Monday 30 January 2023

Happy Birthday: Thanks For Your Life

This "blogspot" begins with a few thoughts on “Birthday’s” by Henri Nouwen

Birthdays are so important. On our birthdays we celebrate being alive. On our birthdays people can say to us, “Thank you for being!” Birthday presents are signs of our families’ and friends’ joy that we are part of their lives. Little children often look forward to their birthdays for months. Their birthdays are their big days, when they are the centre of attention and all their friends come to celebrate.
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.

Last Saturday was one of those very busy days. I had lots of things to attend to. It didn’t start well. My car was frozen and wouldn’t start. I couldn’t do anything about it immediately as I had to open the Hilary Azzize for the Altrincham Court Leet. I was made a Freeman of Altrincham a few years ago, for services to the community, particularly in the area of mental health and addiction, and serve as chaplain to the Court Leet. I led devotions based on impermanence and the uncertainty of life. As part of the devotion we shared a time of silence to honour those who had died in recent times that were either members of the Court Leet or close friends and family members. I knew several of those named, two were close to my heart, one very much so. As I left I swallowed hard as I thought of those lost lives and the impact they had on my life and the lives of so many others. I then called breakdown recovery to get my car going. I had two birthday celebrations to get to, one in the afternoon and another in the evening. I called ahead to warn that I might be late for the first celebration. The recovery man arrived got in my car turned the ignition and it started first time. The car had thawed completely, it had been minus 4 when I got up that morning and I had foolishly not driven the car In days. It has not been a problem since. After much mirth and laughter I quickly got changed and went to the first birthday. A chapel Carolyn Jones was celebrating her 80th birthday and all the important people from her life were there to share in her celebration. Her son Richard gave a wonderful telling of the story of her life, her achievements and the things that mean the most to her. She has lived quite a life, including overcoming a severe form of cancer in recent years, and it was wonderful to share in her celebration. I left to get home to take Molly for a walk, I was feeling guilty as I wasn’t spending much time with her that day. I then went out to share a friends birthday meal. She is a recovery friend, and it was wonderful to celebrate her life, with two distinct groups of people. Her family and her long-term friends, along with a whole group of friends from recovery. It was a wonderful night, celebrating her life and of course her new life that she is embarking on. It has been wonderful watching this woman grow and thrive in recent times. Wonderful to share and enjoy her journey. I then went home to spend the rest of the night with Molly, who herself has recently had her first half birthday, she recently turned 6 months old. I certainly didn’t need to eat again. I had enjoyed two meals and three pieces of cake. Very nice cake indeed. The cake brought me right back to childhood and memories of baking with my grandma. It’s taste and texture were identical to the cakes and buns she baked. It was a lovely memory.

Birthdays are oh so important and they should be marked and celebrated. They are truly “Holy Days”; they are an opportunity to honour the sacredness of our lives; they are opportunities to recognise one another’s sacred uniqueness. As Henri Nouwen so delightfully 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.”

I regret not celebrating either of my birthday’s last year. I really wasn’t in the mood. It was wrong of me to do so and somewhat selfish actually. Please do not let me do so again.

Some people have two birthdays. I am not just talking about the Monarch here by the way. Folk in recovery also celebrate a second birthday. They celebrate their sobriety birthday as well as their belly button birthday, a kind of re-birthday if you like. Mine is the 10th October 2003. On these days they turn down a different path, they begin their life journey again. They turn from non-being to living. Forrest Church when talking about the beginning of his new life after finding sobriety wrote the following in the last few months of his life as he was succumbing to cancer:

"Taken literally (in Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin), "conversion" is not "re-birth" but "turning". Once converted, we re-direct our journey. The American short-story writer Raymond Carver turned his life around by a decision to stop drinking. From that point forward, he met life's trials with equanimity and grace. When dying of brain cancer at the age of forty-nine. Carver summed up the nine years of freedom he had enjoyed during what turned out to be the final decade of his life with the same word that lept to mind when I give daily thanks for a yearlong reprieve from my cancer: "gravy". When we see life as the precious gift that it is, when we celebrate our birthday as a truly holy day we see that everything is indeed “gravy”.

Here he is in his own words, the poem “Gravy”.

“Gravy” by Raymond Carver

No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

They say we only get one crack at life; this is true to some degree. That said we can at times begin again. When all feels lost at times, sometime it’s just the beginning of the end of an old way of being that may lead us down another path. We can begin again in love.

This week I conducted the memorial service of one such woman. One who lived a life of love and service for the last 37 years of life, one remembered fondly by those she helped. She made great use of her life and many of her friends wanted to remember this. It is always fascinating what you learn about a person at their funeral and or memorial service. It was good to hear about Carolyn, from her son Richard, while she is still with us, something that was not guaranteed in recent times.

As I was reflecting on these lives, both lost and celebrated. I was reminded of a poem, very popular at funerals these days.

It's called the “Dash” by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
From the the end

He noted that first came the date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years

For that dash represents all the time
That they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
Know what that little line is worth

For it matters not, how much we own,
The cars...the house...the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

I know it’s a bit of a folksy poem, but its message is deep, powerful and meaning filled. The dash appears short and even thin and yet it can be deep and meaning filled.

Again this brought me back to another extract from Forrest Church’s masterpiece “Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow”, written while he was dying of oesophageal cancer. He asked "knowing that we will die, what should we do?" To which he answered "we should live, we should laugh, and we should love." He then recalled a lesson he learnt from his children, about living. One day, when they were young, he was walking them to school, on a busy New York street. Suddenly a car swerved round a corner and almost killed them all. Forrest was incensed by this, but he remembers, "my kids just laughed, romping blithely down the sidewalk, jumping from tree to tree as they always did, trying to touch the leaves." The kids were celebrating, nay singing the joy of living, and they "had the right idea. Why didn't I think to jump and touch the leaves?"

Forrest believed that it was living, loving and laughing that took real courage, they required heart, while dying didn’t really take much courage at all, in his eyes that just came naturally. Something he was experiencing as he wrote these words.

Now to really live Forrest suggested a simple little mantra:" Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are." He didn’t suggest that this would be easy but it is the only way to live and in so doing we will live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for by the love we leave behind. There was a lot of love celebrated in the lives of those living and those who have died in the last week.

I believe that Forrest uncovered a simple little answer as to how each of us should live, a way to bring deep meaning to the ordinariness of our lives. This is how we should live. To want the things that make up our lives and not wish for something else and in so doing we might just begin to be who we truly are, instead of wishing we were someone else. In so doing we can do the things that we are able to do and thus bring deep meaning to the little bit of the dash that we are living right now.

This is the gift of life, the beautiful gift of being alive in this ordinary moment, a moment that can become deep and meaningful, not only for ourselves but for those we get to share our lives with. For we never know how long we’ve got left how close we are to the end of the line, the last part of dash. Nor do we know how close those we love are to the end of theirs. At the memorial service I heard of another friend who has been given a very bad cancer diagnosis, he is facing it with courage as he has so many things over the years.

So how do we end this little dash of a service. Well I will offer a ittle bit of wisdom by Kurt Vonnegut, towards the end of his life.

In 2006 a high school English teacher asked students to write to famous authors and ask for advice. Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond. Here is his response. It is magnificent:

“Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

So, let’s go live our lives. It is the ultimate free gift, the ultimate grace, it’s gravy. Go live whatever time we have best, let’s do it in style.

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

Monday 23 January 2023

Winter: There is a time for Everything Under the Sun

I am usually my most fatigued on Monday’s. Sunday does take a lot out of me. I know some folk don’t think I do much during the rest of my week, but I do. I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked after the Sunday service “So what do you do the rest of the week?” I know that sometimes people are just being funny, but at other times the question is asked in all seriousness. I will not begin to recite for you. People do sometimes ask the most obvious of questions. A young woman did come up to me in a bar recently and asked me “If I come here often”. I think she was joking, but you never know.

Monday can be a low energy day for me. A day when my mood is usually at its lowest and I generally just go through the motions of some work activities. I clear up from the week that has gone and begin to build for the week ahead. Monday’s tend to always have a wintery feel about them.

Now did you know that this last Monday has been given a special name, it is called “Blue Monday.” No not the song by New Order, but a day that is regarded as the hardest of the year. The Christmas spirit has all gone and we are right in depths of winter. It is dark, it is cold and there is little light around, Spring seems so far away. There will not be another public holiday until Easter and that seems quite a long way into the distance.

The day light hours will increase over the coming weeks but still we must face winter. January and February can be difficult as we feel stuck in the cold on these dark winter evenings. It has been cold this week, it has felt like winter. It seems like we have gone through a few long winters of late. This one seems as hard as ever. Already it is being called a “Winter of Discontent”. Life does seem ever more difficult for most folk. When will winter be finally over, so many of us cry. There is light, I can see it all around me.

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always looking towards the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace. There is a need to embrace and fully experience the darkness, the lifelessness and the starkness of this time of year. We should not wish it all away, for everything there is a season and a time for everything under the sun. We need winter, as hard it feels. All things need to properly come to an end in order for what is new to truly come to fruition. The beauty and the meaning of life comes in its finiteness.

I have noticed this in myself of late. Last winter was a tough time for me personally. I came through it though. I faithfully stuck at things and this year it is almost as if I am another person. Last Monday may have supposedly been “Blue Monday”, but I did not feel blue at all. In fact, I felt as alert and energised as I have ever done. I had a lovely day, just going about my daily business, noticing the wintery world around me. Molly and I went and enjoyed a good two hour walk around Altrincham and a long play in the park. She was six months old last Monday and I enjoyed marking the occasion and enjoying this precious blessing in my life. I also enjoyed observing the changing winter scene all around us.

Yes winter can look bleak and barren at times, but it didn’t feel like it last Monday, despite the world telling me it was “Blue Monday”

As Molly ran off to play with a gang of dogs in the park I found myself examining a barren tree. It looked vulnerable just standing there all alone and yet I knew it was alive as it stood there bold and upright. It reminded me of my own vulnerability and my exposure to the cold of winter and to the challenges of life, challenges I do not shrink from, even though I do from time to time feel tempted. As the last year or so have proved once again.

Everyone wants to feel safe, protected and warm, not cold, exposed and vulnerable. It is a refuge that we all seek, often it is a refuge that folk seek and believe they will find in religion and spirituality. This sense that we are protected and safe, but is it realistic? So often we seek protection from the troubles of life, from its winter. If life has taught me anything it has shown me that the insulation I often seek so easily becomes isolation. These attempts to protect myself from exposure only increase the suffering. If I have learnt anything in life it’s that self-protection just cuts you off and leaves you feeling all alone, once again.

One of the advantages of ministry is that it forces you to pay attention to the passing seasons. By doing so you learn to appreciate what each has to offer. Winter has so much to offer if we would but let ourselves appreciate it. The trees in winter have much to teach we who would prefer to hibernate. If I have learnt anything I have learnt that the spiritual life is about living openly and vulnerably, it’s about accepting the reality of life. It’s about standing their upright, arms outstretch in the cold vulnerability of life waiting for the time of re-birth and renewal in whatever form this takes, just like the trees in winter.

The spiritual life is also about not clinging. The power of our finite lives is in the impermanence of all created life. Thus giving us a time for everything under the sun, including death. The power and beauty of our lives comes in its finiteness. Nothing ever lasts forever. That said although our lives and the lives of our loved ones someday come to an end, life does go on and love does indeed remain. To quote Ecclesiastes 1 v 4 “Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever”

“For everything there is a season.” The wisdom contained within the book Ecclesiastes, particularly the verses from the third chapter that we heard earlier, has stood the test of time. There is good reason for this; it speaks an eternal and universal truth that generation after generation have found that they can relate to. The power of this ancient source lays in its ability to link we who live today with the generations that have walked the earth before us. We all of us have travelled many and varied journeys and lived through all the seasons of life. Nothing is permanent and nothing lasts forever. No one will ever escape the pain of life, but that ought not bring despair because if we remain open we will also know life’s joy. Yes, there is a time to mourn, but there is also a time to dance; there is a time to weep, but there is also a time to laugh. Again, the last 12 months have shown me the proof of this.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” There are many seasons in our lives, just as there are many different emotions. Yes, sometimes we can experience all those emotions in one single day, just as we can experience four seasons in one day. There is a time and perhaps a place for all them, for to diminish any of them is deny what it is to be fully human. Yes, there is a time to weep, just as there is a time to laugh and there is a time to mourn, just as much as there is a time to dance.

I have wept many times this last year and I have held others in their suffering too, that said I have also laughed many times, I have seen joy and I have seen how life continues on. Again to repeat Ecclesiastes 1 v 4 “Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever”

Ecclesiastes really speaks to me, it reveals an authentic truth. I love Ecclesiastes. I love is because it is real, it is authentic. Like the changing seasons life is forever changing, it is impermanent, nothing last forever. Rami Shapiro writes of its wisdom:

"The world revealed in Ecclesiastes is an impermanent world of continual emptying. Ecclesiastes calls this hevel. Trying to grasp something in this world, trying to hold on to anything in this world, leaves you breathless, exhausted, and anxious. This impermanence is the nature of nature, and because this is so, the world lacks surety and certainty; change and the unknowing that change carries with it are the hallmarks of life. In Ecclesiastes you spend no time longing for escape from impermanence, but rather learn to live well in the midst of it. This is what the Book of Ecclesiastes wants to tell us. This is why it was written. This is why it is still read some twenty-five hundred years later."

Eccleciates teaches me what it means to live authentically and truly religiously. That said it is a religion that is not pointing to Salvation beyond this life, but in this life. This to me is the essence of my Unitarian faith. It is not pointing to something beyond this life, but within this life. Which you can only truly experience by letting go of control and allow life to have its way with you, every season of life and every feeling of life. In so doing you will live the life you have been given, the ultimate gift, the ultimate grace. The next life, whatever that may be, will take care of itself.

Last Monday was meant to be the most miserable day of the year, Blue Monday. I didn’t feel that myself. I utterly felt the joy of living actually, as I connected to life all around me, as well as in my own heart. I felt as close to God as I have ever done. That is not to say I was turning away from the suffering in this world. There has been pain and suffering in my life this last year. There is pain and suffering in those I hold most dear in my life right now. I spoke with several of them on Monday. I did not turn away, nore did I try to fix them. I just shared in their pain, if only for a little while. This week I have been with many people experiencing the most difficult kinds of suffering. There is much pain in those I hold dear to my heart too. There is also a time to relive my own suffering in the past, I need to in order to truly empathise with others, in order to minister, to serve, to be with another in their pain. The pain is the price I pay for daring to love, a pearl of the greatest price. It is the refusal to close myself to this pain that allows me to do the things I am here to do. It gives me meaning even in the most painful suffering. It also enables me to know joy, even when there is suffering all around me.

“Generations come and generations go, but the earth abides forever” So does love. Something beautiful remains. We cannot escape the suffering in life. We cannot cling to anything even those things and those people we love the most. The generations come and the generations go, just as the seasons do also. That said we can plant seeds of love right here right now. We can walk side by side with one another, we can hold each other and bear witness to one another’s tears. We can also laugh and dance and make merry even in the midst of real suffering too. We can live our lives fully regardless of how many seasons we have left. And when the time comes we can let go of our lives with dignity and grace.

Remembering always that while our individual lives come and go, just like the seasons, both the earth and love abides forever.

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

Monday 16 January 2023

The Spiritual Life: Living Spiritually Alive

Last Saturday night I was out with friends. It was a late night and so Molly had a sleep over with a couple of other friends. I say I was out with friends, when in actual fact I only knew some of the people and only two or three very well. A friend was having a leaving do as he was returning to live back in London. The group were mutual friends of his. Now I got talking to quite a variety of people that evening, all much younger than me, in their twenties, all millennials or Generation Z’s. My profession came up and as is always the case many assumptions, along with a great deal of surprise, followed. I got into one a conversation with a young woman who wanted to talk about her beliefs with regard to death and the afterlife. As is usually the case in such conversations she did most of the talking, I did the listening. She was very certain in what she believed and described in detailed what the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” has to say about life beyond this life. It was fascinating to listen to her and her views about the afterlife and reincarnation, She, was somewhat surprised to hear that I myself was fairly agnostic about what happens beyond this physical life. It is not that I don’t believe in anything, it is more that it is difficult for me to hold strong views about something I have no personal experience of. My spirituality is very much informed by experience. I also said something like “I prefer to focus on one life at a time”

I had a couple of other conversations with people who are struggling with life in some ways. They were asking about spiritual practice and how to improve on them, they described feeling overwhelmed and anxious a lot of the time. I shared some experiences, but mainly I listened, ministry is mostly about listening.

I have had many deep profound spiritual experiences in my life, sometimes incredibly beautiful and connective and other times quite unpleasant, as they have been around the death of loved ones. I have also experienced thousands of moments of transcendence and connection in the ordinariness of life. Moments when I have paid attention and thus seen life in new ways as well as moments of deep connection when I touch the core of myself and life, perhaps, dare I say, touched the heart of God. I had a wonderful opportunity to remember and share some of these the other day whilst being interviewed for a chapter in a book on “Happiness”, it will be published next year.

The many conversations I have had recently got me thinking about spiritual practices and their purpose, particularly prayer and meditation, something I engage with throughout my daily living. Yes, sometimes formerly with others as well as privately, but also informally as I live my ordinary life. Some might not consider these to be spiritual practices at all, they are to me.

I have discovered how vital of this is in order to live, to be fully alive in this world. I remember Bill Darlison once saying that “Spirituality” is about increasing our sensitivity to life. To me this means being affected by and thus becoming more effective in life. This helps me understand the purpose of prayer and meditation which enables me to do so, I have discovered. Such practices allow me to connect to the core of my being and thus to life itself; such practices enable me to connect to God which I see as being a part of everything, perhaps the core of everything and yet more than everything, a kind of panentheism, not to be confused with pantheism.

Henri Nouwen captured the idea near perfectly in his meditation “The Hub”

In my home country, the Netherlands, you still see many large wagon wheels, not on wagons, but as decorations at the entrances of farms or on the wall of restaurants. I have always been fascinated by these wagon wheels: with their wide rims, strong wooden spokes, and big hubs. These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the centre. When I move along the rim, I can reach one spoke after the other, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once.

To pray is to move to the centre of all life and love. The closer I come to the hub of life, the closer I come to all that receives its strength and energy from there. My tendency is to get so distracted by the diversity of the many spokes of life, that I am busy but not truly life giving, all over the place but not focused. By directing my attention to the heart of life, I am connected with its rich variety while remaining centred. What does the hub represent? I think of it as my own heart, the heart of God, and the heart of the world. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of Love. And I recognise, right there, the place where all my sisters and brothers are in communion with one another. The great paradox of the spiritual life is, indeed, that the most personal is most universal, that the most intimate, is the communal, and that the most contemplative is most active.

The wagon wheel shows that the hub is the centre of all energy and movement, even when it often seems not to be moving at all. In God all action and all rest are one. So too prayer!

The last few sentences are worth repeating again. They touch my soul so deeply.

“The great paradox of the spiritual life is, indeed, that the most personal is most universal, that the most intimate, is the communal, and that the most contemplative is most active.

The wagon wheel shows that the hub is the centre of all energy and movement, even when it often seems not to be moving at all. In God all action and all rest are one. So too prayer!”

The great traditions offer a treasure trove of practices, that can help us to connect more fully to life, the most obvious being prayer. Prayer means many things to different people and has done so throughout the ages. You may find yourself praying without even realising it. It may sound strange to see this, but can actually be quite a physical practice, this manifest in a variety of ways in different traditions While a Christian may bow their heads and fold their hands, a Sufi will whirl and a native American will dance. A Buddhist will sit quietly in a particular position, while a Hindu will offer a sacrifice. Jewish and Muslim prayers are very physical. A Jewish person while praying will bob their heads back and forth while a Muslim will physically prostate themselves. Prayers are not just about silence and spoken words. You sing a prayer too, isn’t that was hymns are. I think it was Augustine who said singing was praying twice; I myself love singing mediation. I also believe that joy and laughter can be considered a form of devotion, for it connects to those deeper aspects of life.

The spiritual life is about increasing this connection, it’s about enabling us to pay greater attention to the world around us, to be affected by life and to live more effectively in life. Thus, you feel more spiritually alive.

Spiritual practice can take many forms and should not be seen necessarily as a solemn activity, done in isolation. Yes, we can close ourselves away and pray in isolation as Jesus suggested we should, but it’s not essential. Neither do we have to necessarily use words when we are praying, every activity we engage in can be a form of prayer.

In the Japanese Shinto tradition prayers and blessings are calliagraphed on paper streamers and tied to the branches of trees and bushes. As the streamers wave in the wind the blessings then fly out over the world. In Tibet prayers are carved into wooden band wheels which are spun like a top sending the prayers up into the sky. Sometimes the wheels are positioned in a stream so that the current of the water spins the wheels and the prayers are then carried off without the need of human assistance.

One of the five pillars of Islamic practice is to pray facing Mecca five times every day, here it’s not so much the words but the direction of the prayers that matter. During the middle ages monastic orders that took vows of silence considered work done by the hands as a form of prayer – therefore everything that was done in life was considered a prayer to God. This seems very similar to the mindfulness practiced by Zen Buddhist – in which every action is practiced with deep attention. Such practices are not self indulgent they are there to enable the individual to better engage in life itself, to pay deep attention, to be affected and thus become increasingly effective. It helps me find my voice and thus speak of what it means to live spiritually alive, they actually change me at a deep level. They are meant to. To quote Rheinhold Neibuhr “Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things...Prayer is not hearing voices, prayer is acquiring a voice.” Everything we do, if practiced with intention, if we pay attention can become a prayer. As Dorothy Day put it “I believe some people – lots of people- pray through the witness of their lives. Through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people.” In so doing we can unlock our true human potential and become all that we were born to be.

The spiritual life is about increasing our sensitivity to life. It is about being affected by and thus becoming more effective in life. What it really does for me is that it enables me to truly pay attention and not to turn away, even when I am tempted to do so. Sometimes it is hard and deeply painful to pay attention, but it is the only way to truly feel alive. Paying attention is of course prayer, to quote Simone Weil “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,”, but it is more than that though, it is deeper, for as Mary Oliver said “Attention without feeling, is only a report.” What we pay attention to has to affect us, it much touch us in those deeper places, this is prayer and requires prayer to practice.

This is beautifully portrayed in Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “A Summer’s Day”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver “A Summer Day”

To live spiritually alive is about increasing our sensitivity to life, its about paying deep attention, intentionally, its about being affected and thus becoming increasingly effective in life. This requires prayer in its rich variety of form. It won’t change the world, but it will change us and enable us to live fully in this world, for as Reinhold Niebuhr said “Prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people and people change things.” Over the years I have discovered that it is prayer that enables me to open and connect to life in all its joy and suffering, it allows me to increase my sensitivity to life and thus be touched by life and in return respond in more loving and open ways. Prayer for me is a kind of opening of myself to something larger. In many ways it is the whole of my life, this life. The next, well I no nothing about that, well at least with certainty.

May life be your prayer. Whether that be your devotional practices or just the way that you act with friends and loved ones. Whether it be the reflective pause before you do or say anything, or a quiet time at some point in the day, whether it be dancing or singing around your kitchen or some dedicated pleace. Whatever it may be let all that you say and do reflect all that you would hope your life to be. Open yourself up to every encounter in every moment and you will bring to life the divine within you and in every aspect of your life.

So, let’s live more spiritually alive. May our lives become our prayer.

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


Monday 9 January 2023

Regret: To Greet the Future or Lament the Past

During the Christmas season I found myself in a few conversations about guilt and shame. While they may appear similar, and they can be equally as powerful in affecting our lives, they are not, they come from a different aspect of our humanity. Guilt can spur is into action, to make positive change in our lives, or that of others and the world in which we live. Guilt is a product of a healthy conscience, a person who claims never to feel any sense of guilt is either deluding themselves or potentially sociopathic. Shame is not the same as guilt at all. As the wonderful Brene Brown has said “ Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement."

Guilt and shame are equally powerful emotions, they can have an intense power over our lives and can push and pull a person in one direction or the other, they are opposites.The feeling of guilt can often compel a person to put right what was wrong, to heal a past hurt, or broken relationship. Whereas the desire to avoid the perceived humiliation of shame, by making the first move, may prevent a person from doing so. Yes, guilt and shame are both powerful emotions, one can be harnessed positively, whilst the other is only ever negative and destructive.

During one conversation a friend began telling me of some regrets they had about their life. We discussed what could be done and I shared some recent experiences in my own life. I have myself finally come to peace with some guilt and regret in recent months, it has lifted a great weight from my psyche, something family members commented on over Christmas. It seems I have once again been liberated from some shame, thank God.

Now all this brings me to a conversation after the last “Singing Meditation” when a congregational member was talking about shame and mentioned a book I read many years “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent many years working in palliative care. She worked with patients who were close to death, during the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded the patients dying epiphanies in a blog called “Inspiration and Chai”, this led to a book that she published a few years ago called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. In the book she describes the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives and what this can teach we who live on. She highlighted that there were five particular themes that emerged from her conversations.

The five regrets were:

Number 1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me: "This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."

Number 2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard: "This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

Number 3: I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings: "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."

Number 4: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends: "Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

Number 5: I wish that I had let myself be happier: "This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

I found these top five regrets very interesting, I wonder what we who live, what ours might be. There is time to do something about it and live with a sense of freedom and enjoy what time we have left, for while we are certainly living, we are also dying. I have, in recent weeks, sensed a deepening peace in my being as I have addressed certainly three of the five regrets. This is good, this is progress. It is good to know I am not a total slave to perfectionism. That said there is still some regret, there is guilt for mistakes I have made, but there is a decreasing sense of shame, thank God.

I know that most of the guilt and regret, the source of shame in my life, stems from a lack of courage at times, to not do what was mine to do and to live the life as authentically as I could. I feel less shame about this though as it just proves to me how fully human I am, there is no shame in that.

That said I still live with regrets though and I carry no shame about this.

Some say that they have no regrets about anything. It is interesting that perhaps the most heard song at funerals is “My Way” by Frank Sinatra and that famous line “Regrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention” or perhaps the famous Edith Piath “je ne regrette rien” no regret. A more modern version would be Robbie Williams’ “No Regrets”

Is this really true though? Can any of us truly say that as our lives end that we have no regrets? I’m not sure I can. I cannot make the claim that I have no regrets at all. There have been many failures and mistakes along the way. Most folk live with regret and struggle with parts of their past. Like King David I am sure we could all write our Psalms of Lament.

Regret is an interesting word, originally it was a kind of lament, from the Old French word ‘regreter”, meaning “one who bewails the dead,” which comes from a Germanic root meaning “to greet.” So, it makes sense that it is the dying that perhaps feel regret the most intensely. As Mark Nepo has said of regret “We always face these two phases of regret: to bewail what is dead and gone, and, if we can move through that grief, to greet the chance to do things differently as we move on.” Regret can inspire us to change, so long as it is not fuelled by shame.

Nepo notes something of real value here, it is a lesson from grief. Yes, regret is a lament for what has gone, what has died, but if we greet it fully with love we can learn from the past and do things differently in the future. The response to regret is both of life and death. The choice is ours. By the way this is the one choice we have in life. We do not choose what happens to us but we can choose how we respond to what happens to us. This is the one ultimate freedom, that is open to all of us.

To quote Viktor Frankl:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

So, the response to regret is ours. We can either choose life or death. We can close in and shut down or we can create with love.

There are two wonderful examples of responses to regret in the New Testament. They are found in the Easter narrative, following Jesus’s betrayal. Luke’s Gospel (Ch22 vv 60-62) depicts Peter regretting his betrayal of Jesus. He wept bitterly for his fear based denial and yet how did he respond. Well, it was on Peter that the earlier Christian Church was built. For Peter Hope was once again born. Matthew (Ch 27 vv 3-5) depicts a very different response to regret that of Judas Iscariot. This is much closer to the original meaning of regret, which meant to bewail the dead. His response was to take his life. Both Peter and Judas can be seen as examples of how we can act with guilt or from shame over the things we regret in life, we are all much the same.

Regret has its place; we need to feel it and to respond in life giving and affirming ways. It matters how we live with regret, is it in life affirming ways or shame based life denying ones.

As Joan Chittister wrote in “The Gift of Years”

“The burden of regret is that, unless we come to understand the value of the choices we made in the past, we may fail to see the gifts they have brought us.

The blessing of regret is clear — it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming.”

We all have regrets. It is delusional to say that we should never have them, in fact a person who never feels regret or guilt has something missing in their humanity. Yes, regrets, fuelled by shame, can gnaw away at our souls, but it we are wise, regrets can be powerful teachers. We need a lot of humility and curiosity to learn from our regrets rather than simply allowing them to whittle away at the spirit. Above all we need hope: if we regret something but are willing to learn from it, we must dare to hope that we can learn from it. All humility is, in some sense, a thing of hope: when we humble ourselves, we are living in the hope that we can do better.

So I say let’s face and truly know those things we regret, no matter how many times we have failed to live up to our ideals. Let’s be powered by appropriate guilt and not fetted by inappropriate shame. We need not be paralysed lamenting the past, nore do we need to close the door on it. Let us instead move through the grief of regret and greet the future with its possibility of what might yet be.

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