Monday 25 April 2022

A Labour of Love: Dedication it's What You Need

I love ministering to the communities I serve. It is a labour of love. What I love the most is that they don’t expect perfection from either myself or one another. As I so often say we are the church, we are the chapel, we are the community where everything goes wrong. Now despite this and maybe because of this we are a place of dedication, of welcome, of acceptance and most of all love. I think sometimes people are a little surprised by the informality. I hope that thy sense the care and concern, I believe that they do. I hope that they feel the warmth and the friendliness. I will always remember something that Margaret Darbyshire, a member from Urmston who died during the pandemic, said to me when she had been coming for a couple of years, “this is a church like no other I have ever been to, but I like it, it is how a church should be.” She came to us almost by mistake by accident, she is not the first and hope she won’t be the last to so. She stayed because as she said it was what she had been looking for all of her life.

Nothing works perfectly, something always seems to go wrong, I don’t think we have ever had a Sunday where everything has gone smoothly, or there has not been a seeming disaster at some point in the week. We are perfectly imperfect communities. The things we get wrong, our mistakes aren’t the most important parts of us. What matters more is what is at the heart of us; what matters the most is kindness and compassion. This is what I have witnessed and continue to witness more and more over the years. I have felt it oh so powerfully these last few weeks, it has touched me in those places that really count.

There is such love and deep dedication in these two communities. People show their love by blessing them with their presence. It is made holy by becoming sanctified by loving dedication. What I see is love in action, love alive in common humanity, love in tangible form. Here’s a little verse on that by Susan Karlson

“Love In Tangible Form” by Susan Karlson

Looking at the overflowing cup,
Seeing from another perspective,
Witnessing life in all its fullness,
We share from a place of hope and dedication
And put our love into tangible form.

Following this Sunday’s service, in Altrincham, we will be acknowledging the dedicated service of Martin West to the congregation, by unveiling a plaque in his honour at the organ. I will not embarrass Martin, he is a humble man, by listing all that he has done for the congregation and the wider Unitarian movement, it would take a long time to do so. Most of what he has done has been behind the scenes as he has for other causes too. He has done so much for others, often anonymously.

There is a similar plaque at Urmston in honour of Robert Haslem. He served the congregation in so many ways. The plaque reads “A labour of love”. This seems appropriate, as such dedication is most certainly done from love.

“Labour of Love” is an interesting phrase. I think I first became aware of it in the late 1980’s. It was a song by the Scottish group “Hue and Cry”. The phrase comes from translations of the King James version of the Bible, that was no doubt influenced by Shakespeare’s “Loves Labour Lost”, although he never actually used the phrase. It is to be found though in two verses in Thessalonians and Hebrews. It is the verse in Hebrews 6:10, that speaks to me: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.”

Ministry for me is a labour of love. That said I am not the only person who ministers, we minister as a community of people. To minister literally means to serve, something I often want to remind those of a political persuasion about at times, particularly the Prime Minister, who ought to see himself as the number servant of the people, I suspect he does not. Do any of them?

I see examples of these labours of love all around, people serving from love, people ministering in their own ways, adding what they can to make the flavour and substance of the community, the ministrone of this ministry. Ministrone and minister both mean to serve.

I have seen wonderful examples of this in Urmston in recent weeks as folk have gone out of their way to ensure that we get the work done on the ceiling, so that we can function and survive and hopefully one day thrive again. We need to be here to offer a free religious community, to those who seek. I have witnessed that same dedication in Altrincham too. I have witnessed so much love and dedication here, during lockdown and as we have opened up again. We saw it last summer as Gwyneth ensured that we got the wind telephone installed to help with those in grief. Or in the Andrea’s insistence on getting those benches installed so we could meet outside, we will dedicate them to her memory and we will honour her after the service as we scatter half of her ashes in the Garden of Remembrance and place her name on the wall. The family will take the rest back to Aberdeen with them. She was such a blessing to us all, to this community.

People give their heart in love in many ways. There are so many labours of love. People dedicate themselves in so many ways and bless life in so many ways. I have witnessed this for years in the small schoolroom at Altrincham, which has been a home for Alcoholics Anonymous for nearly 50 years. Thanks in no small part to Andrea’s efforts it now houses 8 meetings a week. The dedicated service, the ministry in its many forms that goes on there has led to the transformation of so many lives. That little building, that humble building, truly is a temple of love, of dedication and of transformation, it truly is holy ground, although there is no need to shake off your shoes, when you step over the threshold.

Dedication is how we show our love through blessing the lives we touch and the places we visit with our loving presence. Places are made holy when we sanctify them with loving dedication.

“Dedication” is one of those words that has changed in meaning over time. It comes from an old French word “dedicacion which meant “concecration of a church or chapel”, coming from the Latin word “dedicare” meaning to concecrate, proclaim, affirm or set aside. It later came to mean to give yourself to a purpose. This is what the folk do in the communities I serve, I witness such dedication. We carry that love into our world, that is the purpose of my blessing each and every Sunday at the end of worship. For if we live in dedication to love and life we begin to bless all life, we make the ground at our feet holy ground as we consecrate it with our loving presence.

To me this is the true meaning of church, a place of transformation, a place where we recognise the sacred uniqueness of ourselves and one another, that we recognise the blessings that we are and the blessings in life and where we learn to go out into the world and bless it with our sacred uniqueness. The world awaits our blessing, for it surely needs it.

If we live in dedication to love and life we begin to bless all life, we make the ground at our feet holy ground as we consecrate it with our loving presence. Like Moses in Exodus who is told to “shake of his shoes” for he is standing on holy ground, in the presence of “I am”.

We can all hear the call of the Holy from deep within us and from all around us, we can all bless life with our holy presence. All we have to do is live with dedication, to consecrate the ground at our feet and the people who we meet, all we have to do is live with dedication and become the blessing that we have all been searching for. In so doing we will find ourselves instantly in the “Promised Land”

To live in dedication all we have to do is shake off our shoes and live our lives recognising that this truly is a holy place. Sacred living, holiness, dedication is about being fully alive. Holiness is a life fully alive, a life where we truly pay attention.

All we have to do to awaken the holy is to truly pay attention to the world and the people around us and truly inhabit the space in which we live and breathe and share our being. All we have to do is come to believe that we all walk on holy ground. All we have to do is wholly live our lives. All we have to do is live our lives in dedication to the holiest of holy purposes, to live in love. To love one another and to serve life in whatever way we can.

All we need is dedication…

Dedication, dedication, dedication, that’s what you need. If you want to be the best and if you want to beat to the rest, dedication is what you need.

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

Monday 11 April 2022

Awakening to the Courage at the Heart of Being

Last Monday I took a day off, it was much needed after the last few weeks, particularly last week. I went home to visit family in Yorkshire. My brother was up for a few days with his eldest child. They are going through a difficult time, a real challenge. He is facing it with commitment and courage, living with true love and dedication. I admire my older brother greatly. He has always been a man of commitment, of love and courage and he is showing it at this difficult time. He describes it has his “cross to bare” and he is certainly prepared to go to any lengths to come through it. It is curious that my brother would use such a praise. Has he says he is an atheist, although one who sees so much power in these religious tales and phrases, he gets the mythos, he understands the deeper meaning beneath it all.

A few weeks ago Rob, a new attender at Altrincham and myself went to see our musical heroes New Model Army, it was a great night and so needed at the time. During the gig they played a really old song, which they dedicated to the people of Ukraine. The song was “Courage” the chorus goes like this 

“And I salute your courage and I toast to your health
And I wish you all the luck in the whole wide world
May you never be broken like they say you will be”

Despite the hell that they are living through, they certainly do not look broken. They are showing consistent courage, inspired by deep love against a much more powerful force, certainly in numbers and might. We have seen similar examples of this throughout human history. A classic example being that of the people of London during the Second World War, what was called “The Spirit of the Blitz”. It was thought that people would crumble under the constant bombardment and descend into terror, the leaders at the time were convinced by a theory of Gustav Le Bon, this was not the case. In fact the opposite happened, people came together in love. This same spirit arose in Germany just four years later under similar bombardment, which meant that the German people hung on even longer, rather than surrender. Just twenty five years later they same ferocity of bombing occurred in Vietnam, in fact 3 times the amount of firepower was dropped on the Vietnamese than was dropped in the entirety of the Second World War and in the end the Americans could not break the spirit of the people, in the end they gave up, they lost. This has been repeated many times over, again we see it in the Ukraine. The spirit is harder to break than we think, we underestimate the power of courage, the power of love; the power of love that enables we humans to rise above what we think we are capable of. Courage is about heart, it is about love. For the Ukrainians it is love for their home, their country. For my brother it is love for his child. For others it is love for many things. Courage is all about love. From the Latin “cor” from which the Frech “Coeur” or Italian “cuore”, both meaning “heart” are derived. Courage is an act of the heart. When a person acts courageously, they are living from that deepest core of their being, a place seemingly unknown until it is called upon. In such times it seems the most natural thing we can do, it is not forced, it just comes from that place deep within us, at the core of everything.

Courage should never be confused with fearlessness. Those who have true courage are intimate with fear, they are just not ruled or fetted by it. To quote Nelson Mandela 'I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.' Courage is about faith, even if you are not sure what you have faith and it is about love. Without love there can be no courage. Ok folk can put on an act for a while, but it cannot be maintained. True courage grows from a place deep within each of us, I would say all life. It grows from whatever we hold most dear in our lives. It comes from recognising how sacred, how precious, life truly is; it comes in seeing that love is the true cor, the courage of life. For without love we find we have nothing really to live for.

Now fear is common to most folk in one form or another and we respond to it in a variety of ways, the two most common being fight or flight. To turn away in fear is no less damaging than to turn towards it in anger and hate. How we respond to one another and to life really matters, as I so often say everything matters, every thought, every feeling every word and every deed. How we are with each other matters a lot. No, we can’t change the whole world, but we can affect one another and inspire one another in ways of loving courage. Spending time with my brother on Monday I saw a man living with courage, living from deep love, committed to whatever challenge he has to face.

We are living in fearful and distrustful times. It matters how we respond to this fear and distrust. Do we turn away, do we respond in anger and make things worse. Or we do live faithfully and lovingly and thus overcome the fear with courage, an act born of love.

Fear is an ever growing presence in our times. It troubles me greatly and we all respond to it in different ways. Fight and flight operate in a variety of ways. I suspect that fear will always be a part of our human make up. We are meant to experience certain forms of it for it points out danger. The solution to fear is not to get rid of it, the key is to find the courage to over come it. This requires just a little faith and a little love to find the courage to just be, to live the life that is in front of us. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Which of course it is, but it is far from easy. If we believe in love and believe in life and if we live through love and remain open to life, despite its difficulties and fear present we find the courage to truly be, to overcome the power of unnatural fear. Love will always overcome fear; love will always enable us to find the courage to truly be all that we can be.

We see a powerful example of this in the life of Jesus, of finding the courage to face what is in front of you, particularly the Holy week narrative whose beginning is marked today on Palm Sunday. A week that ends with Easter Sunday a day of re-birth, resurrection and new beginnings. But before this we see love, betrayal, pain, humiliation, fear, courage and faith. I remember trying to imagine this experience as I walked around the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem and as I entered myself through several of the city gates; as I watched the pilgrims visiting the holy sites as the local people just got on with their ordinary lives a few years ago.

The Gospel accounts say that as he entered Jerusalem Jesus did so with the knowledge of what he was going to have to endure. He knew and accepted that his journey was going to be hard in which he would endure a great deal of suffering, but he accepted what was ahead of him; he accepted the reality of the situation. He did so but not without fear and doubt, both were present during this final week of Jesus’ life. In Gethsemane, just before he was betrayed he went off to pray alone, as he often did to commune with God (Mark 14.36). He threw himself to the ground, wept bitterly and prayed a simple prayer “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” He was in turmoil and genuine fear, for he knew he must face what was ahead of him alone, but eventually he surrendered to what he must do. He found the courage in silence, in prayer.

Five days after the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday Jesus was crucified. He accepted that this was part of his journey, but not without fear and doubt. How could there not be fear and doubt? He had to face this agonising death alone, he had been rejected by everyone, even his closet companions. Moments before the end he did not cry out the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm “I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil for thou are with me.” No, instead he quoted the much starker 22nd Psalm “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me? He did not quote the comforting words “My cup runneth over”, instead he cried out “I thirst”.

This though was not the end the real power flew from those final words, born of love, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In those words lay the courage to be who he truly was; in those words he expressed his faith; in those words he expressed the power of love; the love of God and the love of neighbour as for self. In this moment he surrendered himself to his purpose and to his God as he uttered those immortal words “Father, I commend my life unto thy spirit.”

Here we see faith and love and Hope, here is real courage.

How can we who live today possibly relate to this story from 2,000 years ago, well it seems my brother does. My brother the convinced atheist gets real power from this. He sees the love the courage, to carry his own cross, to face what is his to face. Haven’t we all experienced paralysing fear from time to time and haven’t we all experienced that sense of utter abandonment as we have had to face our struggles alone, which in the end we all have to do from time to time. Yes of course we all have love and we have support, but sometimes we have to face the pain and struggle alone. No one else can give us the courage to be who we truly are, this only comes in facing up to life’s vicissitudes. If we seek the courage, it will always come, if we do so sincerely.

We will always know the emotion of fear, we will always feel it. We need it, it is a natural instinct. That said we need not be enslaved by it. We need not live in fear. To be free all we need do is live with integrity, live in love and the courage to be will begin to be given birth once again within us and it will shine out of us. In doing so not only do we liberate ourselves, but we also become a light to others who in turn may be inspired to liberate themselves and others too.

My brother was that light to me this week, cheers our kid.

 “And I salute your courage and I toast to your health
And I wish you all the luck in the whole wide world
May you never be broken like they say you will be”

Easter is nearly here. Easter a day of re-birth, resurrection and new beginnings. So, let’s give birth to the love that is within us and bring a little light to the dark places of our world. It sure needs it. Our world needs us to live by faith and hope and love. It needs us to find the courage to become all that we were born to be. By so doing we automatically encourages others to do the same. Remember you are the light of the world and this world needs you to let your little light shine.

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


Tuesday 5 April 2022

Exquisite Pain; Exquisite Risk; Exquisite Love

Mark Nepo wrote “In truth, the work of love is tending to small things completely. Such tending opens the mystery. By the large-heartedness of our smallest attention, we enter the ocean of love that carries us all.”

Or to quote the song “it aint what you do it’s the way that you do it and that’s what gets results.”

I am continuing my daily practice of sharing each morning, the little things I noticed the day before. I have done so every day ever since my friend left those gifts of milky bar chocolates on my doorstep in early December. It is wonderful to see how folk are responding, moving me deeply. Just a little thing that is having a positive impact on the lives of others. Concentric circles of love spreading out into the world; a world that at times appears devoid of it, depending on how you view it, the angle of your vision.

I was visited by an angel again this week. A beautiful gift of an orchid with a lovely card left on my doorstep. The wingless angel was offering me loving and encouraging words of support in the card and the beautiful gift of a plant. I cannot begin to tell you how much they have meant.

It has been a very difficult few weeks, since we lost dear Andrea. Last Friday we shared her funeral. I was deeply moved by how many came together in love as we honoured her life and grieved her lost. It was an honest service as shared her whole person and one filled with love and appreciation for loss of someone who meant so much to so many and whose life touched so many others.

I have felt weighed down by the grief I have had to hold, for so many, these last few weeks, if I am honest. I have felt vulnerable, my heart has felt broken open. Thank God for loving support from so many people. I cannot tell you how much the little gestures of kindness and love have meant to me. They have touched me oh so deeply. Such exquisite love.

It has felt like I have had a layer of skin removed at times these last few days and yet I have been functioning as normal. It is my responsibility to do so, for so many people. No doubt my own grief will only really begin properly after Andrea’s funeral.

I could not sleep on Monday night, I had just written Andrea’s service that day, or at least the first draft. It was very much in my body. I woke at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. At 4am I decided that instead of lying there I would go for a walk. It was beautiful walking in the dark, with bird song in my ears. I still felt quite vulnerable, like I had a layer of skin removed. As I walked I re-felt a visit to Chatsworth House many years ago. It is an incredible place, full of the fineries of life. I remembered what affected me the most about the visit though wasn’t the exquisite fineries, but something more disturbing. Right there in the heart of the house I came across the chapel area. I remember entering it and noticing towards the back of the chapel, and just in front of the alter, stood a dark looking figure, a statue. In one hand it seemed to be holding what looked like some kind of blanket or cloth and in the other some scissors. The figure intrigued me, so I looked a little more closely and searched for some information about it. I soon found it.

The sculpture is called “Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain” it is a bronze figure standing two and half metres tall and is the creation of the controversial Turner Prize winning artist Damian Hirst. He says that the inspiration for the piece “comes from memories I have of woodcuts and etchings I remember seeing when I was younger. As Saint Batholomew was a martyr who was skinned alive, he was often used by artists and doctors to show the anatomy of the human body and this is also what I’ve done. He holds his own skin over his arm and he holds a scalpel and a pair of scissors in his hands so that his exposure and pain are seemingly self-inflicted. It’s beautiful yet tragic and like Saint Sebastian his face shows no pain. I added the scissors because I thought Edward Scissorhands was in a similar tragic yet difficult position – it has a feel of the rape of the innocents about it.”

Not a pleasant image to carry with you I know, but it was there, it was how I was feeling at that moment and this is why I remembered it.

As a kid I was always considered overly sensitive, that I needed toughening up, to develop another layer of skin. For a long time I attempted to do so and of course it only made things worse as I attempted to be something I am not, to harden my heart. The truth is that all I needed to do was to learn not take things so personally and to allow my sensitivity to become perhaps an asset. These days I attempt to defend my heart less. Today my sensitivity may well be my greatest asset, my treasure, it is certainly where my heart is, although not without a cost at times.

The ministry group I belong to have a little covenant saying that we like to say to one another when we meet.

“I honour your gods
I drink at your well
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place
I have no cherished outcome
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment”

Oddly these words come from traditional Celtic wedding vows. Hardly romantic, but perhaps they symbolise something deeper.

It is the line “I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place” that resonates with me the most. It is the key I believe to living the spiritual life, to live with an undefended an open heart. This can be extremely painful and difficult at times, but I have learnt how vital it is for me. When I close down or put on my suit of armour life soon loses its flavour. I suppose that this is why I’ve always struggled with the sentiment of Ephesians Ch6 vv 10-18, the passage commonly known as “God’s Armour”. I remember visiting an Anglo Catholic church once where I saw an image based around this passage. I remember thinking to myself “gosh that’s the last thing I would want.”

For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict and the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own traditional Christian friends. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.

It seems to me that to truly live spiritually alive is to live “with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. It is the treasure though and wherever my treasure is I have come to believe that this is also where my heart is.

Just imagine what it might be like to live with an unarmoured or an undefended heart. We all have defence mechanism, things we do to protect ourselves from being hurt. I am sure we are all familiar with the fright and flight mechanism. There is another reaction that perhaps we are less familiar with, it is certainly one that is less talked about. I have come to call this the freeze mechanism. It is something I am very familiar with, for I have utilised it throughout my life. Basically, when trouble strikes a frozen person appears to continue to function normally on the outside, but inside, emotionally at least, they shut down, they internally hibernate. It is something I have come to learn about myself in recent years and I see it others quite clearly at times, perhaps too clearly. When it happens to me my neck and shoulders become stiff, my throat dries up, the base of my skull seems to warm up, my skin tightens around my face, I tend to blow out a lot and it feels like someone has just dropped a great rock into the pit of my stomach. These are the moments when I build up my walls and try to keep life out. I was doing this at five years old, no child should be like that.

How many of us spend lifetime’s building these walls that we think protect us? When in fact all we succeed in doing is block ourselves off from the love present in life, a treasure of infinite value. A love that is truly exquisite.

To live with an open heart is to live intimately with all that is life. It is to experience life through our felt experience to not be ruled by what our minds project from our past, those disappointments and fears that have been built over a life time. To live with an unarmoured heart is about connecting with all that is there. Zen Buddhism talks about intimacy with 10,000 things, meaning intimacy with all things, all phenomena, that nothing is left out.

I have discovered that I am living openheartedly when I am not at war with life, when I am not arguing with reality and not avoiding intimacy, especially with my own thoughts and feelings. I can find myself arguing with reality at times, I suppose some would call this living in denial, but thankfully by living faithfully I once again see the truth and let loose the prison of my own skin and move onto a newer and fresher reality; as my heart opens up and I experience a new reality. I do not remain armoured or frozen for very long. Faith sets me free once again. I shed another layer of skin.

It takes courage to truly engage in what Mark Nepo has called “The Exquisite Risk”, to live the authentic life, to join in the courageous conversation. I invite you to come and join with me on this journey under the skin, to lose the skin that you’re imprisoned in. Let us take together the exquisite risk, let us live by exquisite love.

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