly, as you are, we mean that. We say bring your whole selves and we mean that. If God is still with us, then the Divine is present in the darkness too. Please do not hide any aspect of yourself, for it is welcome here.

Sometimes we are too quick to turn on the lights and not acknowledge the dark. This can be shocking and overwhelming. There are times we must let our eyes get use to the darkness in order to see what the dark has to teach us about ourselves and one another. Sometimes we need to befriend the dark, to bring us closer to one another and therefore connect to the light of love in all our lives. In so doing we can become the Immauels we have all been waiting for. Immanuel means that God is with us. With us in the darkness as well as the light. The darkness was there before there was light. In the darkness and love of our mother’s wombs, love was present. Just as it is present in the seeds that are planted in the dark earth that will sprout to life in the light of spring. We need not fear the dark and wait passively for the light to come, we must first befriend the dark and then become the light we have all been waiting for. Oh come, oh come Immanuel.

I have shared the following, “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness”, with you before. It is an old Chinese proverb and has become the motto of Amnesty International. As we enter into the Advent season, I would like us to hold these words in our hearts. We live in cynical times, and it is easy to get caught up in negative thinking, to only see the troubles in life. The truth is there is much hope around us and within us, it’s just that we rarely focus light on it. This hope can be born again in manger of our hearts.

This Advent season I would like us think of ways in which we can bring a little light into the dark places of our world. Not so much the big things, but the little things. It is amazing how little things affect the lives of others in small and simple ways. Like the old man and his two granddaughters I witnessed the other morning, how they opened and awakened my heart and soul.

This Advent season I am asking us to become candles and lanterns, to bring some light into our world. To do what we can. To me this is living religiously; to me this is the essence of true religion. It’s not just about what we think, or feel, or believe or reject, it is a way of being; it is an orientation of the heart. It’s about spirit coming to life; it’s about spirit incarnating in our human form.

My hope is that we can be blessings to our world; that we can bring glad tidings of comfort and joy to our world. Our world needs it we all need it.

My request to you this Advent season is that do what we can to become blessings to all that we meet, to bring love alive in our lives. Let us also open ourselves up to the blessings this season offers to us, from one another and from all life, for that same spirit is present in everything. That spirit links us to the wholeness of life and the wholeness of eternity. It links us from our souls to the universal, to the eternal, soul.

O come, o come Immanuel. Immanuel means that God is still with us, may we recognise this in the love that is always with us. In both the darkness and the light. Let that love shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Sunday 7 November 2021

There is always time to laugh and cry, you don’t have to wipe the tears from your eye

Last Tuesday was All Souls Day, a time to remember those that we have loved and lost. Those souls who touched our lives in so many ways. It is always a difficult day for me personally. Not least because it was on the 2nd of November 2006 that I experienced what has been the most significant loss of my life. A soul that reawakened a dying love in me, died that day. I re-felt that feeling whilst experiencing shared silence with friends in meditation as the sun rose that morning. I spent the day working on the service, that this devotion has come from, but also in conversation with many dear friends new and old. I also had a long overdue phone conversation with my mum. She has been quite worried of late as her beloved auntie Sheila is in Pinderfields hospital in a Covid ward on a ventilator. She also has all the other worries that mothers carry with them, not least of all for me one of her sons. It was good to talk, to love, to care. That afternoon, just when I needed it the most, I received a message from a dear old friend. She apologised for the lateness, but sent a rather lovely couple of pictures of myself with her and another dear, dear friend, from so long ago. I had requested a few weeks ago when I turned 50 if friends would send pictures and memories. It came at just the perfect moment as I recalled and re-lived so many memories. It brought tears to my eye. Tears of joy and tears of sadness. It brought a broad beaming smile to my face and no small amount of laughter. It reminded of what it means to truly live life as it actually is. You must accept all the blessings and curses of choosing life, to paraphrase good old Moses. Earlier that day I had met another friend for coffee. We had been trying to meet for weeks, but things kept on getting in the way. We shared about grief and about the joy of living. He is coming up to the first anniversary of the loss of his nephew. He will be spending a few days with his brother, whose son died last year. I shared the significance of the day with him. It was a rich and deep conversation. My life is filled with such things. It was a time of sorrow and yet there was a strange joy in the connection and no small amount of laughter. Of course we were interrupted several times by people we know, which again brought spontaneous laughter.

As I returned to my office those old familiar words from Ecclesiastes, were singing in my heart, as they were throughout Tuesday. They always touch that place deep in the soul of me, the place of joy and sorrow too. Words that are fitting for all seasons, but particularly autumn and especially November, this season of Remembrance. Ecclesiastes speaks, that truth of truths,that whatever we are feeling or experiencing at the moment is always fleeting and that “this too shall pass”; that nothing is permanent in life, it is forever changing and however you feel about a situation right now, you will feel differently soon. This is both good and bad news, well actually it is just reality. The key is to not deny the experience to know the joy and blessing as it truly is. For there is a time and place for everything under the sun. Do not deny this, for in so doing you are denying your full humanity.

The service that night was beautiful, it touched those parts that needed to be touched. It was wonderful to be together with others for this. November is the season of remembrance in so many ways. At this time, we remember those who have touched our lives in deep and special ways. Yes, we remember those who are no longer with us, but it is also important to remember those who are still with us too. Those two pictures of dear old friends helped me to remember this too. Actually, over the last few months I have had the gift of reconnecting with so many dear friends. It has been very special as my life has been blessed again by tears of pain, but laughter too.

In this season of remembrance tears come for so many reasons. Some are very obvious to us, tears of grief. That said they come for many other reasons too. This brings to mind the following rather wonderful piece on “Tears” by Frederick Buechner

“Tears” by Frederick Buechner

They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”

Who knows why the tears come. Does it matter? I don’t think so. They are precious sacraments though, every single one. They are far more than water leaking from our eyes. Emotional tears help to cleanse us. Their composition is different from those that result from cutting onions or from irritations in our eyes. We cry not because there is something wrong with our eyes. Tears created from emotions contain more toxins, much like sweat does. They help to cleanse the body and also contain leucine enkephalin, an opiate. Tears created from felt emotion not only cleanse us, but ease us too.

Brings to mind the following “Going On Together” by Yehuda Amichai

"Above the hotel gate, I saw a sign:
'International Conference on Inflammation of the Eye'
for those who have cried too much or not cried enough.
All of them with name tags on their lapels
like temporary nameplates in a cemetery or markers
in a botanical garden.
They approach one another as if sniffing, as if checking,
Who are you where are you from and when
was the last time you cried?
The subject of the morning session is 'Sobbing:
The end of Crying or the Way It Begins.' Sobbing
as soul-stuttering and griefstones. Sobbing
as a valve or a loop that links cry to cry,
a loop that unravels easily, like a hair ribbon,
and the crying — hair that fans out in profusion, glorious.
Or a loop that pulls into an impossible knot —
sobbing like an oath, a testimony, a cure.
Back in their cubicles, the women translators are busy
translating fate to fate, cry to cry. At night they come home,
scrub the words from their lips, and with sobs of happiness
they start loving, their eyes aflame with joy."

An interesting take on tears on sobbing.

In ancient times tears were considered sacred. So much so that they were stored in bottle like containers called “lachrymatories”. They are mentioned in the 56th Psalm of David verse 8, who prays to God 'Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?'. In ancient Rome mourners filled small tear bottles or cups with tears and placed them in tombs as a symbol of respect for the departed. The volume of tears attested to the status of the deceased individual. Mourners were recruited and paid for the specific purpose of producing and collecting tears for these containers. You can find Lachrymatories in museums thoughout the world. They reappeared during the nineteenth century, when many of our modern customs around grief and mourning were established. Tear bottles were made with special openings to collect the tears and when they evaporated it was thought that the appropriate period of mourning was over. It would seem that the practice has re-emerged in recent years. You can have your own made by a specialised craftsperson and or have your tears enclosed in a glass necklace.

I am not sure what I think of all this. I wouldn’t want to store and enclose something as sacred as a tear, shed from the deepest aspect of our humanity. It’s a bit like the butterfly collector who wants to pin the butterfly down. A butterfly is a butterfly when it lives for a short time in a garden and flies. Just as a tear is precious as it is a spontaneous reaction to a lived emotion. Once we store these things we kill them of real meaning. You cannot freeze a moment, its beauty is in the lived experience. That said mementos, like photographs, can help us reconnect to an experience shared with a loved one, so they do have an important value. Like I say I am not entirely sure how I feel about such things as tear cups and their like. What about your good selves?”

Tears of course are not always about sadness. There are tears of joy too. There are other expressions of emotion as well. One being laughter. Now one thing we do not do is store is our laughter. Well I suppose there is canned laughter, but is there anything more artificial and soulless? Nor am I great believer in fake laughter. People do things like Zen laughter groups. Laughter for me should always be spontaneous, otherwise it just isn’t real; laughter for me is just as sacred as any tear. We recognise one another often through our laughter. I have shared much laughter recently, with some dear old friends. Such sacred moments.

Laughter is so important. I recently discovered the following amusing poem “Bad news about my vocation” by Koertge

Bad News About My Vocation

by Ron Koertge

I remember how the upper crust in my hometown
pronounced it—care-a-mel. Which is correct, I guess,
but to everybody else it was carmel.

Which led to the misconception about the order
of Carmelites.

I imagined they served God by heating sugar
to about 170 C, then adding milk and butter
and vanilla essence while they listened
to the radio.

I thought I could do that. I could wear the white
shirt and pants. I knew I couldn’t be good
but I might be a good candy maker.

So imagine my chagrin when I learned about
the vows of poverty and toil enjoined
by these particular friars.

I also crossed off my list the Marshmellowites
and the Applepieites, two other orders I
was thinking of joining.

I love this poem. For some folks poetry is a serious business, perhaps it is. It can also be seriously funny. Life is far too serious a business to be taken too seriously. It should be the same with poetry, or at least this ought to be the lot of the poet.

Some people find me amusing, I am please about that. I was asked to conduct a funeral for someone recently. I was asked because the deceased sister knew that I had a sense of humour and wouldn’t be poe faced. That said one thing I have never been any good at is telling jokes. In fact part of my ministerial training was to learn how to tell jokes really badly, or certainly that seems to be the impression I give. The Baptists students. got “stand up” comedy training, we got the opposite it seems. So please stop me, stop me, stop me. Stop if you think you’ve heard this one before. Please stop me…

A Vicar, a priest and a Unitarian minister were travelling together to an ecumenical lunch, they were trying to save petrol money. Sadly on the way, they were involved in a fatal car crash. Now while they all sadly died, there was some good news, they all made it to heaven, even the Unitarian, which surprised them all.

No that isn’t the joke.

As they were going through orientation. They were all asked, 'When you are in your casket, and friends, family, and congregants are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say?' The Vicar said, 'I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.' The priest said, 'I would like to hear that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of God who made a huge difference in people's lives.' The Unitarian minister replied, 'I would like to hear them say, "Look, he's moving."

I did warn you I was never a great teller of jokes. I am though blessed with a sense of humour, thank God. I promise no more jokes.

Life is not easy. It can often seem even more difficult at this time. If I was to just sit with the pain of life I would do nothing but weep. That said there is more to life than this. There is love, laughter and joy too, despite all the very real pain and suffering. I Suspect that one of the greatest paradoxes of life is that it is vitally important to learn to take ourselves seriously enough to take ourselves lightly. To realise we are not alone and that there is much love and joy to share.

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” And the seasons turn and pass and come again. This last couple of years I feel that the line “A time to weep and a time to laugh” has taken on a deeper meaning. In recent weeks and months, as I have spent time with dear old friends and new ones too I wept more and by the same token I laughed more too. More of those barriers have come down. I know for a fact I have felt more. I suspect I am not alone in this. I Know it will make me more resilient and enable me to serve in a better and more open manner. My jokes though will not improve. So please forgive me.

I’m going to end this devotion with “A Recipe for Resilience” by Margaret Weis

“A Recipe for Resilience” by Margaret Weis

This recipe has been tweaked over time, so adjust as necessary.

Sometimes it yields more servings than anticipated.
Sometimes it needs a bit more of this ingredient or that.
It comes from generations who have gone before me, and I've added my own flavor along the way.

A Recipe for Resilience

One part courage
Two parts tears of failure and doubt
One part deep listening
One part each of both silence and laughter
A dash of trust
A pinch of wonder
A heaping scoop of naps and snacks

In a separate bowl, mix together family, friends, and those who challenge you to be your best self, those with whom you disagree.

Add slowly to the larger pot, add a bay leaf for … well, whatever it is bay leaves do, and let simmer for as long as you need (which is often longer than you realize or anticipate).

Keep the heat at an even temperature – hot enough to cook throughout, but not so hot it burns the bottom.

Can be served at room temperature, warm, or even cold if necessary.
Serve alongside your favorite soft blanket, dog, cat, or other soft item.

Make often,
Share with others,
Hold onto the leftovers – you’ll need them after a long day that challenges your soul.

Please find below a video devotion

based on the material in this "Blogspot"

Sunday 31 October 2021

Hallowed be all our names, the living and the dead

Today the 31st of October is All Hallows Eve or Hallo’ween, Halloween. Tomorrow is All Saints Day or All Hallows Day which is followed on the 2nd November by All Souls Day, a time in the Christian Calendar to remember all souls who have departed this life.

Like other Christian festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, these three autumn days are a fascinating mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and even post-Christian tradition and mythos. I am fairly certain that the children going door at Halloween are probably not aware that they have created a modern day variant on the pre-Christian festival of Samhain; a festival that not only celebrated harvest, but was also a time to commune with the spirits of ancestors. There are similar traditions throughout most culture's, autumnal and winter festivals. Autumn is a time of reflection, a time to take stock before the harsh realities of winter come.

Halloween in the north of England is something that is marked, at least in a secular way, far more these days than I remember in my earlier childhood. When I was a child it was Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night that took on greater significance. I don’t really remember going “Trick or Treating”, until a significant film came out in 1982 and then everything seemed to change. The film was E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. One of the most commercially successful films of all time and one that changed something significantly, certainly in my life and perhaps the culture of the North of England. I recall, as many others did, that after this going door to door, trick or treating replaced the tradition of going “Door to Door” asking for “a penny for the guy” and of course “Mischievous Night”. It seems that these traditions all got swallowed up with “Trick or Treating”. “Mischievous Night”, at least in Yorkshire came on the 4th November and was linked to the “Gunpowder Plot” and “Fireworks Night” that is marked on the 5th of November. Things could get pretty wild on “Mischievous Night” and some, I’m sure, are glad to see that it has pretty much been lost to history. You do hear of little pockets of it in Liverpool and Leeds, but mainly it has gone the way of the Dodo and been replaced by “Trick or Treating”. There’s a part of me that wishes this wasn’t true. I remember the thrill of getting up to no good with friends and of hearing similar tales of other friends who were far more daring than I. I also remember my granddad telling me of things he and his mate Percy used to get up to. I remember the delight in this night of freedom that the children used to be granted. A freedom that I fear children of today do not enjoy.

November is Remembrance Season and really it begins today. Remember Samhain was about connecting with the ancestors, the lost souls. Our age and culture has in recent times become a little death defying and death denying, I feel. The last eighteen months or more have brought this more sharply into focus. We have had to face the fragility of life, our mortality and the realisation that everything that we seemingly depend on is finite, that it can be broken. That we are mortal and life is fragile, that impermanence truly is the nature of the game. Halloween, like the Mexican Day of the Dead is about fun and joy, but there is something serious beneath these ancient traditions that are played out in our modern sanitised culture.

By contrast as Mary Anne Brussat has highlighted “many of the great teachers from the religious traditions recommend that we face death and even befriend it. Saint Benedict tells us to keep death daily before our eyes. Medieval philosophers kept a skull on their desks to remind them of the impermanence of life. Rabbi Harold Kushner interprets poet Wallace Stevens' comment "Death is the mother of beauty" to mean that we cherish and find things beautiful precisely because we know they will not be around forever nor will we always be here to enjoy them. Death, in other words, brings meaning to life.”

We live in age where violence is often glorified in our culture, but in a way that makes it unreal. We see it on our screens, but we rarely experience it face to face. It is sanitised and we are detached from it. We glorify violence whilst at the same time deny the reality of death. In so doing we make life itself seem unreal. Not sacred or holy. We do not hallow one another, recognise the sacredness in life itself and thus existence becomes meaningless. Is it any wonder that a sense of despair is on the increase. If we take away the things which bring superficial meaning to our lives, what is left? Surely there is a better way?

Well I believe that the way is to sanctify life, to make everything holy, to hallow all our names. To recognise the sacredness of all souls, the living and the dead.

I like to get up very early on Sunday morning these days, ridiculously early actually. I am usually in Altrincham not long after 6am. I do a little exercise and then prepare myself for the day. I sanctify the day as I prepare to lead worship, two or three times. I like to arrive in Urmston no later than 8.30am even though the service doesn’t begin until 10am and no one else arrives before 9.30am. After opening and setting up I often take the short walk down Queens Road to the cemetery and walk round reading different headstones and contemplating the lives off those folk. People that touch so many other lives, people I never knew but who meant so much to others. I honour the dead which in some ways enables me to better serve the living. It helps me connect to the sacredness of life itself. There is nothing morbid in this activity. It enables me to connect the preciousness of the lives that have touched mine, but who are no longer with me. I say to myself hallowed be each of your names. It helps me recognise the sacredness of every soul. Not just on 2nd of November, but every day. For every day is a holy day, all ground is holy ground and each person is a holy one, from the core of their being. It helps me to recognise the sacredness of all life, for everything matters. Matter really matters you see. We are all holy and acceptable as we are, even the aspects of ourselves that we would prefer to hide, that we would prefer the world not to see, the things that bring us shame. They are all acceptable. If we hide them, or attempt to hide them, they will only appear in our shadow and cause damage. Mine do, I have seen evidence of this in the past year. Personal grief has brought aspects of myself to the surface once again, that I have not wanted to face, but in the end I have had to. We should never be ashamed of any aspect of ourselves, we are acceptable and loveable as we are exactly as we are in this moment.

I experienced a wonderful moment after last Sunday’s service in Altrincham. Two newer members asked me about sin, suggesting we are not all about it. That I don’t offer absolution for their short comings. I half jokingly said well how could I do such a thing. The truth is how could I. Who am I to think I can. Everyone falls short of their ideals, but no one, nothing is born wrong at their core, is rotten to core, or even selfish to the core. We are born whole and holy. That is why I say hallowed be all our names. That said we all fall short, we all get things wrong, all of us. The mistake is that we try to hide and en-shadowed these aspects of our humanity and this is where the problems come from, I have come to believe.

Perhaps the ancient tradition of Samhain will help us here, for I feel it is closest in connection to All Souls in its spirit. Perhaps here will find the true meaning of the next few days, perhaps the whole season of Remembrance. Here at this time we can truly remember the lost loved ones, at this time where the veil between the living and the dead is said to be most thin, we can re-feel these experiences as we touch and are touched by those who are no longer physically with us, but are still with us in our hearts, minds, spirits and souls. It might also be a time when we allow ourselves to be visited by the ghosts within ourselves, those aspects of our humanity that we try to keep hidden. The things that cause us pain and shame. We all have them, I do. They do not stay hidden for ever maybe we need to greet them like a long lost friend, maybe that is what Halloween and these other autumn festivals are actually about, they are there to allow us come to terms with our whole humanity and that of each other, maybe this is what the ancestors are trying to teach us after all.

I am going to end this devotion with a little bit of Wendell Berry “I go among trees”

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "Blogspot"

Monday 25 October 2021

Trust: We can't get on together in suspicious minds

I woke up feeling a little tired in my heart, body and spirit last Monday. I got up, prepared myself spiritually for the day, ate and dressed. I then turned on the BBC news. It was probably not the best idea. All I heard were reports of violence and abuse. Whether on line, or the brutal murder of another public figure, the M.P. David Amess. I drove into Altrincham and listened to the radio, my attention was drawn to an item reporting on the increase in online abuse over the last eighteen months, with a particular focus on the young women who were contestants on the reality TV Show “Love Island”. I arrived at my office, turned on the computer, sent off a couple of emails and made a few connections. I then set off to the supermarket for some food for the day, not in the best spirits, suspicious of the world and the people in it. Passing lots of groups of school children, who just seemed caught up in themselves, I was thinking to myself I wonder what cruelty some of them inflict on each other today. I was not in good spirits.

I returned following the same route I had left by, again passing school children in their uniforms, like groups of sticks of Blackpool rock, the kids round here have fancy uniforms. As I was nearing the town centre I noticed three teenage girls standing together around a sleeping homeless man outside A Plan insurance, what was once, Dawson’s music shop. Above the sleeping man was a sign reading “Public Liability Insurance”. If only something could save us from ending up in such a desperate situation. It is a distressing sight and a growing problem is this affluent town. A real contrast to the lives of we privileged folk. As I passed by I looked closely at the man and the girls. One of the girls had their phone out and the other two looked like they had grins on their faces, I was suspicious and concerned, so I began to approach them. I thought they may be mocking him and taking a picture. I asked them what they were doing? No sooner had I mouthed the words, I realised. My perception was completely wrong; it couldn’t have been more wrong actually. One of the girls had a fifty pence coin in her hand and what they were actually doing was trying to find a way to leave the man the money without waking him or disturbing him, the grin was one of nervousness. I said, “good girls” and went on my way into the day. Unlike them I passed by, if not on the other side. The image has stayed with me since and got me thinking about so many things. Especially about perception, suspicion, trust and distrust. How we are influenced by what we see and how others are influenced by what we do, what they see. It also got me thinking about how events can quickly change a persons perception and how vital it is to keep our senses open and respond to what is going on in the world in which we live and breathe and share our being, for it matters you know, it really does. There is no real neutrality in life. I’m glad I was awake to the world that morning despite feeling somewhat tired and dispirited, I have not done so since. Thank God.

Well I did a little as I went to Wednesday night after watching “Four Hours at the Capitol” a film showing the scenes and telling the story of the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol Building. It was hard watching reexperiencing those terrivble events from only a few months ago. We live in challenging times, throughout our world. I am deeply concerned for liberal democracy.

We seem to be living in an age of distrust. Folk are increasingly suspicious of those around them. A feeling that is fed by a variety of sources. Some blame the media, an easy scapegoat. The truth is that individuals on social media are just as responsible for feeding their own fears and negativities. We are the media, it is not a separate entity from the rest of humanity. Just another former idol we have grown to distrust. Without some level of trust we cannot function, whether as individuals or as a society. Without a level of trust liberal democracy collapses and look what happens when this occurs. We only need remember the horrors of mid twentieth century Europe to see the results. Surely no one wants that to be repeated ever again.

Sadly we don’t trust anymore, we are suspicious, people feel frightened of so many things and respond from this place at times. I did on Monday morning. I was suspicious of three teenage girls who were actually doing something beautiful.

We need trust, it is an intrinsic aspect of human nature. It is the foundation of healthy psychological development, first established in the bond between infant and caregiver, a process facilitated by the hormone oxytocin. Trust is defined most simply as the expectation that other people's future actions will safeguard our interests. Without trust social life and society cannot exist. We trust others all the time as we hand ourselves over to the expertise and care of others. We yield some of our control and autonomy over our money, secrets, safety, all the things we value. Without trust, we would be paralysed, and social life would grind to a halt. It is trust, not money, that makes the world go round, that powers society. Without trust, we do not function. Trust may well be what Hobbes really meant by the Leviathan.

Perhaps the problem in so much of our lives and society is that we no longer trust. We don’t trust ourselves, we don’t trust one another, we don’t trust life itself. This is perhaps why we live in so much fear.

What can we do? Is there a solution? Well, I believe that there is. It began in what I bore witness to on the streets of Altrincham, under that “Public Liability Insurance” sign. It is up to us. It begins with taking the little risks that are needed, to offer some care. To trust that the care will be received and returned. To live with a little bit faith. Faith in ourselves, faith in each other, faith in life, faith in God, however we understand God. Faith is not a passive thing though, it comes alive in our actions and activities. The book of James stated “Faith without works is dead.” Well I have learnt that true faith is in the works. Faith either grows and diminishes in and through our works, how we live. It doesn’t come in the big things, it comes in the little things, “Thus saeth the Lord”

It comes in how we are in the coffee shop and supermarket, or on the phone when some poor customer service person makes their fiftieth call of the day. How we are with the person collecting money for another worthy cause. Do we occasionally stop, or do we do all we can to avoid them? Do we sneer sometimes? Do we give, without asking someone what they are going to spend the money on? I saw this the other day outside Marks and Spencer. Why ask what the homeless person is going to spend your fifty pence on, when you already know, why make them feel any smaller than they already do. Offer a smile to the stranger in the street, just for the heck of it. Let them know that you know that life is ok. Not yet paradise, but ok. This maybe the first smile they have seen in a long time. Talk to stranger about the most mundane of things, especially the weather, it is what connects us all after all. Stop criticising everyone you see for the way they dress, or the way they car they drive. It is not just on social media where such activities take place, they happen in every street too. Thank the bus driver, the delivery man, the person in the bank, the postie, you may be the first person to do so today. Don’t take the last parking space, let someone else believe in “The God of parking space”, at least for one day. Don’t argue every point, listen to what each of us must speak, try to understand where the person you disagree with is coming from, whatever they believe about God, the environment, Brexit, Covid and vaccines, try to understand where they are coming from. If you make a judgement, try not to stay in judgement, to stand in that judgement forever. Do not allow difference, to make all the difference.

Now all this on its own will not change the world, but it will make a difference to your little piece of it, the bit you inhabit and you never know you may set of a tidal wave of trust throughout the world. Chaos Theory works for everything. Everything we do and everything we do not do really matters. There is no neutrality in life. Cynicism rules because those with love in their hearts do nothing. Show the cynics how wrong they. How they are cowards who dare not step into the arean of trust, all they dare do is slung mud.

This will not insulate us from suffering, horrible things will still happen, they always do. Often, usually in fact, through no fault of our own. It will though save us from the suffering within the suffering, which leads to despair, a state of hopelessness. You see by living this way our lives will be given meaning and purpose, born by a devotion to life, love and one another. We cannot transcend the suffering that is a part of life, but we can be transformed by it. This though requires us to trust. To trust in one another, to trust in life, to trust in God, however we understand God. We have to take the risk of love, that is trust, it is a natural aspect of humanity, it is there in the infant, sadly somehow through life it is something that we lose, well it can be born again, even when it feels a little lost. It was by me on Monday morning. All I had to do was keep my senses open, go about my normal business and respond to life all around me.

So today I offer a prayer of thanks and praise to three teenage girls, and a homeless man sleeping under a sign reading “Public Liability Insurance” on the streets of Altrincham. I hope that we can all read the signs too. For we are all liable, we are all responsible.

Please find below a video devotion based on the materila in this "blogspot"

Tuesday 12 October 2021

A Song For Long-Haul People

Last Sunday felt like a bit of a marathon. It was one of those Sunday’s when I led worship at three congregations one after the other. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. I recall one Sunday, during Advent a few years ago, leading at four congregations. I made myself ill, I will never do that again. It would have been an even bigger struggle if it had been this Sunday due to the Manchester Marathon. This always effects both congregations.

Last week was challenging enough. I confessed to Margaret our organist. after the Altrincham service, that I didn’t really feel up to going to Rivington. I am glad that I did though. It was a lovely experience. I just didn’t feel like facing it that day. It had been a long busy week and I was feeling a little tired, perhaps I had hit what marathon runners call “The Wall”. I had had a long distressing phone call with a dear old friend the night before also, which was on my mind too. That said I kept going and thank God I did.

Last Sunday was a very special day in so many ways. Full of wonderful and beautiful surprises. It ended late and was full of meaning and purpose. It had begun with an unexpected encounter with Alan Myerscough and Peter Sampson parked up outside Dunham Road. It was a joy to go for a coffee and chat with them and then for all of us to go our individual ways to do our services at different Unitarian congregations. They had travelled from north Wales that day and Alan was dropping Peter off in Altrincham so he could get the tram to Manchester, while he want off to play the organ and three congregations around Cheshire. There was such joy in that unexpected encounter, it lifted my spirits and filled my heart with love. There are so many little things that lift you up and keep you going when you don’t always feel in the spirit yourself. There is always invisible and visible help available.

On Monday I went to the gym and had a really good session. I felt reenergised. As I was changing afterwards I overheard a conversation between two men. One had obviously run the London Marathon the day before. He described the feeling after he’d finished. He felt like death lying there on “The Mall”, completely broken, almost in tears and then he described this insane idea coming into his mind, “I want to do that again.” I had met up with another friend the evening before who had run the marathon with his dad and his dads running friends, that day. My friend is super fit and his dad has overcome cancer in recent times. The odds were very much against him surviving, but he has. My friend’s dad was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. He had been one of the first patients to undergo revolutionary CAR T cell therapy treatment at “The Christie” and recovered. I think in their eyes running a marathon together was nothing in comparison to what they have been through. My friend, who although is super fit, is not a runner and he said that when talking with his dad’s friends he realised that he has never met a more obsessive group of people in his life, than marathon runners. The world is full of beautiful lunatics, they add so much to the rich tapestry of life. I am just chuffed to see my friend happy after all the suffering he and the family have been through. Just wonderful that a father and son can run together.

Now as you can guess this all got me thinking about Marathons and marathon runners and the characteristics of such people and if there are lessons here for life in general, particularly the spiritual life. I was thinking particularly about the struggles that we all face, like the battle my friend’s dad has had with cancer. I was thinking of the struggles the world has faced these last eighteen months and as we look forward to what we are being told is going to be a difficult winter. I thought to myself we are in for a long haul, a continuing marathon. Only this week I have heard of people struggling badly with emotional, mental and spiritual health. I was deeply upset when I heard a lovely member of the Dukinfield congregation the other week who had given up on life, she has stopped eating because as she put “Covid had got into her head”. This is someone I have grown to know well over the years. Like I have already mentioned I had a really painful conversation with one my dearest and oldest friends last Saturday, it ended badly as the friend is in a desperate state mentally. Thankfully they are getting help this week. I have heard of others this week too. We have to continue to stick together and help one another keep going to support each other as those people lining the streets of Manchester are doing this Sunday.

It brought to mind the following wisdom which is sometimes attributed to the film maker Michael Moor, but was originally uttered by Amiee Van Ausdall, I beleive

“This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant… So let's remember the advice of music: Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.”

Life is a marathon it is never a sprint. Anyone can put effort in for a short while, but what is required is sustainability, endurance, “sticktooativeness”. Stress is helpful to the sprinter, but not so helpful to long haulers.

In “The 10-Step Stress Solution: Live More, Relax More, Reenergize” Neil Shah explores how life is like a marathon race requiring a relaxed body with only an occasional sprint. Describing how a sprinter is usually muscular and stocky, highly stressed and that they don’t even need to breath in a race. Stating, “During a race their bodies are usually very tight and tense; their teeth are gritted, their veins are bulging and they have looks of determination on their faces.”

Whereas a marathon runner is lean, have little tension in their bodies, they are relaxed, as they do not wish to waste energy. Breathing is vital to them, stating “Long-distance runners take slow, deep and rhythmical breaths. They breathe deep into their belly, maximizing the amount of oxygen they are inhaling, which in turn keeps them relaxed and helps to fuel their run.”

He suggests that we cannot face life as sprinters. Stating instead that: “Our approach to life should be that of a marathon runner: to develop a sustainable and maintainable pace, and to speed up when faced with a challenge or a stressful situation, always returning to our long-distance pace.” That we need to “develop the stamina and endurance of a long-distance runner and you will ensure that you happily and healthily keep yourself moving through the marathon that is your life."

Now of course seeing life this way can feel like a slog. When I’m at the gym I don’t enjoy cardio but I find myself doing it each day keeping going. Got to look after my heart, for without it I have nothing. It can at times feel “Sysyphean”. “Sysyphean”, literally means extremely difficult to the point of futile. It relates the king of Corinth in Greek mythology “Sisyphus”.

Sometimes by sticking at it, when life is difficult, can feel futile. Like where on a road to nowhere. Like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill each day, only to have to face the same rock the next day. The same task must be fulfilled again the next day. It can feel like “Groundhog Day” It doesn’t have to be like this. Before his eternal punishment, Sisyphus loved life and all its possibilities for joy and happiness. He loved life so much he defied the gods by stopping death. When the gods discovered his trickery, they designed the perfect punishment. They gave Sisyphus eternal life, just not one filled joy. This was his punishment, because no one would desire a life comprised solely of pushing a rock up a hill, knowing it will only roll back down again, thus accomplishing nothing in the end, beyond its reaching the top.

Now of course this is a myth. The usual understanding of this story is that Sisyphus’ hell is repeating the futile task. I am not so sure that this true. To me the hell is that he has to face the task alone. This is where the lack of joy comes from, from facing this struggle alone. Hell is the inability to ask for help, whether visible or invisible. Sisyphus is punished for his hubris, his excessive pride, self-confidence and defiance of the gods. It comes from his belief that he can live forever and the fact he must fulfil his task alone. The beauty of life is in the fact that it doesn’t last forever, thus each moment is precious. No two moments are every exactly the same. “No one steps in the same river twice”, because the river is not the same and neither is the person stepping into it. Also, we do not travel alone, we do not get through on our own. We have help available to us. All we have to do is level our pride and let the help, both visible and invisible, be there for each of us. And of course offer our own hand when it is needed. It is not that we complete each others tasks for them. It is that we support, encourage and offer a helping hand along the way.

In many ways vulnerability maybe the secret to “sticktooativeness” to persevering when life is hard. Maybe admitting you’re tired and asking for help is the real strength that gets us through. I saw this again last Sunday, on several occasions, as I have so many times in life. Humility, accepting my humanity, is always the antidote to the dangers of hubris.

I suspect that the dominant myth of Sisyphus, pushing his rock up that endless hill, has done us no favours. We assume that Sisyphus is suffering because his work is endless, when maybe it’s his isolation and lack of a place to rest that is his true torment.

We do not need to persevere alone. We can not only survive but even thrive together, through community. We can endure together by encouraging each other to keep up our spiritual practices, to live by our faith and to remain open to humour beauty, joy, grief, embracing gratitude and forgiveness and practicing self-compassion. Sometimes you just have to stay open, if you do you see incredible beauty, and or bump into friends unexpectedly. Friends on the same or similar marathon.

The people I know and serve offer community, in a variety of ways, something that people are struggling to find or refind at this time. We need love and support in order to keep on turning, to persevere. It is important to remember that we find greater strength, power and sustenance communally. This I have come to believe is the primary purpose of free religious community, some thing that is so important to never forget. This communities that I and my friends Alan and Peter serve are their to sustain those in the wider community to maintain our spiritual perseverance.

We need each other and folk out there need us if we are to persevere against the struggles in life. We also need to be able to be vulnerable enough to admit that we need help as we will all struggle at times. When this happens we need to be willing to ask for that help. There will be times when we will need to let others help us to push our rocks or support us through our struggles. We will need to take time of rest, even ministers. We need this rest, it is necessary, nay vital for us to build the resilience required for the journey ahead.

For all of us there are at times when to simply take the next step, to persevere with whatever our task is, seems to take all the courage we can muster. Past experiences can often stop us dead in our tracks. Fear can block our attempts to step out into the world and back into the adventure of life with all its many challenges. Sometimes it seems too much, sometimes it is. So, we surrender, ask for help and then through faith, hope and love we find the strength to persevere, but to not do so alone. Remember we never sail this ship alone. We are in this one together all the way.

Below is video devotion based on the material in this "Blogspot"