Sunday 21 March 2021

Having Moved Full Circle: 366 Days

“Having Moved Full Circle: 366 Days ”

“Epigrams” by Edwin Markham


FOR all your days prepare,

And meet them ever alike:

When you are the anvil, bear--

When you are the hammer, Strike.


He drew a circle that shut me out--

Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

The Avengers

The laws are the secret avengers,

And they rule above all lands;

They come on wool-soft sandals,

But they strike with iron hands.


We have travelled a complete circle, 365, well actually 366 days as it was a “Leap Year” since Sue and I married and since we had to go into our first lockdown. It has been quite a year. A hard year, a challenging year, a year of suffering on oh so many levels. The loss of life has been terrible, I cannot imagine what would have happened had most of us not responded as we had. Yes, mistakes have been made, but on the whole people have supported one another and done what they can. The cost has been phenomenal and it will take some time to recover on so many levels. As we slowly return to some kind of normality over the later Spring and summer, there is much that we must do for one another. I wonder where we will be on the second anniversary. I don’t just mean our wedding anniversary, but of this difficult time in human history. We have been through worse and we have rebuilt and no doubt we will again. So, let us build and rebuild, but let us do so in more loving and compassionate ways.

It is a time to widen our circles and begin to invite folk into more loving and compassionate ways. It begins with our individual circles and widens to our community and then to the whole of humanity. The last twelve months have brought to the surface many of the fractures in society, fractures that need healing and it begins by widening our circles of compassion and inviting folk in.

This brings to mind a favourite poem of mine by Rainer Maria Rilke. It speaks powerfully to me of what the purpose of living in an engaged way is all about, as we invite others into our lives we invite more of the true experience of living alive. Here is Rilke’s poem

"I Live My Life In Widening Circles" by Rainer Maria Rilke

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Rilke’s poem so beautifully evokes the image of ever expanding spheres, much like ripples on a pond, those concentric circles. It brings to my heart the idea of moving from the centre of the circle, expanding and stretching ourselves to include ever more of life. As we are expanded, we expose ourselves to new experiences and people, this is both exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. As the journey continues fear evaporates and though the circles are never completed, certainly not the last one. That said one is compelled to give their whole life to the experience. This is the classic spiritual journey, as it is not about the destination, this is not the gift, the gift is the journey itself. The beauty is not in the outcome but the experience. The poem beautifully reminds me how great it is to live in such a way, to ever widen the circles so as to include more people, more ideas, more experiences, rather than to live in contracting spaces that seek to cut out that which makes one feel uncomfortable. This just makes life smaller and less fulfilling.

This last year has created a distance between people. No doubt there is much anxiety about returning to life as it once was. There is a great deal of fear around, fears about personal safety. There has been a growing awareness of the troubles in our world, when some are rejected and or treated as if they were not equal citizens. There has been an awakening around race and gender this year, let us hope that we can truly begin to see that we are all made of the same stuff, born under the same earth, under the same sun, with the same spirit flowing through us. That our role in life is first and foremost to care for one another, to cause no harm. Let us hope that our circles will ever widen and that we finally begin to see that there is one circle of humanity, a circle that brings all in. There are other deadly diseases that humanity struggles with, ones of exclusion and unacceptance just because someone is different. There are not two types of people in this world there is one, there is one humanity. We need to widen our circles for if we do not then distrust and violence grows. We need to find ways to widen our circles and bring them all in. This was beautifully captured in middle section “Outwitted” from Edwin Markham’s “Epigrams”


He drew a circle that shut me out--

Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

So, what can we do? Well, I believe we can do much. Where does it begin? Well, I believe it begins in our own hearts and souls, in our own homes and in our own communities. We need to begin to expand our own circles. We need to begin to live more invitationally and openly, we need to invite the other into our circle. This is risky and scary I know but my goodness our world needs it. This to me is our ultimate religious role and task. In so doing we will not only allow others to be less afraid of us and who they are, but we will also liberate ourselves.

Now this is no easy task, of course it is not. That said I believe that it is one that is worth undertaking. I believe it is the challenge of our age. I believe that maybe it is the task and the challenge of my own open faith tradition. I believe that it is our task to ever widen our circle so as include all, for there can be no limit to love. This begins by putting love at the core of the circle and to understand that if we see love as the circumference we will see there is no limit, for no one can be excluded from love. For if they are, it is not love.

For love is eternal and love is perfect and love knows no limits.

I would like to share a poem by Wendell Berry “The Larger Circle.”

The Larger Circle, by Wendell Berry

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,

And the hands of those who come after us.

We enter the little circle of each other’s arms

And the larger circle of lovers,

Whose hands are joined in a dance

And the larger circle of all creatures

Passing in and out of life

Who move also in a dance

To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it

Except in fragments.

Here's a recording of a devotion based on the content of this "blogspot". Please click to watch.

Monday 8 March 2021

The Golden Rule Plus 20%: Multiplying by subtraction

I was talking with a friend over the weekend. He is not a religious man although he told me he had given up certain food items for Lent. Now his primary motivation was to lose weight. Like most folk, including myself, he has gained quite a bit of weight this last year, this seems to be especially so during the second “lockdown”. It has been tough going staying physically healthy, food is often such a comfort. I have stepped back into good eating myself this last week. Not so much as a Lenten practice but for general well-being.

As I said at the beginning of Lent, I think we have probably given up enough this year and that perhaps instead of focusing on this at this time, that what we ought to be doing is focusing on what we can give instead.

Earlier that day I had come across a rather wonder “Meme” posted by Bill Darlison on Social media. It comes from the Marginal Mennonite group, a progressive religious organisation. The “Meme” read:

“I have something that I call my Golden Rule. It goes something like this. Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct the subjective error”

I liked this quote by Linus Pauling, who twice won the Nobel prize for Chemistry, one of the greatest scientists of all time and who was a committed Unitarian Universalist. The quotation suggests that the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do to you, no longer cuts the mustard, because subjective error is involved. And what is subjective error? Well, it is an error caused by bias or prejudice. No one can be truly objective and the problem with treating others as we would like to be treated is that it doesn’t fully take into account the perspective of the other. We do not put ourselves in their shoes, we cannot fully. So instead of treating them as well as we would like to be treated, what we ought to be doing instead is actually treating them better than we would want to be. By doing so we begin to raise one another up. Maybe by doing so we might all begin to treat one another better. And if we keep on adding to one another, we may just raise up our shared humanity and create a better more loving world. Yes, the golden rule is a great starting point and certainly an improvement on an eye for an eye, which itself was actually an improvement on unlimited revenge. All are steps in progression, but perhaps we could go further and I suspect that the twice Nobel prize winner for Chemistry Linus Pauley, may have the answer to raising up our shared humanity.

It is an idea that Viktor Frankl proposed in my favourite video clip which you can find on YouTube. In it he states “We have to be idealists, in a way, because then we wind up as the true, the real realists. And so you know who has said this? If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be. This was Goethe. He said this verbally. Now you will understand: this is the most apt maxim and motto for any psychotherapeutic activity. 

So if you don't recognize a young man's will to meaning, man's search for meaning, you make him worse: you make him dull, you make him frustrated. While if you presuppose in this man, there must a spark for meaning. Let's presuppose it and then you will elicit it from him, you will make him capable of becoming what he in principal is capable of becoming.” 

Here is the video clip

As many folk know Viktor Frankl is my favourite. I love the twinkle in his eye that is so evident in this clip, as well as his obvious humour. He takes what he does seriously without taking himself too seriously. In this wonderful little clip he makes an argument for the idealist in all of us, as he points to what we are all capable of being, if we could just tap into our God given human potential. 

As he says by definition the idealist always overestimates what is possible. Where as a realist will only estimate exactly what is possible and no more. In fact perhaps a realist will ever so slightly underestimate what is possible, just to be on the safe side. Just to ensure that they don’t over estimate things and aim too high. Just to avoid disappointment. 

Is this truly realistic though? 

Frankl suggests by aiming at a realistic level we always fall short of the mark. By taking a realistic view of people we are setting them up to fall way short of what they are capable of achieving. Where as if we aim high and become idealists about human nature we can lift people up to where they are capable of reaching and thus if they fall short of this mark, they fall to a "true" realistic level. For Frankl a true realist, must be an idealist. To achieve what we are capable of we must overestimate what is possible. To become our true selves we must be optimistic. To achieve what we are capable of achieving we must believe that we are capable of more than we actually think we are. And by giving out more than we think we are receiving we will receive back far more than we thought was possible. In so doing we will encourage others to do the same. 

I see clear parallels here with Linus Pauling’s Golden Rule plus. I will repeat his quotation:

“I have something that I call my Golden Rule. It goes something like this. Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct the subjective error”

I love Linus Pauling’s uncommonsense, especially when I combine his wisdom with that of Frankl. In expecting more from people in giving more than we expect we take the risk of love, that is at the core of living faithfully and in so doing we pour out more love than we believe is available and thus love grows. This is the strange mathematics of giving, classic uncommon sense. By giving out more than we receive; by overestimating what is possible, we encourage others to do the same and thus they will give out more and thus we will receive even more that we give. Love will somehow become multiplied by subtraction. All we have to do is take the risk. 

If we want to know love, we need to give out love into this our world, we need to risk our hearts to that love. We need to be true realists by being idealists about ourselves and humanity and life itself. This is not to ignore the darker side of life, far from it. We need to acknowledge what is wrong with the world, without becoming weighed down by it. 

The Kin-dom of Love is truly within us and amongst us. It is our task to bring it alive through our lives. It is up to us to raise one another up, to aim as high as we can and become the people we never knew we were capable of becoming.

The great medieval heretical mystic Meister Eckhart said:

“God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

Another example of this uncommonsense, that defies the perceived laws of nature as we understand it and yet it is true. How by giving away a particular commodity not only does the person receiving gain, but so does the giver and all who are caught up in this activity. You see if you give 20% more than you would like to be given to you, you will know more love than you ever thought was possible. In fact if you want to fill the cup of love, that you hold in your heart, the first thing you must do is empty it and pour it out all who you share this world with you. In so doing you will encourage others to give as much as their heart desires and 20% more and in so doing more is poured out for all to share and in so doing, we will begin to create that “kin-dom of Love” that we have all be seeking.

Over the next few months, we are going to be returning to some level of normality. I’m sure that we cannot wait to get to live the lives we used to, but is that enough? The world was not exactly perfect before. There was much wrong. Surely, we ought to be striving for more, for a better world. A world that begins to fulfill is potential.

Yes, the golden rule is a good starting point, but it is not enough, for as Frankl so wisely pointed out if we only aim at what we believe is possible we will fall short of this, whereas if we aim 20% higher, if we see one another as better than we actually think we are we might just reach what is possible, what is achievable. If we do, we will encourage one another to give more of ourselves and thus add more to the lives of everyone and everything. We will begin to multiply by subtraction. Maybe, just maybe this is what the “kin-dom of love” looks like.

So, let’s begin with the Golden Rule plus 20%; let’s begin to give more of our love and let us do so abundantly; let us take the risk of love; let us aim high and then it won’t matter if we fall short, because in so doing we will reach a realistic level. We will also encourage others to do the same and thus love will begin to grow. We will somehow multiply the love in the world by the miracle of subtraction. Now isn’t that amazing! In so doing we may just begin to create the “kin-dom of love” right here right now.

Let us begin to create what they tell us impossible. Let us build the land right here, right now.

Please find a recording based on this blog in the video below

Monday 1 March 2021

“If you wonder while you wander then you are never lost”


From “Stay Curious: How Questions and Doubts Can Save Your Faith”

By Stephanie Williams O'Brien 

A thought-provoking exploration of the difference between wandering and wondering.

"If the wilderness wandering we read about in Scripture were reframed as a time of wonder, it would be an entirely different experience! I see the difference between wandering and wondering like this:

"Wandering is a coping mechanism of avoidance that tries to minimize what is uncomfortable.

"Wondering is an active pursuit of questions and a willingness to risk the tension in the unknown.

"Wandering is a way to steer clear of the stress that comes from a deep concern about the direction that might be best for you and others around you.

"Wondering is a heightened curiosity about God, yourself, others, and the world that, while often uncomfortable, is full of passion and intrigue.

"Wandering is motivated by fear, confusion, apathy, and an endless search for novelty.

"Wondering is motivated by passionate uncertainty about the mystery of God and the excitement that comes with discovery.

"Throughout the story, God was inviting a different approach. And God still offers that invitation to us — to take on a posture of wonder.

"Wonder that fuels our passion and leads to discovery. Wonder that pushes us to even deeper questions and away from pat answers. God is calling us not to satisfying contentment but to deeper meaning-making experiences — the kind of experiences that bring a community or a family closer together rather than further apart. The kind of journey that invites the courage to risk and squelches apathy.

"With questions propelling us along the way, we wonder through the woods rather than wander."

...I wonder while I wander...Will you come and wander with with me while I wonder my way through this little "blogspot"...

Like most folk I have felt like I’ve been wandering around in circles in the wilderness these last 12 months. Almost as if I haven’t been fully living in reality, as alive as I would want to be, my senses have been a little dulled. I have felt, to some degree, a little physically separate. So. I haven’t felt like I was wandering like the ancient Israelites did together, in community for forty years, with Good old Moses. That said I have not felt like I was in isolation either like Jesus enduring forty days of temptation. I have been connected and of course not completely alone but at the same time wandering around aimlessly, getting by, surviving, somehow not fully alive.

I went for a walk with this in my mind the other morning. I passed a speed limit sign that read max speed 40mph, this brought 40 into my mind. I asked myself why does the Bible always refer to the number 40? Well, the number 40 symbolises a period of test. It is referenced a total of 146 times in the Bible, in both the Jewish and Christian scripture. The last twelve months have been a test for so many of us and it is not over yet. This week brought good news of course. Death rates are falling as the vaccine continues to be rolled out and a road map out of the restrictions we have been living through is being drawn. It seems that we are tentatively heading towards life as we would like to live it. This will rightly be a slow process, not an overnight matter, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The schools will be open again soon. We will begin to be able to socialise in small numbers outdoor, the gyms, hairdressers and eateries will begin to open. Who knows in a few months time we may all be able to sing together, although that is not going to happen this side of summer, I suspect. We are starting to slowly come out of the wilderness. Let us continue to tread carefully as we do so.

I’ve been thinking about the wild and the wilderness as I have found myself walking about again this Lent. I am taking a long daily walk, connecting in silence to life all around me. It is doing me a whole load of good. Of course it is helping me physically, as the gyms won’t be open for six or seven weeks. It is also helping me connect both inwardly and outwardly too. Walking alone is something I have done at different times in my life. As a child I would go off alone and almost live in a kind of bubble, I felt safe, but cut off in this state, it was so vital then. This was my childhood safe place. It disconnected me from a painful and frightening reality. As an adult it is a different feeling. These days it is about connecting ever more to reality. By doing so I connect to God both within myself and alive in reality. When I am out walking alone, I am not doing so as someone who feels lost and is looking to be found. Rather this is a time to wander and to wonder and thus feel connected.

Sometimes we can find ourselves utterly lost, even when in familiar surroundings. We can of course feel lost because our lives have had to be restricted and we do not know what to do with ourselves. Or that we have lost someone or something precious and we are drowning in grief.  There are other times when we can feel utterly lost within ourselves. This happens when we separate ourselves from what we know to be true, from that love at the heart of ourselves and the heart of life. When we have blinded ourselves to the light both within and without. I remember the feeling oh so well, when I walled myself in and I began to feel alone and utterly lost.

So, what do we do when we feel lost? Well sometimes we keep on wandering, round and round hoping to find the promised land, alive and awake attempting to learn from the experience, like the ancient Israelites did. Other times, the thing to do is to pause to stop wandering and begin to wonder instead. To loosen up, to lighten up, to be patient and to trust, to take a breath, to enter calm and quiet, to be open once again to let love reach in as well as pour out. As we do, we don’t feel as lost in the wild and instead of wandering aimlessly we begin to wonder with purpose.

This brings to mind a wonderful poem titled “The Way” by Edwin Muir

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.

Is there another way?
The way is one.

I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.

Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.

Then I’ll make here my place –
The road runs on –

Stay here, forever stay.
None stays here, none.

I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.

Oh, places I have passed!
That journey’s done.

And what will come at last?
The way leads on.

Now of course sometimes when you feel lost you aren’t as lost as you think. What you are is actually in a place you would rather not be, or in a situation you would rather not be living through. I am sure we have all felt this at times these last 12 months, I know I have. This brings to mind a wonderful piece of wisdom form my old favourite Mulla Nasruddin

Nasruddin was sat on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side:

“Hey! how do I get to the other side?”

To which Nasruddin replied “You are on the other side!”

We are all on the other side of the river bank.

By the way I saw a delightful sight on the other side of the canal the other day. I saw a family walking with two dogs. One was a little Shih Tzu who was the spitting image of our little Charlie, walking side by side was a giant Saint Bernard. It was a wonderful and hilarious sight. I have been chuckling about it ever since. I would have missed it if I’d been lost in myself and not walking in the wilds of life. My mind has wondered about many scenarios about that little combination these last few days.

I digress.

Whether any of us like it or not, we all find ourselves on the wrong river bank at times, not knowing how to get to the side we would like to. We all find ourselves in an uncertain place, lost and without guidance. We all feel lost at times. Sometimes we need to just let our minds wander and begin to wonder. Sometimes those old tales help here. These stories have a way of revealing reality through their beautiful mystery.

In his meditation “The Spiritual Journey” David O Rankin names a few who have walked courageously through theirs. Stating:

“It is Moses leading the Jews through the desert of Sinai, and Jesus enduring the temptation in the wilderness of Israel, and Buddha seeking enlightenment along the dusty roads of India.

It is the glorious voyage of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrow paths through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, and the confessions of the travellers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It is the pilgrims sailing on the Mayflower, the settlers moving westward, being On the Road with Jack Kerouac, and spinning through a black hole in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey”

We are all of us pilgrims on the sacred journey that is life and like so many of the more famous ones we think we have to go someplace else to discover our own Nirvana or to build the New Jerusalem. Just as the pilgrims on the Mayflower did in the seventeenth century. They believed that they had to travel a great distance to a new land to create their heaven on earth. Well, I have discovered that this is not necessary. You do not have to travel great distances to experience the beautiful journey and you do not need to travel great distances to build the New Jerusalem, it must be here, in our own hearts or nowhere. The “Kin-dom” of Love has to be built here or nowhere.

I suspect it’s the same about finding ourselves once again when we feel lost. Who or what do we listen to? Well, I am learning to listen to that inner voice, that light that shines bright within all of us. That spark of the Divine that is within everything. That which awakens the sense of my senses, that which guides me home no matter how lost I am and that which allows me to be at home wherever my feet are planted. That Kin-dom of Love, within me, within each of you and within everything.

Let love be our navigator it will always lead us home, to the place where we belong. Do not worry too much about feeling lost, we all feel that way at times.

The problem isn’t getting lost, we all get lost at times. The problem is in losing faith that you can be found once again. The key is how we live when we find ourselves lost. Do we close down and get lost deeper in our fear, or do we pause and reach out and ask for help from those loving forces that are all around whether visible or invisible. Sometimes all we need to do is stand still and listen, to what is both within us and without us, all around us. Sometimes you just need to sing with the blackbirds, they will always sing back to you and ever more sweetly. Sometimes you just need to follow the directions in this final poem “Lost” by David Wagoner. Just  “Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”

"Lost" by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.