Monday 30 May 2022

It’s How You See Things: Perception and Perspective

They say that perception is everything. It matters how we look at things, how we see the world, it creates our perspective. It also matters how the world sees us. I care a lot about what people think of me, I care a lot.

There was an amusing moment at the last "Singing Meditation". An attender mentioned that when a friend of theirs met me they were surprised by my attire as they thought I would be in robes and sandals. They obviously had an image of a holy man; I am just a man no more or less holy than anyone else. They had formed this view from reading the services I publish and distribute; her friend passes them on to her. Another woman who was attending for the first time said that she thought I would be in robes and a dog collar. She said that this is the image of me in my Watts App profile picture. This puzzled me and so I found my profile picture and showed it to her. I then said I had never worn a collar and or robes since being in the job. Somehow in her mind this is what she had seen in the picture. I find this fascinating. I did say that the picture is taken in a holy place, it is underground beneath "The Western Wall" in Jerusalem. I am dressed casually though in jeans, t-shirt and a hooded top. Isn’t it interesting what we see or believe we see, our perception and how it often does not resemble reality; isn’t it fascinating how what we see is often what we expect to see and not reality at all? The conversation at the recent “Singing Meditation” being a classic example of this.

Here is the profile picture in question.


At a recent ministry retreat I attended, ministerial attire was discussed on several occasions. One of our number had written her dissertation on the subject. It is interesting what different colleagues choose to wear, some formal and traditional and others more casual and informal. I prefer to be as informal as possible. I want people to find me approachable, so I wear nothing that would be considered traditional ministerial attire. For people to perceive me as approachable, is very important to me. I cannot imagine ever wearing a clerical collar or robes. Most Unitarian colleagues these days wear a “stole”. Again, I do not. In fact I may be the only colleague I know who never has. Again, I feel that they give a priestly impression and would somehow separate me from those I serve. I am a minister of religion. To minister is to serve, but it in no ways separates me from others.

Having said all that people do still form opinions of you, whether they have met in person or not. Perception truly is everything. It matters how we see the world and it matters equally how the world sees you. I hope that I am the kind of person that people feel is approachable and who encourages others to journey on spiritually together. For me this is what it means to serve as a minister in a free religious tradition.

I would be interested to hear your views on such things. I know some folk think a suit and tie is appropriate and for some time I dressed this way. I never felt comfortable like this though, as I felt like a used car salesman. No doubt the conversation will continue. I suspect I will never find anything that feels just right. What matters the most though is that whatever I wear is not a barrier to anyone. To minister means to serve. I serve this community in many different ways, it is important to me to understand this. I hope that I am perceived this way.

“Perceive” is an interesting word. It shares the same Latin root as the word “receive”. The both come from “percipere” which meant “to understand”, from “per” meaning “entirely” and “capere” meaning “to take”. So to “perceive” something means to take things in entirely, completely, in a way that covers us with understanding. So yes it is interesting how we perceive things, how we take things in. I wonder already how you are perceiving this devotion.

It matters how we perceive how we take in life. Do we do so directly? Do we experience things as they are or do they come to us through all kinds of filters? We all have our biases and prejudices about all kinds of people and experiences. Do we ever really see things as they ever actually are. Do we ever look at the world with fresh eyes? With open eyes? I am sure we all have our own examples of not seeing reality as it actually is, just like the woman who was convinced she had seen me dressed in robes and a collar. She had created an image that simply does not exist in reality.

The physicist David Bohm asserted that: “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

Reality can be very different for each of us. It matters how we see the world and how the world sees us. It is the same with what happens to us, our perspective and how we respond to what happens to us and the life in which we live and breath and share our being. This brings to mind my favourite story, I have told before, from the Zen tradition.

“Let’s Wait and See”

The story goes that an old farmer is working hard in the fields. He has a wife and a son, and ekes out a meagre living. One day, his only horse runs away. Upon hearing this, his neighbours comment "Oh, how awful! That is terrible!" to this the farmer replied:

"Maybe, maybe not."

A few days later, the farmer's horse returns and with it is another, exotic horse from far away. The horse is a mare, and is of rare value. The neighbours, upon hearing this, exclaim "How wonderful! It's fantastic that your horse returned and brought another horse with it!". The farmer shrugged and said:

"Maybe, maybe not."

The farmer's horses gave him many young, prized colts making the farmer very wealthy in the town. The neighbours were very happy for the farmer saying; "This is so fantastic! Your new horses have brought you much fortune!" The farmer responded:

"Maybe, maybe not."

The farmer's son, now a young man, tried to tame one of the young colts and was thrown from the horse, breaking his hip. This left the son unable to walk. The neighbours came to help and tried to console the farmer saying; "Oh, how awful! Your only son will never walk again!". The farmer, who was not upset, simply said:

"Maybe, maybe not."

Later that year, the farmer's country went to war, and the army came by to conscript every able bodied man for duty. The farmer was too old to be taken, and his son could not walk, therefore he was excused. The army simply took the farmer's horses, leaving him just his original horse to allow him to keep farming.

Was the farmer's life good? Maybe. Was the farmer's life bad? Maybe not.

Good luck and bad luck are two sides of the same really depends on the perspective that we choose to view in any given situation.

How we perceive ourselves and how we perceive life matters, it shapes our perspective, how we view the world. Perspective shapes the contours of our lives. Our lives are not shaped only by our circumstances but how we respond to them. Do they close down our hearts, minds and souls or do they open us to new possibilities? |If you are anything like me, it will be mixed. We all go through dark times, when how we see life is not so beautiful and we all go through times when how we perceive life is both beautiful and refreshing. Our perception of life really matters. For as Jesus said in Luke 11 “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.”

Perception is vital. It matters how we see the world and how the world sees us. It matters what we believe about ourselves and life. I believe that we are created in the Divine image, that there is that of God in each and everyone of us. I believe in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It is important that is what people perceive when they see me as a Unitarian minister. I believe in original blessing and that it is our task to bring this blessing alive through our human being. Our vulnerable and sometimes broken human being. That we all have feet of clay, that we are perfectly imperfect, that it is ok to stumble and struggle at times. I trust this is obvious to you. We all have feet of clay, we are all more human than otherwise. That said this does not mean that we are wrong that we are fundamentally flawed, that there is something wrong at the core of us.

Perspective is so very important. It matters how we see things and how we are seen. It is important to see things as they are and to be seen as we are. It matters what we perceive and how we are perceived. Perception shapes how the world looks at us and equally perspective shapes how we look at the word. How we look at others is so important. We can look on people with compassion, or we can give them a “hard look”. Think about it when someone gives us a “hard look”, what do we do? Well often we turn away in fear, or respond in anger or aggression. What if someone looks at us with compassion, how do we respond to this? Well usually we look back with compassion. Well we do unless we have fallen so far down into that pit of nihilistic despair that we respond to love with utter hatred. I’m sure most folk have been there at some point. I know that I have. So it matters how we view our own humanity and how we view the humanity of each other.

How we act towards others really matters too. But it’s not just about doing what is right; it’s also about the spirit in which each task is conducted. We can appear to be encouraging and loving and doing the right thing, but our eyes may well say otherwise. Think about a smile. We think we smile with our mouths, but we do not, we smile with our eyes. When I smile my eyes almost slant shut. Whatever we do and however we do something our eyes will reveal the truth of our hearts and people will intuitively pick up on this. They will see it into our eyes.

How we see the world matters and how respond perhaps even more so. Life truly is in the “eye of the beholder”, it is about perception. How we see one another is vital, it is all about perspective. Try not to look so hard today and you never known those eyes looking back at you might just be stretched by a smile.

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

Sunday 22 May 2022

The impermanence if truth: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

I recently visited my sister Liz. She owns the tenancy of a bar and microbrewery in Wakefield. She has worked in the “ale trade” for many years and is quite an expert on all aspects of it. It was wonderful to watch her in operation, talking with a variety of customers, real ale types, about all kinds of different beers etc. It was fun to watch her both pacify occasional “mansplaining” and from time to time correcting the misinformed. They obviously respect her as they took her word for things, there was not too much defensiveness of positions. This is not always the case of course and I know that she does have a run in from time to time with individuals with strong views and opinions, who do not like to have their positions questioned, let alone corrected.

This of course happens in all areas of life, particularly about things we are passionate about, those that mean something to us. We all have strong held views, we all have our truth, and no one likes to have such truths questioned. To have such views, truths and opinions questioned can at times feel like a personal affront. Now of course this is ok so long as we can agree to disagree in love. Sadly, in our current climate this seems to be harder and harder for people. We live in such divisive times.

It is important for a person to own their truth, to speak their truth, but not to be closed off to others and the truth of others by such strong held beliefs. It is equally important not to dismiss others just because they come to different conclusions to us. This seems as important in the pubs of this land, with the CAMRA guys and the craft beer types, as it in the political and other arenas. Yes it is important to know our truths, but not to become slaves to them. Humility is always key in life, for it is this that will keeps us open to new truth, to grow in both understanding and effectiveness in life. We need to be able to change our lives.

As Katherine Hepburn uttered in “The Philadelphia Story”.

“The time to make up your mind about other people is never!”

Life is fluid and so are people, nothing ever really stays exactly the same. I suspect that it is the same with truth. My truth today is not exactly as it was a few years ago. How about yours? Do you see things today exactly as you always have, or have some things changed? Perhaps the only constant about personal truth, is its impermanence.

This brings to mind the Buddhist concept of “Dukkha”. "Dukkha is one of those words that is hard to explain in English. It is often translated as suffering that "all life is suffering". This is not an entirely accurate translation, in the sense that suffering is understood in the west. What I believe it is trying to teach is that suffering is a part of life that nothing ever lasts for ever. That nothing stays exactly as it in its current state. Impermanence is central to the Buddhist path; the path to enlightenment is to accept that nothing ever lasts forever. This speaks powerfully to me, especially when I think about truth. I have certainly noticed, over the years, the impermanence of truth.

So many problems in life seemingly come from our struggle against impermanence. How often do we try to grab for the seeming safety of absolutes, for certainty, instead of opening to the freedom that comes with accepting that nothing is permanent, including how we see life and one another.

Accepting impermanence helps in the search for truth; it helps us to see the freedom that comes with changing our point of view about things. If you think about it if nothing ever stays the same, then surely our point of view ought to be ever changing too. Life is always teaching us something new if we would but stay open up to it.

That’s why “The time to make up your mind about other people is never!” People change, nothing and no one stays exactly the same for ever. Nothing is permanent, the leopard is capable of changing his spots. Or at least from time to time, those spots appear to be get re-arranged. It is the same with truth, that of our own or others. We must never become slaves to what we perceive to be true.

This brings to mind a favourite little snippet from Anthony DeMello’s “One Minute Wisdom”

"To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

To seek the truth, one needs humility and openness and enough self-esteem to see that we are wrong sometimes and of course the capacity to admit to this. If we cannot, we will not be able to see the truth, even when it is right in front of us. It is so easy to become blinded by what we think we know. We need the openness that comes with true humility, it is a truth that will set us free.

One of the biggest barriers to truth seeking are our biases, sometimes unconscious ones. I was thinking of this as I reflected on my sisters conversation with the real ale types and the craft ale ones too, they both have their separate section along her bar. How both sides were so certain as to what was superior to the other. Apparently rarely do each side ever meet and concede to the other, some do, but not many. The conversation I listened to reminded me of what it must have been like for many in the British folk scene when Dylan went electric at the Manchester “Free Trade Hall”, how they saw this as such a betrayal.

We all of course have our preferences, the things we like and the way we like them. This is a good thing to know ourselves. Sadly, though sometimes we can become slaves to these preferences, and they can quickly become biases. Our biases can blind us, close us off to others and their point of view. They trap us in ignorance, deception and illusion. When we are stuck behind them no amount of reasoning and discussion will break through them. It seems that the only way to do so is to break down the walls of our own biases. Such biases can be so strong that instead of being open to new ideas we seek ideas that confirm whatever we believe. There is actually a name for this “confirmation bias”. It is easy to seek out people and things that will agree with us and confirm our biases rather than be around people who will disagree with us and wrestle with our own truth and or that or others. It is just more comfortable and far less painful. It is no way to grow though. Growth seems to always come through pain and struggle, it is not easy. Who though said that life is meant to be easy and or pain free?

Truth is neither pain free nor is it permanent. It requires humility and openness, there is no place for vanity. This brings me to the Book of Ecclesiates. The first chapter of which begins with the writer stating that all is vanity. We humans demand to know the answers to everything. Even if we could discover the answers to everything, I’m not convinced it would help. Would it make life safe? Would it guarantee immunity from pain and suffering? Of course it would not, they are part of life.

This does not stop us asking the question that we have asked since time began; it does not stop us asking the ultimate question of them all, what is the meaning of life? The author of Ecclesiates tells us that he spent quite some time himself not only asking this very question, but really striving for the answer. He tells us that he first sought pleasure, he spared himself no sensual delights; Yet he found these pleasure hollow and meaningless, it was as if he were “chasing after wind”. He then threw himself into working hard and he succeeded, but discovered he received no greater reward for his labours than those who did little. Hard work alone failed to make him happy, nor did it give him a sense of accomplishment. So, he devoted himself to righteousness, hoping that God would reward him for this, but soon discovered he was no better off than those who had robbed and cheated and stole from their neighbours. So, he sought and won unimaginable power and what happened? Well that brought him little satisfaction too. Finally, he concluded that all of this striving for rewards was meaningless and without substance; he concludes that it was all vanity; that once we see all that we gain, it just vanishes into the air. It’s all vanity, all is vanity.

Vanity all is vanity. This was Narcissus’ s problem he was consumed by his own vanity. He stared into his own reflection and became consumed by his own love for himself and as a result he withered away and died. Maybe this is the problem. In our search for truth, meaning and happiness we become consumed by ourselves and our own reflection. In so doing we become cut off from one another, from life and from God. Maybe the pursuit becomes so addictive and all-consuming that we fail to experience life and therefore fail to experience the love that is already here. Chasing after truth, happiness and meaning is like chasing after the wind. Well, the wind is a wild and untameable beast. She doesn’t need taming; she just needs to be felt and or experienced and delighted in. The gift is life itself and yet we spend so much time failing to truly experience it, because we get lost in the why’s and wherefore’s, in our own reflection, in our own vanity.

Isn’t it the same with truth? With how we see our truth. With the way we defend our truth against the truth claims of others. How can we, when the truth is that over our lives we have changed our minds about our own truth. Maybe our vanity is at its height when it comes to our claims about truth.

According to Forrest Church:

“The word vain carries two complementary connotations: puffed up and empty (or impossible). To elevate ourselves above others is vanity, because from dust we all come and to dust we shall return; and attempting to do what cannot be done or to know what cannot be known is a vain, or impossible, endeavour. In common parlance, vanity is pride. We cannot form saving connections when we permit pride to distance us from others. And when we tether our hopes to a vain object, our lifelines will not hold. On the other hand, compassion unites us with others, and humility concedes our human limitations.”

Vanity, all is vanity...

Sadly though our truth claims and thus our dismissal of the claims of others can separate us, whether that is in the field of music, craft beer and real ale, football, politics and health matters. The truth should set us free, open us up, lead to deeper connections and not barriers, besides which surely for our truths to be true they must be impermanent, subject to change.

After all all is Dukkha, vanity, vanity, all is vanity…

I like the way that Ecclesiastes critiques humanities vanity that said it does appear overly pessimistic at times and for me this does need to be questioned. There is great meaning to be unearthed in life. Maybe this is where our search for truth ought to really lead, to follow Frankl’s truth and search out own meaning in whatever situation we find ourselves in, to discover our own truth and share it with others, not as a barrier to theirs, but as a way to encourage them to seek their own.

The time to permanently make up our minds about anything is never. We must always remain open to one another, to life, to truth. We must never let our truth claims become barriers to others. That is not to say we ought to bow to others, or not question theirs, the key though is to remain open, to not become vain about our claims, to remain open to something new and to always respect the humanity of another.

Remember nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, life is Dukkha…From dust we born and to dust we shall return…

It’s all vanity, its vanity, as we try to have control. It’s vanity, its all vanity, chaos rules it all…

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

Monday 16 May 2022

We believe in human kindness

I remember an old Unitarian once telling me that the essence of her faith was to be found in the hymn “We believe in human kindness”; this was her faith, the one she was born into, grew up with, attempted to live by and hopefully will die with. “We believe in human kindness” she said with smile and twinkle in her eye.

Now for some folk this sounds a little folksy, not really carrying any depth and weight and intellectual rigour. In fact, there are those in the world who no doubt deride such feelings. I have heard folk mocked for their belief in it; I have heard others claim that it is not much of a foundation on which to build a faith. The more cynical and critical may also claim that there is no such thing as human kindness. Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind” was much derided when it was published two years ago. Well, I for one found it inspirational, it certainly helped me get through the first lockdown. By the way Bregman isn’t suggesting that this is all we are, or are capable of being, it is just a critique of the view that we are selfish and brutal by nature.

I have witnessed a great deal of kindness in recent weeks. A lovely example happened just the other day. A friend came round with a load of plants. He asked me a few weeks before if I would like some sunflowers in my garden as he had been cultivating them. I said, “yes that would lovely”. Over the last two years he has developed a love for gardening, something he seemingly inherited from his dad. His dad had died from Covid very early in the pandemic and he had conducted a simple ceremony around the grave side, with close family. I had helped him prepare it at the time. He told me the plants were a thank you. He has thanked me many times before. As he was planting them, he told me that this was the second anniversary of his dad’s death. It was lovely to talk and share in this simple act of kindness; a kindness that had grown from a terrible tragedy in his life.

People have shown me so much kindness in recent weeks. I have expressed a few personal struggles and I cannot begin to tell you how much loving support I have received. Yes, I believe in human kindness too. I think that the problem is that we just don’t give people the opportunity to show it often enough, or maybe that is just me.

Now the cynics say that those who believe in human kindness are being deluded. They say look at the world, it is not filled with kindness at all. Certainly, there is much to be distressed about, there is much that goes against this. We see the horrors of the daily news cycle, but is that how we really live our lives, through our daily interactions, I do not think so. And yet kindness is a word that is often scoffed at. How often are the so called “do-gooders” in the world seen as foolish?

I think that the cynics are wrong, and it does not have to be like this. We do not have to live in the cynic’s nightmare. Just look around you and look carefully, pay attention with an open heart and you will become aware of kindness all around. Our task is I believe is to be both open to it both the giving and receiving of it.

“May we be filled with loving kindness, may we be well.”

Now the cynic’s will say I’m merely a dreamer, but I know I am not the only one; the cynics will say I am fool, again I am not the only one. Come and be fools like us, I invite you.

I have always been touched by the capacity of the human heart to turn suffering into generosity of spirit. My friends growing love for gardening and his desire to share his produce being a beautiful example of this. I have so often seen deeply wounded people transform their suffering into generosity as they themselves have become “wounded healers”, helping fellow sufferers as they have limped along. They have not grown bitter, due to loss and suffering, they have not passed on the pain. No, they have transformed the suffering into acts of love. It is wonderful to bare witness to this alchemy of the human heart. Their suffering has helped them to understand the suffering of others and they have transformed their suffering into compassion.

A wonderful example of suffering transformed in poetic form is the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. As Parker J Palmer has said of it “It’s a gritty, sometimes grim poem about a virtue we too often romanticize. But in a world that can be as heedless and heartless as ours, kindness must grow from deep inner roots if it is to stand strong and be sustained. As the poet says:

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

As I read this poem, I give thanks for all the wounded healers I know. And I ask myself what I might do today to allow suffering — my own and others’ — to open my heart up instead of shutting it down.”

Here is the poem in full

“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Yes there is much suffering, but there is loving kindness too, let us not be blind to it. How we respond to the things that happen to us and those we love really matters. Do we respond with fear, or do we respond with kindness?

I have often heard it said that “Love makes the world go round”, well Forrest Church begged to differ. He claimed that:

“Love doesn't make the world go round; kindness does. Plus, it's a purer virtue. When you're kind to a taxi driver or check-out person, you expect nothing in return. And yet, if you make kindness a habit, others may find it contagious.”

Church saw “kindness” as the purest virtue and the purest form of love, which he equated with agape love, self-giving love. This is the love spoken of in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapter 13. Where he states those immortal words. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Kindness is at the core of the great religious traditions. Now in our ever increasing secular age this is just another reason to reject it. I had a conversation with someone I have known all my life about this very subject and their response was “That sounds a bit religious” and do you know what I believe that they are right, in fact its more than a bit religious. Kindness it is how to be religious in its most basic and simplest form, which is no doubt why the lifetime Unitarian I mentioned earlier says that “We believe in human kindness”.My relative though was suggesting that the fact it sounded religious was not a virtue at all.

Kindness is the purest virtue and yet it is one that we seem to want to forget. To me it is religion in its basic and simplest form. As the hymn goes “To worship rightly is to love each other; each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.”

Kindness is a power, it truly is an energy and it can be a transformative one. It can spread and take over and can begin to bring about the “Kin-Dom of Love” right here right now, the dominion of kindness. It begins right here, right now in our simple acts, words and deeds. That said it does so quietly and humbly, it does not shout it does not boast. It is the purest virtue.

Every day is a day when we can bear witness to a Power Greater than ourselves. We do this when we practise loving kindness, when we love one another, when we are glad to see each other, when we play, when we are light-hearted, when we can laugh at ourselves, when we live with exuberance and enthusiasm, when we grow from dust and become truly animated and live life. When we do this we recognise the Divine in one another and we see it in our own reflection, looking back at us in the glass, in our own eyes. We do not need to seek God, for God is already dwelling amongst us in each of our hearts. We just need to bring that Power to life. We know God’s blessings in our interactions with one another, when we bless one another with loving kindness through love and laughter. The way we look at one another, face to face has the Power to make God’s presence known on earth, right here right now. This is the “Kin-Dom of Love”; this is the dominion of kindness and it begins in our hearts and lives. It begins with a belief in human kindness. It begins by worshipping rightly and to worship rightly is to simple love each other “Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.”

I believe it is our task to bring the “Kin-Dom of Love”, the “Dominion of Kindness” to life, right here right now, in so doing we allow God to incarnate through our lives. It begins by simple human kindness. It is shown in our love for one another; it is shown in our laughter, our playfulness and our love for life.

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

Monday 2 May 2022

Spirit Level: Increasing Our Sensitivity to Life

Last Sunday the God of humour was certainly at play. I tempted fate by talking about “the church where everything goes wrong”, plenty did. There were many amusing moments, which always help during challenging times, both congregations have faced them of late. There was a particularly amusing moment at Altrincham when Edna began to comment on the candle being wonky, not being straight enough. For next minute or so there were several attempts to get it perfectly level. I even joked about the need to get a spirit level, to check it was just right. Then someone piped up that this would be a great subject for a service. Well surprise, surprise it got my homiletic consciousness going. The interactions filled my spirit and awakened something inside of me.

On Tuesday morning I noticed a friend obsessively trying to get the right balanced arrangement of tea-light candles to aid our morning meditation. What amused me was that at this time of year we begin in daylight, so really the candles make not one bit of difference, but hey we must have the right number of candles, in the correct shape, in the middle of the circle. Another thing we obsess about is the right number of chairs. Whenever I arrive, I always comment that there are not going to be enough, there rarely is and thus when late comers arrive they have to initially sit outside of the circle. I didn’t comment this week as there were plenty. Well, there was initially at least. As my friend was arranging the candles the person who set up the room began to remove some of the chairs as they thought there were too many. I remember thinking this was a mistake but decided not to comment. Then folk began to arrive, and we soon discovered that more chairs needed to set out, about the original number. We all laughed at this in the end, at our attempts at being goldilocks and making everything perfect. It’s good we can laugh at ourselves; it is a good sign of being in good spiritual health. That said obsessive compulsive disorder is no laughing matter, how ever it manifests itself. So many are plagued with it, including myself although mine is not in seemingly obvious ways. I am though constantly concerned about the right number of chairs, so that no one feels excluded. Mine isn’t about the shape and arrangements of the chairs, more the sense that no one ever feels left out of the circle.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of worship and what I create and share, as well as its purpose in recent weeks. I have also been thinking about ritual, its need to hold things together, as well as the dangers of becoming a slave to it. There is a place and need for structure as it allows the freedom to explore. There is also the need to cater for different types of people. There is a balance needed between structure and total lassez faire. I know myself I need a mixture of the two, although I know the balance will never be perfect.

Yes, there are benefits to enabling the spirit to be level and ritual helps with this. Having said that there is a real danger in becoming too enslaved to ritual. Sometimes it becomes all about the ritual and the spirit dies. Surely the purpose of such activities is the feed the spirit and not just follow some pattern.

All this brought to mind a favourite story I have shared before, “The Guru’s Cat”

In India there was a great religious guru who was always surrounded in his Ashram by loyal devotees. For hours a day, the guru and his followers would meditate on God. The only problem was that the guru had a young cat, an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. So the guru, in all his practical wisdom, commanded that the cat be tied to a pole outside for a few hours a day, only during meditation, so as to not disturb anyone. This became a habit – tying the cat to the pole and then meditating on God – but as years passed, the habit hardened into religious ritual. Nobody could meditate unless the cat was tied to the pole first. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied during evening worship.

Then one day the cat died. The guru’s followers were panic-stricken. It was a major religious crisis – how could they meditate now, without a cat to tie to a pole? How would they reach God? In their minds, the cat had become the means.

Centuries later, learned treatises were written by the guru’s scholarly disciples on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

Sometimes we become so tied to things that we forget the purpose of why we are doing what we are doing. So yes, I have been thinking once again about the purpose of worship, particularly in the context of a free religious tradition, one that should never be a slave to anything. I have also been thinking about the purpose of spirituality and the spiritual life. I have been thinking about balance and of course that interesting item, the “spirit level”.

How do we define spirituality and the spiritual life? What is its purpose? I have heard many explanations over the years. The best I have heard came from Rev Bill Darlison, he said “that the purpose of the spiritual life, is to increase our sensitivity to life.” I believe that the purpose of spirituality is to aid us to become more affected by life and thus become more effective in life. It is not to rise beyond life, to escape from life, but to enable us to engage fully with reality. I know that the more engaged I am in such practices the more engaged I am in life. That said I also need such practices to recharge my spiritual batteries and thus return back to life and increase the affect and become more effective. It is about keeping one’s spirit levels up, it is about getting the balance right. As I so often say the spiritual life is not so much about transcendence but transformation. Its not about escaping life, but to be changed by it and thus be a force for good within it.

The realm of the spirit and the realm of the material are not separate, they both feed and are fed by each other.

The twentieth century French Jesuit Priest and Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin claimed that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” It is a phrase I have heard many times over the years. Now while I think I know what people mean by it; it bothers me greatly. The reason is that in my view it appears to diminish the human, the physical life. It seems to suggest that the physical life is of little importance, merely a home for the spirit. That what comes before and perhaps follows our physical life is somehow more important than this life. That somehow our human experiences are less than sacred. I am not convinced; dualism has always troubled me. I personally don’t see a separation between body and spirit. This disembodied spirituality troubles me. The reason is that if we see the body as somehow less than spirit, or on the other hand see nothing sacred at all in our humanity this can lead to all kinds of troubles. I personally see the body as deeply sacred indeed. For me the body is a beautiful expression of the spirit come to life.

This view about body and spirit has been described by Jorge N. Ferrer, professor of religious psychology as “embodied spirituality.” He wrote that:

“Embodied spirituality regards the body as subject, as the home of the complete human being, as a source of spiritual insight, as a microcosm of the universe and the Mystery, and as pivotal for enduring spiritual transformation.

The body is not an “It” to be objectified and used for the goals or even spiritual ecstasies of the conscious mind, but a “Thou,” an intimate partner with whom the other human dimensions can collaborate in the pursuit of ever-increasing forms of liberating wisdom.”

For Ferrer the body is the home of the complete human being. It is the physical reality in which we live. It is through the body that we both literally and metaphorically walk our own unique path. The mistake that so many religious understandings have made is that they have seen the body as the prison of the soul. Something that the spirit or soul needs to be liberated from. He claims that the mystery of incarnation never suggested that spirit entered into the body but that the spirit became flesh. To quote John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh.” Through our bodies, our lives, the way we live our lives the spirit comes to life. We are here for a reason, life truly means something and it is our task to bring that something to life, through our lives, through our bodily existence.

Embodied spirituality is about fully inhabiting our lives, our thoughts, our feelings our relationships with ourselves, our lives, each other and the mystery that connects all life. It’s about being fully present in our bodies and lives and therefore fully experiencing our potential, being fully alive. The body is not just a suit that clothes our being. It is through the body that we experience what it is to be fully alive. They say “listen to your body”, sage wisdom indeed. For me the body is not a separate entity to spirit, I cannot agree with this dualistic view, it seems to me that it is through the body that spirit comes alive and further through the body that the spirit is fed.

Embodied spirituality views every aspect of our humanity, whether that be body, spirit, heart, mind and consciousness as equal partners in bringing the self, community and world into a fuller alignment with the mystery that brings into being all life, while at the same time connects all life. I suspect it’s a kind of panentheism, that sees all life as being in God and that God is in all life and that little or perhaps infinite more. It sees the full engagement of the body as being vital to spiritual growth and transformation.

This brings me back to that definition of spirituality, to “increase our sensitivity to life” to which I like to add and thus to be affected by and thus become effective in life. The purpose of spiritual and religious ritual and practice is to enable this to happen, to fill our spirit levels. It is important though that we do not become slaves to such things, as we will then completely kill the spirit and become slaves to the ritual.

Carol P. Christ wrote:

‘Embodied theology is rooted in personal experiences in our individual
bodies. At the same time, we all live in a relational world, shaped by
social and historical events and forces that are shared.’

The spirit comes alive through our experiences, both personal and shared. By increasing our sensitivity to life we will know experiences beyond our imaginings and life will become our constant teacher. We will grow in deeper understanding and most importantly we will become more effective in our daily living and truly become of service to life and those we meet in it.

So let’s increase our sensitivity to life. Lets engage fully with everything. Let’s be affect by and increasingly effective in life. Let us not become slaves to our rituals but inspired by them. Let us engage fully with life, mind, body, spirit and soul.

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