Monday 4 December 2023

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
So said Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Edith Wharton

I was chatting with a man at the gym on Tuesday morning. I always see him there and his wife. I also see them walking round town together. We always say hi, but rarely talk. He is a quiet man, who seems at peace with the world. I assume that they are both retired. He told me he was waiting for his wife to finish her class. He said he often found himself patiently waiting. Telling me that this is not something he had as a younger man. That waiting patiently was a gift of growing older. A blessing of the lessening of testosterone. He also talked about how life is very like coming to the gym, just sticking at things day by day and over time improvement comes. This though takes patience and discipline. It is not a passive activity, but one that does require patient waiting for results. Patience seems a rare commodity in this our time and space. We want results and we want them now.

I walked away thinking to myself that he had just written this sermon for me. He had awakened my homilectic consciousness. Well, this lovely calm patient man and the wisdom of Edith Wharton.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

He was a candle that morning and hopefully this devotion becomes a mirror that reflects his light.

Advent is a time of waiting, a time of preparation. A time set aside to wait for the “coming” of Love in human form symbolised in the birth of the Christ child. A promise of what love can become if we let it grow and nurture in our hearts and lives. For every new life is the gift of promise and possibility. A gift of possibility that can be reborn in each of our lives if we allow it to be. The Christ Child is known as “The Light of the World. Although interestingly Jesus himself said, in his opening sermon, in Matthews Gospel, the “Sermon on the Mount” Matthew Ch 5 vv 14-16

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that[b] they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

The light of the world is in each and everyone of us. This waiting season is about nurturing this light within each and everyone of us and bringing it to light when the moment of magic comes. Our world needs it. We all need it.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

The season of Advent invites us to embrace the spiritual discipline of waiting. We cannot rush through this season, we must experience it all, before the moment of magic. We must first sing the carols, light the candles and open the doors of the calendars. We must select our gifts for our loved ones and we must prepare ourselves for the year to come. We must experience the whole of this season if we are to give birth to the love that is at the core of it all; if we are to grow this love in the mangers of our own hearts and to give birth to and both experience and share it in our world. A world that needs love and hope as much as at any time in our history.

Advent is a season of preparation and it cannot be rushed. It requires patience. We cannot wish the days away, we cannot wish the winter away. We have to wait patiently, but not passively. We must be careful not to confuse waiting and patience with passivity. The man in the gym certainly was not doing so.

What is it that we are waiting for though? Well, it is a new Hope, a fresh Hope, it’s that old forgotten word “respair” born in the despair of our lives, in the mangers of our own hearts.

The world needs the light that is in everything, in each of us.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
One of my favourite human beings and the first Unitarian I ever met wrote the following piece. It speaks powerfully to me about God, spirit, humanity and the purpose of living spiritually alive. It is titled “Incarnation” The author is Peter Sampson. He is certainly a candle and hope that this piece will be a mirror that reflects his light. He wrote, beginning with a quotation from the great nineteenth century theologian James Martineau:


The incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.

James Martineau (1805-1900)

Peter continues:

“James Martineau’s distinctly Unitarian ‘take’ on the transformation of God into our human – all too human – flesh and blood has been a constant inspiration to me.

Our responsibility for our own lives and necessarily, for the lives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world lays upon us all a duty which cannot be dodged; our humanity is defined by how we serve and care for the needs of the human family. You can’t have faith without works and working for the good of all inspires our faith in God-given life.

It is a small comfort to me to be told that God died for our sins. I see every one of us missing the mark in our lives and whenever a fellow-creature is harmed we must pray for forgiveness for ourselves. We are all culpable but if we are to serve human progress we have to say ‘sorry’ from the bottom of our heart and move on.

When we look around us we tend to focus on what’s going wrong: suffering – often caused by human ignorance – waste, devastation, degradation, contempt, the whole sorry spectacle of “Man’s in humanity to Man”. I see this as a betrayal of our God-given humanity, a trivialisation of our God-endowed divinity.

Resorting to armaments and inflexible war-talk of politicians, shouting at those we don’t agree with and throwing our weight about if we don’t get our own way – I want to say “Come off it! Who do you think you are? There is that of God in every person, in every creature on the planet.”

Amen Peter, Amen.

I am so glad I met Peter. A man who has lived his faith all of his life. A message we all need to hear at this and all times. Why can we not see that we are all formed from the same flesh and have the same spirit at the heart of each and every one of us? Why do we see some as some how different, as lesser human? How often in recent weeks have we seen human beings described as vermin? It is a sorry spectacle indeed.

It would be easy to despair, but what good would that do. We must refuse to fall into dehumanising hatred and shed some light. Give birth to what is in us and spread it.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

We must become that light, or at least reflect it. This is true religion, this is living spiritually alive. It is our task, I believe, to rekindle that loving flame within each and every one of us. It is our task to become the Immanuel's, the ones that the world has been waiting for. Not to wait for some figure to come and rescue humanity, but to become those people ourselves, to let love incarnate within us and through us. To bear witness to the fact that God is already with us, in our hearts and souls and to bring that love to life. We must become the Immanuel’s, the ones we have all been waiting for.

“Oh come, oh Immanuel”

It is so easy to sink into despair and say, there is no hope for humanity, but is this true? I don’t think so, but it is up to us. There is no point just waiting passively for something to happen, it is we who must become the savours of our world and it begins in our own hearts and minds, in our lives, in our own families and in our own communities and then it may begin to spread throughout the whole world. It is our task to bring the spirit of love alive in our lives and in our times and places. It is our task to become the Immanuel’s, that the world has been waiting for.

…We must become the light of the world…

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

This is what we are here waiting for. To be a light to others who may be struggling in their own dark times. We can light the way.

So let’s prepare ourselves for the moment of magic yet to come, even if it comes later this season. Let’s nurture the love within us and prepare to give birth to it in our hearts and lives. Let’s not wish these dark cold days away. There is a beautiful gift in them if we allow ourselves to fully experience them. We need to experience each and every sensation of this season. We need to not fear the dark, we need to know it and fully embrace it. And when the time comes to once again give birth to the new light.

Next spring may well be the most beautiful we have ever known.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

“Oh come, oh Immanuel”

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

Monday 6 November 2023

Remember, remember, all those who have inspired us, who have lit the flame within

A friend asked me the other day why I refer to Molly as “Bugger Lugs”. He looked quite disturbed by the phrase. I explained it was a term of endearment when I was growing up. My grandad often you to say to me and my brother come on “bugger lugs”. It seems I speak to Molly in a similar way to how my grandad spoke to me. It is certainly affectionate, although if you actually think about it, it probably doesn’t to someone not brought up hearing it. It seems that anybody below the age of forty and not from Yorkshire and or Lancashire have never heard the term or at least a version of it. Hence the strange looks and responses from folk.

As is my way I posted about this on social media. It was an attempt to offer something light for folk to connect with. The responses were both amusing and fascinating. My mum obviously read it and replied with the following tale:

“I have probably told you this before.

I had a great uncle Eddie. He was certainly a character. I used to love going to see him. He had two Yorkshire terriers called Bugger Lugs and Mucky Clogs. He also had a Myna Bird who would shout out the two dogs names and say Shut Up

Needless to say he was granddads uncle.”

A little later she added:

“Uncle Eddie was Nana's brother. The family lived at 3 Loxley Street. It was a one down, two up. They had 6 children and an uncle who lived there also. No bathroom or inside toilet. To the right of the chimney breast was a sink with a cupboard above. Uncle Eddie replaced the cupboard fronts with wire netting and kept 2 hens in there.

You couldn't make it up

Love Mum xxx”

You truly could not make it up. I have heard this story before, but it was lost somewhere in my subconscious. It has resurfaced and reformed as the days have gone by this week. It makes perfect sense to me why I would call Molly “Bugger Lugs”. Some days she definitely suits “Mucky Clogs”. I have had some bewildered looks from people as I have shared these tales. That said I am kind of used to that.

The conversation has brought some wonderful memories to my heart and mind, of those tales my grandad used to tell me, most I couldn’t repeat here. As well as other tales that my dad and or aunties and uncles used to tell. Most of them make me smile broadly these days, although not always.

Autumn and especially late October and early November is the season of remembering and remembrance. This seems to have been the case throughout human history.

Do you remember the old English Rhyme “Remember, remember the 5th of November, the Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why the Gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!

I won’t recite the full verse as it gets pretty dark and grim. Those old rhymes often did. Poetry and song are pretty tame these days, in comparison to days gone by. Modern life is pretty tame, when compared to the past. As my other grandad used to say, “There is no such thing as the good old days.”

This last week has marked the beginning of the season of remembrance. Remembrance is far more than simply remembering, its about bringing memory to life. We marked All Hallows Eve or Halloween on 31st October, All Saints Day on 1st November and on 2nd November All Souls Day, a time in the Christian Calendar to remember all souls who have departed this life.

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

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

I was recalling such adventures with a young friend this week. She was telling me of the joy of going pumpkin picking with her family. A tradition that continues into her adulthood. It sounds like a lovely experience. She was utterly bewildered as I and another friend recounted tales of our youth. As I had been listening to tales of my grandads.

These memories mean so much to me. I know there are gems there and they help me to truly appreciate the life I have now. A life made richer by those that have blessed it. Yes, there is much pain there, but there is also deep love. So many gifts and blessings.

Remember, remember…

Memories are snapshots of life. Moments that stay with us. It always fascinates me how these memories take shape and form and often reshape as time goes by; it amazes me how these memories seemingly re-incarnate as time goes by. We should not fear our memories, they are precious in so many ways, and it is these very memories that make the present moment truly come alive. I have discovered that sometimes you can lose some of the true richness of the moment by becoming purely engrossed in it. That might sound like a counter intuitive thing, but I think not.

By the way please do not get me wrong I am not rejecting the power of the present moment, quite the opposite actually. What I am suggesting is there is a greater power in bringing the present moment alive by enriching it with our whole selves. It’s a kind of active experience of the present moment. It’s about opening our whole selves up to the present moment and not just passively experiencing what is there. It’s about wholly living in the moment and then carrying that snapshot of the moment into the future. It’s about truly living on the threshold of life. The truth is of course that this is how we are always living, on the threshold of something, as one moment ends another begins.

Memory is a funny thing. It is amazing what we remember and what we cannot remember, how memory can be so very selective. Memory also changes over time. My memory or do I mean my perspective on past events in my life, have changed over time.

Remember, remember…

Remember’ literally means to ‘re-member’; to put back together that which has been torn apart. In some way remembering has a similarity to ‘religion’, which means ‘to rebind together’. Both are about seeking after a wholeness, and isn’t that what we are about most of the time?”

For so long I used to say I could not remember much about my childhood and the things that I could remember caused me either pain or embarrassment. I thank God this is no longer the case. It would seem that I was always on the run and you really cannot live like that. I also had a lot of trouble remembering much of my adult life too. It was fear that stopped me doing so. I was frightened of reconnecting with these memories. I was frightened of re-feeling these memories. I was ruled by a fear of resentment.

These days memory and remembering has become so very important to me. Every year I gain a different perspective on my past which helps me live better in the present moment and opens up the future in fascinating ways.

Memory is a funny thing.


I was reminded this week of someone else who came into my life for a short period of time some 20 years. They inspired me, they lit something in me and changed me forever. Something I ought not ever forget. It brought to mind those wonderful words of Albert Schweitzer, they have been singing in my heart all week.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

There are many people who have inspired me, who have lit the flame, when all was dark, there are many who have taught me life enhancing, nay life changing things. Something I thought deeply of at this weeks “All Souls” service. A time to remember those who have touched our hearts but who are no longer physically with us. There are so many souls who have inspired me and who continue to do even though they have long gone. I have to say I was quite emotional after the service this week. I was glad I was able to spend time alone afterwards. Grief and the love at the heart of it run so deep. S many souls have lit the flame, have inspired me.

Now “Inspire” is one of those words, like so many in common usage, that has been reduced in meaning as time has gone by. We have reduced its power as our lives have become secularised. It originally meant “immediate influence of God”, especially with reference to the writing of a Holy book. Coming from the French “inspiracion meaning “inhaling, breathing in inspiration”, coming from the Latin “inspirare” meaning to breath in, to inflame. To inspire means to breath upon, to blow into, to excite, to inflame, to affect, to arouse, but to do so through spirit or soul, it is a Divine activity. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that when we inspire others we are engaging in Divine activity. To inspire others is to engage in one of the highest forms of love, as it is Divine love in human action.

Everyone we meet, and everything that we absorb through our senses can be an inspiration. Those that have inspired us, awakened something within us, helped us to become the people that we are today. As we enter the season of Remembrance perhaps, we ought to remember all these people and dedicate our lives to create acts of Remembrance from the love they inspired in us. In so doing we will inspire future generations and those struggling around us to become all that they can be. In so doing our lives will become worth dying for by the legacies of love that we leave behind.

Remember, remember…

May it be so.


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

Monday 30 October 2023

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But it Didn’t Kill the Dog, it Gave it Life

A few months ago I read the curious story of Bobi, the oldest recorded living dog. He was a purebred Rafiro do Alentejo, a breed of Portuguese farm dog. Sadly Bobi died this week aged 31 years and 165 days. They say that there are 7 dog years for every human year. So, if Bobi were human that would have made him about 220 years old.

According to BBC News“Bobi lived his whole life with the Costa family in the village of Conqueiros, near Portugal's west coast, after being born with three siblings in an outbuilding. Leonel Costa, who was eight years old at the time, said his parents had too many animals and had to put the puppies down, but Bobi escaped. Mr Costa and his brothers kept the dog's existence a secret from their parents until he was eventually discovered and became part of the family, who fed him the same food they eat…Mr Costa said..that Bobi had enjoyed a relatively trouble-free life and thought the secret to his longevity was the "calm, peaceful environment" he lived in…Bobi was not the only dog owned by the Mr Costa to live a long life. Bobi's mother lived to the age of 18 while another of the family's dogs died at the age of 22.”

Now as you know I have become a bit of a dog enthusiast. I am curious about every dog I ever meet. One of my favourite games is to attempt to work out the mix of some of the dogs I meet on the street and or in the park. It seems to be my favourite topic of conversation at the moment and I am usually right. I have got very good at it.

Oh curiouser and curiouser…One thing else I am curious about is what empassions others, what fires them up.

I have found myself in some quite animated conversations recently. Not least last Sunday following the service. I have never known coffee time to be more animated and the conversation has continued since. This has animated me even more. I have loved hearing the perspective of others. This is another curiosity of mine, to hear and understand where others are coming from. How they interact with life and their own personal spiritual beliefs and explorations.

I was talking about this with Janine on Monday morning. As I stated last weeks I am enjoying these conversations as it is helping me reflect on my own ministerial journey, another curiosity in itself. I am also very interested in Janine, where she is coming from and wondering where she will end up. I am very curious about this.

Now one of my other curiosities is what makes others tick, what they are curious about themselves. I was recently talking with a friend who told me when he was growing up he use to feel frustrated that people were not as curious about things as he was. I listened to him and what I realised was that this was not entirely true. My friend is very scientifically minded and he was and is very curious about how things work etc. I think what he didn’t realise is that it wasn’t that people aren’t curious it is just that their curiosities are in other areas of life. Now I can sometimes feel as baffled as my friend as to the things that hold the interest of others. It is wrong to suggest that they lack curiosity though, it’s just that they are fascinated by different things. Human diversity operates on a multitude of levels. This is another fascinating curiosity by the way.

Watching Molly is a curiosity and it is fascinating to see what she is curious about. I kind of think that curiosity in many ways is the whole energy of life. How we are curious, what sparks our curiosity. Maybe curiosity is the very essence of the Divine spark within us. Curiosity is perhaps the holiest of acts. We should practice Holy Curiosity. Barbara Bartocci, in “Grace on the Go” said: “What a wonderful combination of words! Holy curiosity. Our ability to wonder, to inquire, to welcome what is new, and to keep our minds open to truth when and where we find it — surely this is one of the most miraculous qualities that human beings possess. Maintain an open mind today. Ask questions. Acknowledge truth when you find it. Pray to be led by holy curiosity.”

To me curiosity is a characteristic of the Divine spark within us, it is an antidote to cynicism. Curiosity is a risk, as it makes us vulnerable and open. Yes, to disappointment at times, but also to wonder and spontaneous delight. Curiosity gives us the courage to discover almost unimaginable aspects of ourselves and others. It is a doorway to beginning to live those questions of life. Curiosity is our most natural state. It is something innate within us, we should never dampen it down in others. It matters not what it is either, we are all different, thus our curiosity is bound to be so. Sadly, too often this happens. Sometimes we do this to ourselves as we feel we have gained all that we need to know, we lose the natural curiosity of a child and or puppy. They say that curiosity killed the cat. This maybe true, but I reckon that it probably saved the dog, it certainly brought it to life. Maybe it is the secret to a long life, to maintain and keep on developing curiosity.

I have been thinking about my friend and his apparent frustration at what he saw as the lack of curiosity in others. What he failed to see was that people are curious about different things. He wanted to know how things work. People like me are interested in how things work, but not inanimate things. My fascination is people. I have always been curious about such things. I know others who are similar who are always inquiring after others. They are the people who when they ask how you are, really want to know. They want to accompany people. In many ways this is one aspect of ministry, pastoral ministry at least. It brings to mind Jesus and the two men on “The Road to Emmaus from (Luke chapter 24v 17) and his question: 'What are you discussing together as you walk along?'

I have always been fascinated by people’s conversations. The way they interact with others and the questions they ask about life, all life, all aspects of life. The ordinary the everyday. I am no different to dogs, to Molly, I am always sniffing things out, just in a different kind of way. This is my curiosity, my Holy curiosity. Is there anything more holy than being attentive to life, to this life, to real life. As Henri Nouwen observed, 'The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now.' The spiritual life must be a curious life. It is Holy curiosity.

Now it may surprise you to hear that it was Albert Einstein who coined the phrase “Holy Curiosity”. We have a poster stating the following quote from him in the small schoolroom:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Now it seems to me that “Holy Curiosity ought to be central to the spiritual life. Sadly this has not always been the case; sadly the impulse to shut down curiosity has been at the core of religious belief. That said it is not only to be found in religion, it is there in philosophy, story and myth. An example is those old fairy stories we were taught as a child, or old sayings like “curiosity killed the cat”. Just think of what happened to the curious in fairy tales, things didn’t turn out well at all. Snow White opens the door to an old woman who’s really a murderous queen in disguise, and pays for this mistake with her life, she eats the poisoned apple. Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and Sleeping Beauty all narrowly escape this same fate. Strangely we are taught from an early age of the dangers of curiosity. It is there in the second book of Genesis. Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but curiosity gets the better of them and they are cast out of paradise. Isn’t this the story of Snow White.

Each Sunday in worship though we enter into curiosity into search, seeking something more, a deeper understanding and experience. This means exploring the darker aspects at times, as we did last Sunday, in response so many seemed so engaged, how this delighted me. This to me is the essence of the Unitarian tradition. We are a religion for the curious. It is there right at the beginning of our history in the midst of the reformation,a response in so many ways to a restrictive form of Calvinistic Protestantism that quashed curiosity. John Calvin himself said that the most direct path to finding God is not to “attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed.” I shudder to think what he would have thought about last Sunday’s worship and the conversations that followed. Ours is a religion for the curious, for those who want to explore. The God I know comes to life through curiosity. This si living spiritually alive.

So, while curiosity may have killed the cat, it gave life to the dog. So, I say lets all we like that old Portuguese farm dog Bobi and live long and wonderful lives. Let’s keep our senses open and live by “Holy Curiosity”. For surely this is the answer to the question of life, how then shall I live.

Let’s live by “Holy Curiosity”

I’m going to end with that question, in the form of a wonderful poem by the wonderfully curious Mary Oliver, who loved dogs and their wonderful curiosity.

“When Death Comes”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver

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

Monday 23 October 2023

Love is the Only Response: Deliver Us To and Not From the Suffering in the World

Working alongside Janine (a student minister working with the congregations I serve), discussing her time studying at Luther King House, has got me reflecting on my time as a student minister there. Particularly the challenges of being a Unitarian studying alongside fellow students from traditional Christian denominations. I know myself it took time to adjust and to find myself and my own understanding of my faith within this context. This is not easy, and it is not the only environment that you have find yourself during this challenging time; it is not easy, but it is vital to ministry formation dare I say. I think one the most challenging aspect of time in college is the assumed starting points in theological discussion and understanding.

I have been thinking a lot about ministry these last few weeks.

I recently attended Rev Penny Johnson’s funeral. It was a beautiful service, prepared by Penny herself. Her husband Ken and minister Rev Jeff Gould of course adapted and added to it, especially in some elements of the personal tribute to Penny’s life and ministry. Penny exemplified ministry, Unitarian ministry through her love and service. I have some wonderful personal memories of Penny. She was especially helpful to me in my formative years in the job.

I found myself chatting with Geoff Levermore, before the service. He always asks very probing questions, too probing at times I would say. One question he asked was where I would place myself on the Unitarian spectrum. I asked him what he meant by that? He explained asking if I found myself tending towards Liberal Christianity, something more human centred or a more earth centred, more naturalist spirituality. I said I don’t really think about ministry that way. I could see he didn’t feel satisfied with my answer and so I said that I identify as a Universalist really. He said a Deist and I said no I identify more as a Panentheist, or at least if I have to put a label on my beliefs. It seems he had not heard of Panentheism. The truth is though that I am not too precious about such things, as I know my primary role is to serve. Rev Penny Johnson being a wonderful example of this. She saw her role and certainly the worship she created as being related to the world in which she lived and helping others to live in this world. She never wore a clerical collar and did not see herself as separate from those she served. She saw her role as being with people in their struggle, a perspective I share with her.

That said if I have to put a label on it I say I am a Universalist. As a Universalist I believe there is truth in so many traditions. I am yet to find the whole truth in any.My place is not in the spectrum, it kind of is the spectrum. I also believe in a God of love that is present in all life and yet is greater than all life. This is panentheistic, or at least how I see it. This brings with it a great responsibility, for my faith to be real it has to be lived out in this world. This can be challenging at times. As a friend once said in response to my Universalism, “The thing I worry about is how much input a God of love is having, in that so many are hurt, killed.” This point seems particularly pertinent at this time, especially as we witness the horrors taking place in Israel and Palestine. So many innocent lives brutally killed. It is heartbreaking to witness such horror and barbarity and how this is spreading to other parts of world. The sorry spectacle of our inhumanity to one another. Not that this is a new story it has been going on throughout human history. Now some say this is evidence of the evils of religion. Some of us may have sympathy with this view. That said if I look at most of the evils of the second half of the 20th century and many today they were and are inflicted by secular states too. Think of China and North Korea today, or Cambodia and the Soviet Union in the past. To me most of such violence and dare I say evil is due to failing to recognise the sacredness of one another. Of failing to see the other as neighbour, the secular and the religious as just as culpable of this. When will we see the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other?

So, it is a pertinent question to ask about a God of love. If we look at the world, at the suffering within the world, it is reasonable to ask in what sense a God of love could be involved in all of this? Of course the response of many is that none at all, for there is no God. Or others will say that God is not all loving. Others may say well it’s all a mystery and we cannot understand how God’s love operates. Then still others will suggest that we look at the helpers and that this love manifests in their actions. Do any of this answers seem adequate to you? It is certainly something to ponder.

Now suffering and a God of Love is a question that has troubled theologians, philosophers and plain ordinary people for centuries. The question has been asked and continues to be asked as to what causes suffering and can it be overcome? Now in some quarters it has been suggested that the root cause of suffering is “evil”. Which has led to the question that if evil exists then how can God be all powerful, ever present and all loving? In theological circles this has become known as “The Theodicy Dilemma”

“The Theodicy Dilemma” may be summed up by the following question about God asked by the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume:

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil.”

This question encapsulates the whole Theodicy debate.

In the twentieth century Czeslaw Milosz wrote the following poem “Theodicy”

“Theodicy” by Czeslaw Milosz

No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
Desire will not save the morality of God.
If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,
Which would find its explanation only by assuming
The existence of an archetypal Paradise
And a pre-human downfall so grave
That the world of matter received its shape from diabolic power.

Even more hard hitting, I would suggest, than Hume’s questions. This from Milosz a Nobel Prize winning Poet who was a Polish Catholic, who spent much of his life wrestling with his own faith.

I remember exploring “Theodicy”, in depth, while training for the ministry. Something I have been thinking of again as I have been sharing with Janine. I probably spent more time on the piece I wrote on the subject than any other, which showed in my final marks. I struggled and I wrestled, as so many have no doubt done. Looking back I can see how important it was for me to do so. By the way I have been struggling with it again these last few weeks. The struggle has been so important as I have learnt, in my time as a minister, that a large part of the work is to be with others in their suffering, often senseless suffering by the way. It is of course suffering that brought me into ministry in the first place.

Whilst training I remember wrestling for hours, in the library and walking in the park, with the theodicy question, I continue to do so by the way. I found my own unsettled faith in it and as a result a greater purpose has emerged. If I have learned anything from suffering, it is that I cannot take away the suffering of anyone else, but I can be with them in it. I have learned that in so doing the God of my limited understanding comes into being once more.

My understanding did not fit neatly within any of the traditional orthodox Christian views I explored during my training. I did not see it as a consequence or our fallen nature, an absence of good which causes us to choose evil, following Augustine or Calvin, or that suffering was a part of some kind of Divine plan. I had some sympathy with the views of Aquinas that somehow we lose our way. I find the idea that suffering has to take place in order for life to discover what is good very troubling. I cannot see how someone finding good at the expense of the suffering of others a good thing. I am with Dorothy Soelle and her view that “No Heaven can Rectify an Auschwitz”. The ends can never justify the means, if the means bring such suffering to so many. If God is present, then God is there in the suffering and our response to the suffering, something Eli Weisel explored in his seminal work “The Night”. The God of my understanding comes alive in my response to suffering.

So yes, I believe in a God of love, but not one who controls life. God in life but not controlling life. The God I believe has to come alive through our being. It may not be an adequate answer, but it is one I experience through my fragile human being. I respond to the idea of a God of Love, as my experiences and observations of life suggest this. I also experience this love coming to life as I am with those who suffer and do all I can to be with them in their pain, but I cannot prove that beyond doubt.

My growing sense of Universalism and Panentheism helps me to live faithfully, in love, in a world in which there is so much beauty but also heartbreaking suffering, some natural but an awful lot caused by our inhumanity. I accept that no matter how lovingly I and others live, that horrific, dare I say evil, things will happen both personally and universally. So where is the God of love? Well it comes alive in the response to this suffering. It is the God of love, that allows one to come through even the most horrific situations, with a response grown from a sacred reverence for life itself. This is the God of Love that I worship, that is beyond my understanding.

I have come to believe that it is our holy duty to respond to the suffering of others, to stand in solidarity with them and act in holy compassion and never to declare the other as somehow less than human.

In my prayers I ask this Universal Love to help me feel a deep connection to all life and to bring some healing to the world in which I live and the world beyond my being.

It is, I believe, our holy duty to begin to bring healing to our world, to wipe the tears that flow from our humanity and to repair the tears in the fabric of the world, to bring compassion and love to those in fear, to bind up the broken and bring wholeness to those who feel separated from the love in life. This is the call of love from the God of my limited understanding.

It is a call that asks my senses to be opened to the world and instead of being delivered from evil, it is call from an ever-loving God to be delivered to the suffering in this world.

I’m sorry if it does not answer why a God of love would allow suffering. I am sorry if that is not good enough. I am sorry. I cannot sincerely offer any more. I cannot give an opiate that relieves us of pain. I can only offer a loving response to that pain.

All I can offer is a loving purpose that comes to life in this beautiful and at times suffering world.

Before offering a closing blessing I am going to share with a wonderful poem the recently deceased great poets Louise Gluck “Celestial Music”, it seems pertinent to me at this time. I first came across in Mark Bellitini’s wonderful book on grief “Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Colours of Grief”

"Celestial Music" Louise Gluck

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,
she thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth, she's unusually competent.
Brave, too, able to face unpleasantness.
We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I'm always moved by weakness, by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality.
But timid, also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
according to nature. For my sake, she intervened,
brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down across the road.
My friend says I shut my eyes to god, that nothing else explains
my aversion to reality. She says I'm like the child who buries her head in the pillow
so as not to see, the child who tells herself
that light causes sadness–
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
to wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person–
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We're walking
on the same road, except it's winter now;
she's telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height–
Then I'm afraid for her; I see her
caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth–
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
from time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It's this moment we're both trying to explain, the fact
that we're at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn't move.
She's always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
capable of life apart from her.
We're very quiet. It's peaceful sitting here, not speaking, the composition
fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering–
it's this stillness that we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

Louise Gluck, Poems 1962-2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

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

Monday 18 September 2023

“ Choose This Life: You Cannot Have Joy Without Suffering

Last Sunday 10th September I told the congregations I serve that it was exactly one year since I collected Molly. I had picked her as a kind of birthday present to myself. A friend had persuaded me to make the move, as I had been procrastinating. Bossy friends have their plusses. They are blessings and they are curses. This friend had gone the extra mile to persuade me to pick her, although truth be told she picked me. I had gone to collect one of her sisters, but Molly insisted I take her instead. She has been a wonderful blessing.

What I didn’t tell them last week is that it was the also the 1st anniversary of the death of our youngest cousin Cheryl. I had received the heartbreaking news just as I was about to set off to pick Molly up. So, I drove for 3 or more hours with tears streaming down my face. Composed myself and had a lovely hour with the puppies and then drove home with this little ball of fluff in a cage on my back seat crying all the way home. I didn’t cry on the way home, as I was more concerned with her tears. September 10th 2022 was definitely an example of the blessings and curses of choosing life, to misquote good old Moses.

This last year has been one packed with life. So much has happened. There has been some deep joys, but also many sufferings. We lost another cousin our Charlton and there have been many other family troubles, as well as those involving dear friends, and the communities I belong to. This is life, you cannot have joy without suffering.

It was my birthday on Thursday, I have received some lovely cards, gifts and blessings. Thank you. As I thought of the last year I was reminded of a visit to my grandad, just two years before he died. It was his 89th birthday. It was always such a joy to sit with him, I always felt safe and dearly loved. He talked about how we can never predict the future. How as a young man he and his best friend Percy had gone to sea together, to serve in the war. My granddad came back, but Percy did not. They both chose that same path, not that they had too much say in it, but only one of them carried on through this physical journey. My granddad lived a long life and experienced so much. He respected the privilege and opportunity that his life had been, something denied to so many others. I know that every night before he went to bed, he would pray and vow to live two lives, his and Percy’s. My grandad never talked about his personal beliefs, they were private, but he clearly had a faith. Life truly is the greatest gift of all, it is the ultimate grace. It is a privilege that we did nothing to deserve.

Do we always make the most of it. How often do we turn from life?

Of course “Choosing Life”, means all of life. We cannot negotiate with reality. In my view we don’t get to choose the life that happens to us, but we can respond to what happens to us, to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, this is the ultimate freedom. To choose life of course it to choose the journey, the whole journey, to continue on and on.

This brings to my mind the journey that the Israelites took to the Promised Land. It also brings to mind Moses final birthday, his 120th and the sermon he delivered that day, just as they were about to step out of the wilderness after 40 years. God had just informed him that he would not enter the Promised Land with the people he had led out of exile.

As they reach the Promised Land the people gathered to receive Moses’ final blessing. And what does he say? (Deutronomy Ch 30 v 19) This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” He tells them that they must “choose life.” Of course choosing life means all life, not just the bits you want. It also means you don’t get to choose what happens, but you must learn to not only accept, but love the life you have been gifted.

Life and death, blessings and curses. Monday was certainly one of those days. Two friends had sadly just lost their dad’s, we had the sad news of dear Penny Johnsons death and another friend whose lovely pet dog was in a critical condition. Not the day I expected to wake up to. This is the life I have chosen and people come to me, because this is my life. I also witnessed something beautiful whilst out in the park. A couple with two French bulldogs.I have seen them several times over the past few months. One is transported round in a dog pram. It has none functioning back legs. These last few months they have been working, lovingly and caringly getting this dog to walk again. Well, this week I saw them with both dogs, one being led around by a giant ball. It is walking again. It is inspirational to see how they have used their time, their lives in dedication and love. This to me is a beautiful example of choosing life. Something else I have witnessed in friends who have lost their dads and how they are there for their loved ones. This is not always easy when consumed by grief.

Choosing life and journeying is not a straight line. The ancient Israelites didn’t travel in a straight line. Their journey should have taken 6 months not 40 years. Life is not a straight line and time is not experienced exactly in a linear fashion.

The forty years wandering is purely symbolic. Time is not chronological as we experience day by day, not in this kind of mythos. It is not Chronos time, more Kairos time. Chronos time moves on day by day. The last 365 days so much has happened in my life, for good and for bad. It has certainly been “thick time” or what the ancients names Kairos time. Kairos time is not limited, through it we can indeed alter how we live out our time. We cannot lengthen such time but we can deepen or thicken the experience of this time. Kairos time is qualitative. It is measured by the depth of the moment and not the length, how many seconds it lasts. It’s what Blake described as infinity in an hour. In such moments it feels like the whole world takes a breath; in such moments our whole lives can change and yet in terms of measured “chronos” time it lasted no longer than any other second. This last 12 months I have experienced many such moments, These are the blessings and curses of choosing life.

As I mentioned earlier it was my birthday this week. I have received so many gifts and cards and greetings from people who mean so much to me and of course who I mean so much to. The wonderful thing about birthdays is that they allow us to celebrate the people in our lives. I love to sing happy birthday to people, it is one of my greatest pleasures. My brother Otis even attempted an impression of me. It was a good effort. It lacked the vibrato and a little in the bottom notes. It was wonderful to receive. As Henri Nouwen said: “We should never forget our birthdays or the birthdays of those who are close to us. Birthdays keep us childlike. They remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life.”

Each moment, each day is always the birth of new life.

This weekend marks the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah. The 10 days of Awe begins from sunset on Friday 15 September. This continues until the end of Yom Kippur at sunset on Monday 25th. This is The Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person's fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to "seal" the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jewish person tries to amend their behaviour and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one considers oneself absolved by God and therefore can then be placed in the book of life for another year.

What is significant about this concept of atonement for me is that the wrong doer must first of all seek forgiveness from those they have wronged before they then turn to God and ask that they be returned to the book of life. Only after the transgressor has been forgiven by the transgressed can God’s forgiveness be obtained. It’s about being in right relationship with the world and humanity, before God.

As I look back at a year of changes, of the blessings and curses and living life. I see how much I have experienced. I can also see how much I could do better, especially in my relationships with those in my life. I want to live better with others. I want to live more effectively in this world.

This brings to mind this fascinating poem “The Birthday of the World” by Marge Piercy

“The Birthday of the World” by Marge Piercy

On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding

of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.

No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?

How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where

have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke

the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling

my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.

I’m with Marge, “give me weapons of minute destruction. Let my words turn into sparks.” As I mark the passing year I wonder how I can journey on in better ways. Maybe this is something we can all think about as we continue on, reflecting as those of the Jewish faith will do in the coming days. What do we need to do to improve our relationships. What loose ends need tying up? What regrets are we living with? No one knows where the journey will lead, no one knows when it will end. We have before us life, it will be a mixture of blessings and curses. We are stepping forward into a new adventure with Janine, as she begins her own journey of ministry training. May our time together be fruitful. I am sure we and she will gain so much from the experience. So lets move forward in faith and hope and above all love. Before us is life, blessings and curses, let us choose life.

I would like to end this morning’s worship with some words by Wendell Berry

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.

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

Monday 11 September 2023

Words Matter: They Can Create or Destroy Life

I am sure we have all said something we have instantly regretted. I have several times in the last couple of weeks. I have not always practised restraint of pen and tongue; a phrase that needs to be extended in our current age to include finger and thumb. How often have we regretted something we have posted on social media and through text message. Usually, people are understanding enough and forgive, but not always, sometimes it can take some time. I recently met someone who fell out with me many years, due to some careless words I said. For several years they were quite frosty towards me when me met in public, well this it seems is no longer the case, thank God. All was well and we got on really well the last time we met.

Careless words have been on my mind recently. Mainly because I have been pulled up by people on several occasions, due to something I have said in person or on social media. Interestingly the very things I have said that I have questioned about have had mainly positive responses, but one or two people were hurt or confused. It happened at Summer School. I listened of course intently to the person who felt hurt and took on board what they said. It also happened last week about something I said in response to a friends comment and something I posted on social media. Again, I listened and took on board what was said. I apologised for the hurt caused and reflected on what I said, or what was understood by what I said. I know last week I was affected by the funerals of two friends as well as some family situations and I wasn’t at my best, this obviously came out in my interactions with others. I hope I have learnt from this. Thankfully people understand and most importantly love me enough to say something; thankfully I am able to listen.

Mostly I practise restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb these days. When I fail to do so I tend not to get too defensive and can admit so and do what I can to put things right. This, I have come to believe, is a sign of spiritual maturity. The spiritual immature cannot admit fault, they cannot appear weak, and they cannot lose face. We see examples of this constantly. It would appear that public figures these days see it as a sign of weakness and usually look for someone else to blame.

We live in a world today where we are constantly bombarded by all kinds of opinion, from many sources of media. It comes at us from all directions. Not just the radio, television and press, but many forms of social media too. That said not only are we bombarded by news outlets but also a million and one opinions. I think we could all do well to practice restraint of pen and tongue and fingers and thumb.

It matters what we say and how we say it. I have experienced some lovely examples of kind words both spoken and responded to, this last week. I saw one on Monday on social media. A friend posted on a local Facebook page, that she had been to Altrincham that day and had lost her favourite cardigan, it obviously means a lot to her. There were some lovely responses by people in the area. It wasn’t just kindness offered though. The cardigan was found and on Tuesday morning she picked it up from the portable coffee shop situated just below the market. It certainly made my friends day and in many ways inspired this service, it planted a seed in my mind. It was a lovely example of gossip in its most positive incarnation. Word of my friends loss spread and people responded to this. It was lovely to see the positive energy that spread from this.

I have heard several eulogies this last few days. Difficult ones to write and deliver as there was a lot of emotion at the funerals. The eulogies were beautiful though, as it should be. Afterall eulogy means offering words of high praise for the deceased.

I was offered some rather lovely words of kindness from friends and from the dog groomer on Tuesday. Molly had got into a bit of mess. It had happened while I was away. It was so bad that she had to have all her beautiful coat shaved off. The groomer could see how upset with myself and disappointed I was. Now while offering advice she did so in a kind and supportive way, as did many friends. Molly didn’t seem to mind, as she had a lovely time in the park.

The words we speak and how we speak them or post them on social media can be very powerful. The old cliché 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names (words) will never hurt me.' Is an utter nonsense. The words we speak whether from our mouths or through social media can have a powerful impact. That said it is not just what is said that matters but how and in what spirit. I have come to believe that the words we speak are actually expressions of our spirit and where we are spiritually. They express whether we are part of the creation or the destruction of life. Words do become flesh and they do dwell amongst us.

Yehuda Berg an author on the Kabbalah a mystical form of Judaism said:

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”

Words are very powerful, what we say and how we say them have power. We affect people and life just as we affect ourselves with our words. So are we speaking creatively or destructively? Or has Proverbs 18 v 12 put it (written words I know) “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Gary Chapman in his book, “Love as a Way of Life” uses a similar metaphor for words as being either ‘bullets or seeds’. When we use words as bullets or like sword thrusts we are playing a part in the destruction of life, we are building barriers of separation and or exclusion; where as if we speak from wisdom and love we become part of the creative process we are part of the love becoming flesh, we are building bridges of healing and restoration and holding out our hands in an inclusive and embracing way.

Be careful what you say and how you say it, in what spirit, for what you say and how you say it, will play a part in the creation or the destruction of life. It matters what you say and in what spirit you say it.

It matters how we speak about others and how we listen to what others say to us about people. Malicious gossip can be very destructive. That said sharing concern for others and singing their praises can add to the loving creation. My friends experience with her lost cardigan is wonderful example of healthy gossip, both in the sharing of the loss, but also the celebration in it being found. We need to spread more good news and not just the bad.

I recently spent a bit of time with family members. Gosh I wish I had more time for this. Family is a place for “gossip”. We connect by telling our stories of each other, keeping up to date with varied members. The stories are not just of the past, but also of the present. Family members gossip about each other. Now such “gossiping” can be hurtful and diminishing, I am sure all have bad experiences of this from our lives. That said healthy gossip is shared too. Now this is closer to “gossip” in its original meaning. The word “gossip” is derived from words for God and sibling. It originally meant “akin to God”. The word originally described a person you were connected to in spiritual kinship, either a sponsor or God parent. So when we share such stories we are connecting people together in shared concern. Sadly, gossip these days almost means the exact opposite to its original meaning. It seems more to be akin to separation than connection.

I think this applies to all speech, that they should be a part of the connection and shared concern and not separation and destruction.

How we speak about one another and to one another is so very important. Are we a part of the creation or destruction of life? This is why “Right Speech” is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.

“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from malicious gossip, slander, lying and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God. In the New Testament the book of James, which we heard from earlier, makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all and teachings about right speech.

How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.

Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love, another example of that chaos theory of compassion. I have seen it several time in the last few days in my little world.

The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our pens, tongues, fingers and thumbs can have a powerful and lasting impact on those we come into contact with, they can be a part of the creation or the destruction of life.

Everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every action and every word spoken, typed or written. What we say and how we say it is not the only power at work, of course not, but never ever let anyone tell you it does not matter. You have no idea the power that you are involved in with the words you speak. Your very next sentence maybe the beginning of something beautiful in the life of another, it may well play a part in changing or giving life to someone. Or on the other hand it may aid in their destruction.

So choose your words carefully, ensure they are spoken in the spirit of love as part of the creation and not the destruction of life.

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


Monday 4 September 2023

The spiritual life: It’s an imperfect ‘I-Thou’ relationship

I recently spent a week at Great Hucklow, participating in ‘Summer School’. The title for this year was ‘Real Life: Telling the Truth of Our Lived Experience’. It is the first in person Summer School that has been held, since the pandemic. I along with Rev Laura Dobson led an engagement group titled “A Life Less Ordinary”. A group exploring our experiences both of the ordinary material life and that that could described as beyond that. It was a fascinating journey. Laura and myself are very different people, but I feel that we complimented one another. During the week Louise Baumberg led a series of talks, which touched on theme of listening to the stories of others, especially the more marginalised. How vital it is that we see one another as fellow humans, how all life and one another are sacred. Exploring ways to live on a relational level with one another and all life. Her talks were challenging and she was unafraid to explore difficult themes. It was a great week; a week of what I would describe as spiritual intimacy. I feel I engaged with many folk in a way that is rare in life. I hope I can better carry these experiences into my life and ministry.

It is no easy task to engage with other people in a truly relational way. We all have our own quirks and peculiarities. On a wider scale so many of our troubles have been caused by not seeing other people as our brothers and sisters, that we share a common humanity. I suspect that this is the root cause of human barbarity. It still goes on today sadly. There are people close to home and other lands that are somehow seen as other. No one is immune from this by the way, including myself. An incident in the park this week as highlighted that for me.

Now while we share a common humanity, we are also unique. No two people are exactly alike and it is important to honour and celebrate this human diversity. None of us can do this perfectly, but we can aspire to it. The key is good will and intent, but also to accept that no one in life is perfect. Nothing in life is perfect.

One of the great plagues of humanity is perfectionism, in seeking perfection both within ourselves and others. How many times I wonder have I rejected either myself, others, or life itself because it did not offer perfection? How many times have I noticed others doing the same? It is a lot easier to see in others by the way than in myself.

Nothing in life is perfect, it is always imperfect. I am pretty much convinced that this is how it ought to be. Yes it is important to strive for improvement, but perfectionism can be deeply destructive.

Now imperfection is one of those interesting words that doesn’t mean exactly what it always meant. When today we say that something is imperfect we are usually making a judgement about something suggesting that there is something wrong with it. In so doing we are making an error. Imperfection comes from the Latin “imperfectus” which actually meant incomplete.

So when we say that we are imperfect, that others are imperfect, that life itself is imperfect we are correct, in the sense that nothing is ever complete.

The mistake we have made is that in saying that someone or something is imperfect we have suggested that they or it is somehow wrong, when in fact we couldn’t be more wrong. Imperfection itself is what makes life what it is, it is the fuel and energy of life as it is through imperfection that the energy to create relationship is fuelled.

Imperfection, incompleteness is the energy of life.

This brings to mind that rather lovely poem by Harold Kushner “Jigsaw”

There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone and after a while you understood that unknown to either of you there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other and he had changed you. By some word or deed or just by your presence the errand had been completed. Then perhaps you were a little bewildered or humbled and grateful. And it was over.

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.
Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that.
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
All the pieces were there.

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else's puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don't.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High

I love the way Kushner explains why we are incomplete. That it is through our incompleteness that we draw closer together. This is so true we are relational beings. We do not live in separation and we do not live separate lives. We are constantly seeking unity, to be yoked beyond ourselves. The word “Yoga” actually means to join, to unite. It seems to me that all the great spiritual traditions, eastern and western, are in their own way pointing to this. That the spiritual life cannot exist in isolation. That in actual fact to live spiritually is to live in relation. That there is a yearning within us all to find that missing piece. In so attempting to do so, by the way, we enable others to do the same.

When we come together in love, we create the love we have all be searching for.

This brings to mind an extract from "Radical Hospitality: Benedict's Way of Love": By Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt. It is from the Chapter "Hospitality begins inside." (pg 33-34)

They wrote:

" We are caught up in what is probably the most immature attempt at spirituality humanity has ever seen. It is tragically and poignantly adolescent, with the deep emotion and angst that goes with adolescence. It is a spirituality that seeks improvement for life - a better me, a better relationship - but it does not seek God and it does not move us towards others. It just keeps us running on the treadmill of our little egocentric worlds.

We are accustomed to easy answers. Hospitality is not an easy answer. It requires that we take a chance and we change. It requires us to grow. The moment we engage with another person everything gets messy. Our time becomes not quite our own; we can count on others interrupting us. We become subject to a whole hoard of emotional dangers.

Because hospitality always involves giving something of ourselves to others, it is a spiritual practice. Spirituality is about relationship. When you and I become confused about the meaning of spirituality, remembering that spirituality is about relationship will bring us back to the basics. Relationships."

One of my great frustrations with some aspects of contemporary spirituality is that it does not seem to be about relationships at all. It seems to be all about the self, almost about protecting the self, from the so called “messiness” of living. Maybe that’s why it can seem so appealing. The truth is of course that all we ever achieve in blocking ourselves off from the messiness, from circling our spiritual wagons, is increase the loneliness and the emptiness.

The spiritual life is about relationship. We need to be in what I have often heard called right relationship, with ourselves, with others and with whatever it is we believe connects all of life, what is often called the Divine, to live spiritually alive.

I can usually get a good measure as to where I am at spiritually by simply checking where I am at relationally with myself, with others and with God, they are all interconnected and inter related. Do I see myself in others and do I see others in myself. My week at Summer School brought these feelings to my heart and mind, as have my interactions this week.

During the week of theme talks Louise Baumberg made reference to Martin Buber and his book “I-Thou”, first published in 1923 and translated from German into English in 1937. Buber taught that the most important moments in all of life are the moments we meet and communicate deeply with one another. He called these I-Thou moments; he taught that everything really good in human life, such as love, learning, the feeling of being appreciated, knowing that someone really cares for us, comes from these moments of meeting. This to me is the essence of the spiritual life, of living spiritually alive. Buber suggested that we have two basic orientations toward the world. I-it and I-thou. I-it is the way we relate to an object or thing that we experience. Something that is separate from us, that we use or don’t use; something that we see from a distance. These are empty relationships that have no spiritual charge. Buber labelled I-Thou encounters as genuine engagements with others. In such encounters we drop our defenses and open our whole being to their whole being. In so doing we recognize their inherent worth and dignity. To Buber, this authentic relationship is where meaning is found. He wrote, “When I encounter a …being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighbourless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament.”

When we see each other first and foremost as thou and do not objectify we bring that kin-dom of love alive, right here right now. In that space in that relationship is the love I call God alive. This is the spiritual life, it’s all about relationships.

There is one community that I have in the last 12 months become a member of that seems very much about I-thou, rather than how-it relationships. This is the community of dog owners and walkers. It is a community like no other except perhaps parent and infant communities. There is a special kind of intimacy that goes on between us. I collected Molly almost exactly a year ago. She has made an incredible difference to my life. Not only our relationship, but in those I have with folk in the wider community. She has enabled me to get closer to folk and folk get closer to me. I may not know details of people’s lives, but I do of their dogs and she has allowed people to approach and talk to me more frequently in the street. It is a lovely example of intimate relationships, rather than transactional ones. These are I-thou encounters, not I-it. They are not perfect though and mirror the difficulties and messiness of all other interactions.

Of course often in life we do not engage with others as we would always like. I know when I am tired or stressed or caught up in grief I do not interact with people as I would like. I am certainly not a perfect pastoral minister. Buber often spoke of a tragic incident that shaped his life. While still in his twenties, Buber was at home working on a scholarly manuscript when there was a knock on the door. The visitor seemed somewhat distraught, and Buber, sympathetic to the man but anxious to return to his work, answered the man's questions briefly, but, as Buber later expressed it, "I did not answer the questions that he did not ask." Buber subsequently learned that, just a few days after their brief encounter, the man died, an apparent suicide. From then on, Buber concluded, encounters with people must take precedence even over scholarship and mystical speculation.

I am sure we can all remember moments in our lives when we could have related to other people better, when we could have recognised their shared humanity better. I know I have. I have sadly attended the funeral of two friends this week, who died in tragic circumstances. They services were beautiful and so many friends and people who cared for them were present. That said I left both services with an overwhelming sense of sadness and some guilt. I wondered if I could have done more to help them. This is not the first time I have wondered this both with friends and family. Could I or others have made a difference, it is hard to know. It has certainly weighed heavy in my heart these last few days.

The week at summer school and recent events have certainly given me pause. Led me to consider how better I can relate to others and meet them where they are, recognising their sacred uniqueness. To build better relationships with others, myself, life and God, for this is the essence of the spiritual life. Whilst also remembering that I cannot do so perfectly, no one can. In many ways it is the imperfect aspects of ourselves that help us come closer together, to build relationships

It's all about relationships. This is the spiritual life in its entirety. To see the holy in each other, to bring about holy encounters. This is the kin-dom of love right here right now. It is about seeing ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves. This is not easy. None of us can achieve it perfectly. The key is to attempt, to make a beginning, to move toward a completeness, to love one another and to love life, to move toward the creation of the kin-dom of love. It has to begin somewhere, so let it begin here right here, right now.

So let’s bless one another with our beautiful and imperfect presence.

It begins with our next imperfect encounter with one another and with life. It begins when we see the I in thou, in me in you and you in me.

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

Monday 28 August 2023

Be right enough to be wrong, for that is the essence of the truth

I was talking with a friend recently about memory and how it changes over time. He told me how strange he found it that when you speak with people who were present at the same event that he was at, how they remember it oh so differently. We talked about how memory is rarely pure. Often it is not always the memory itself but how the story of the memory is remembered. This is often particularly true of cultural memories, that are simply re-telling of communal stories, of which no one still alive was present at. We tell them, but how do we know that they are actually true. I told him what fascinates me is how memories can often be varied due to those experiencing the same situation differently. It is not just that people remember differently, they also experience life differently. How people experience reality can be oh so different, something I am increasingly aware of. I was reminded of this powerfully this week at “Summer School”. It is oh so very important to understand this in order to even attempt to empathise with others, to actually try and walk in their shoes. Humanity truly is a rich diversity. We weave a fascinating tapestry. This is something not merely to accept, or even understand, but to truly celebrate. If we work together we can create something incredibly beautiful. That said if we do not celebrate diversity, or attempt to make others confirm to one or other truth, we create nothing but destruction. I see ever more clearly that people experience reality in such diverse ways. While I accept neuro diversity, I think it is even more than that, something deeper perhaps, something of our souls and spirits. We need to share them with one another in order to understand reality in all its diversity, even then none of us truly even get a glimpse of the whole of the moon.

When a person shares something that is way beyond the bounds of experience to look at them with utter incredulity is a dismissal of their humanity. Again as I have listened intently with people this week I have witnessed a rich diversity in the way that people experience reality. I have found this both beautiful and incredibly moving.

This got me thinking about truth claims about anything; this got me thinking about the nature of truth; this got me thinking about the truths we believe about ourselves, one another, and life in general. There are many things that we hold true, without really questioning. Why do we? It also got me thinking about who we trust for our truth, what are the sources. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus said “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” How do we know what is true though? This is especially true when thinking of memory and how and others remember events we were present at.

“Truth” itself is an interesting word. It comes from a Germanic root which also gives rise to another word “troth” as the vow of old "I pledge thee my troth." A word used as people enter a covenant with one another, as Parker J Palmer put it “a pledge to engage in mutually accountable and transforming know in truth is to become betrothed, to engage the known with one's whole know in truth is to be known as well.”

Truth is a pledge made between people, it is relational in nature, a covenant of trust. So, who do we trust, who do we covenant with? What is the “truth”? Truth is not something we claim, it is more about how we live by what we claim. You can’t really hold the truth, but you can live by it.

In recent years a new word came into public consciousness. At the end of 2016 “The Oxford Dictionaries” announced that they had chosen “post-truth” as the word of the year, offering as a definition: “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The Oxford Dictionaries' Casper Grathwohl said post-truth could become "one of the defining words of our time".This was in response to a particularly tumultuous time politically, both in the UK and USA, I suspect that things have become more so ever since. Partisanship has grown, with all sides claiming that the others are engaging in Orwellian doublethink and that the organism of the state is working against them.

I am not entirely sure this is such a modern phenomena. There have always been opposing truth claims. When I think back to philosophy at university and claims about human nature, there has never been agreement. Are you with Hobbes in thinking that humanity is basically corrupt and needs authority to curb our destructive natures or are with Rousseau and his belief that we are basically decent but corrupted by society. The arguments about authoritarianism and democracy are not new. The difference today is the volume of these truth claims have been amplified, we seem bombarded by them. Society on the whole seems to shout louder and yet can hear less. Everyone is talking and yet so few seem able to listen.

Truth has always been subjective. We may claim pure rational, but I suspect this is in some way dishonest, emotional and personal belief have always played a part in our truth claims. I suspect that people have also always experienced reality in a variety of ways. There is nothing new in recognising truth as being subjective. Mohandas Gandhi said that “What may appear as truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person, but that need not worry the seeker, where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appear to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree. Different parts of the same elephant; different leaves on the same tree; different paths up the same mountain; different windows open to the same light; one truth, many manifestations.”

So we may see the same thing and yet still come to a completely different conclusion about this. This maybe because we are approaching the truth differently. We bring our own needs and our own biases, it is vital to recognise this, this though does not mean that the one drawing a different conclusion has bad intent, quite the opposite actually. This is true of people and all life for that matter. It is also important to recognise diversity in experience, how people process reality in diverse ways. This is so beautiful when fully understood, accepted and celebrated. I also feel that this is more than merely neurological, it may be deeper than that, what about soulful or spiritual diversity?

To quote the philosopher of science Karl Popper

“All things living are in search of a better world. Men, animals, plants, even unicellular organisms are constantly active. They are trying to improve their situation, or at least to avoid its deterioration.”

Popper argued that because the identification of error is so central to the problem solving process, therefore its corrective, the truth, is a core component of our quest for betterment. Mistakes are constantly made; all life makes mistakes. No one has absolute foresight, can see what is coming. That said to maintain trust it is vital to admit when one is wrong and to rectify the error. The problem I suspect in modern times is that admitting you are wrong is increasingly considered a weakness rather than a strength. This has caused a truth vacuum in the field of expertise. People do not trust experts as they once did. I suspect one of our greatest troubles of recent times is that people do not trust. Trust, it seems to me comes from having the humility to admit when we make mistakes. We need to be right enough in ourselves to admit when we are wrong.

So often we see our piece of truth as a rock that we must cling to, that is absolute and must not be questioned. This often leads to disputes as people find that in order to hold onto their truth, they must prove the truth claims of others wrong. Such reasoning lacks humility, because the truth is that whatever we believe or disbelieve about truth we never see the whole truth completely, instead we merely glimpse at the truth, or a piece of the truth. Who can honestly say that they know the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I suppose some do, they claim to know the whole truth about everything, an expert at everything. I would be very wary of trusting such folk. Just because someone says it is so, it does not make it true.

This brings to mind this 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.

It is also vital to remember that people experience the same situation differently. There is a diversity of experience within life. As a wise man once taught me, “To be right, you don’t have to make another wrong.” No you just need to seek the truth, as your experience teaches you, in relationship with the experiences of a diversity of other folk. Not so much people who think alike. I cannot think of anything worse than spending my life in the company of folk who think just like me. What would be the point of that. It sounds like a living hell to me.

It is our responsibility therefore to seek our truth, to bring to life our experiences. What we remember and to share it without apology. We need to do so for our own sanity and for the good of others, they need to receive what is within us.

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Whilst Lao Tzu wrote in the “Tao Te Ching” “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

You will never bring forth what is within you while ever you are afraid of what is within you. There have been times when I have been afraid to bring forth what is within me and I have witnessed the same fear in others too. After all is not a little less scary to receive our truth from elsewhere rather than to let it come forth from within ourselves.

It can appear safer to accept the truth offered to us, rather than to seek it out ourselves. So often in life we want certainty, absolutes black and white and not a thousand shades of grey. So often we seek the illusion of certainty. This though just closes us in, builds those walls and keeps us closed.

The key to truth seeking is openness, born from uncertainty and humility. Openness is a way that enables us to experience new previously unseen truth; a truth that will set us free. It will allow us to bring forth what is within us and by doing so we might just uncover what will save us from the delusion of what we think we know about ourselves, one another and life itself. The world needs to at least have a chance of experiencing the whole of the elephant, the whole of the moon.

Do we trust ourselves enough to seek out the truth and therefore to bring forth what is within us or would we just rather stick with the safety of what we think we already know of what someone has taught us or told us is the truth.

We can trust what we unearth if we learn how to truly live in the questions of ours and others truth claims. Trust is vital. We have to learn to trust what we discover, what we unearth, whilst not putting a fence around what we see as the truth today; the key is an open attitude whether that’s in finding your own truth or in offering truth to another. Now the challenge of course comes in dwelling in the ambiguity of truth without becoming overwhelmed or paralysed by it; the challenge comes in maintaining a deep commitment to the openness that truth seeking requires and not allowing ourselves to become closed down.

This is not for the faint hearted. This takes courage. This is not the easier path, but it is definitely the one worth taking, for it is the one that will set us up to live in and through truth.

You know its ok to get it wrong to make mistakes. It’s ok to feel lost and confused about life at times. That is so human. There is something both glorious and beautiful in this.

If we want to be a seeker of truth, then above everything else what we need is an unremitting readiness to admit that we may be wrong. Wrong about how we view ourselves, wrong about how we view life, wrong about how we view other people.

The truth is of course is that once we can see we are wrong about something, admit we are wrong about something, do whatever we can to put right what was once wrong, then we are no longer wrong, we are right. The key is to feel right enough in our humanness to be able to admit that we can only ever vision the partial truth and to be open to the truth of others…

The key is in being right enough to be wrong, for that is the essence of the truth…

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