Monday 27 February 2023

Are You Awake? Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

Sunday’s have been extra busy these last few months. After leading worship Molly and myself have been going to puppy school. Before Christmas she passed puppy class and these last few weeks we have been working towards the Bronze Award of “The Kennel Club Good Citizen Dog Scheme”. When working with her at home she has been doing great. The problem is when she is with other dogs; when Molly is with other dogs she just wants to play. All the commands have been going well, except recall. In the park this one seems the most difficult.

Last Sunday was the examination, for the Bronze award. Things did not begin well. For some reason she chose this Sunday to turn her nose up at the training treats I had. Thankfully one of the other owners leant we some cheesy ones which she loved.

The assessment began. I found myself feeling anxious about it. It actually felt worse than my driving test, but I kept centering myself and saying “The fear prayer” over and over, under my breath. “God please remove my fear and direct my attention to what you would have me be. Molly was her usual calm self. Just playing in-between the different tests. Things went well. There was a moment during the stay command, when the dogs are to stay still for a whole minute. A motorbike went past and misfired loudly, this caused a couple of dogs to move, but Molly just looked up, and stayed still. The only test that proved difficult was recall, I knew that this would be the case. She did, just not with the rushed enthusiasm of the other dogs. She came, but slowly at her own pace.

We passed the exam and will now move onto the silver award in a few weeks time. An observer of the test had been the woman who had instructed us during the first puppy classes. She said some lovely things to me about Molly and our relationship and how far she had come, saying that we must have been working hard on our relationship. I cannot tell you how much this meant to me.

One thing I have noticed since Molly came into my life has been an increase in old feelings of self-consciousness. Not so much about myself but how others perceive me, through Molly. People do offer comments all the time about her and I have taken on board the odd critical one. On the whole though she is a lovely dog, very calm, friendly and sociable, pretty fearless too. She is smart and knows her own mind. She is not at all self conscious, she is fully conscious of herself and the world in which she lives and breathes and enjoys her being. She is teaching me so much. Molly is a treasure and fully awake.

As I was reflecting about Sunday this week I was reminded of a story attributed to the Buddha.

It is said that soon after his enlightenment that the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha answered, "No."

"Are you a man?" "No."

"Well, my friend, then what are you?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake"

The Buddha was awake, he was fully conscious to all that is and all that will ever be. He was fully integrated, he did not see himself as separate, well he did not see himself at all.

Now this is not a claim I would or could make about myself. I believe I am more awake these days than I have ever been in the past, but I am very aware of a sense of separation from time to time. That said I am more conscious than I ever was before. There is a simple reason for this, I am less self-conscious than I once was. Of course, I am not yet the perfectly self-actualised enlightened being. It is highly unlikely that I ever will be, but I am not crippled by self consciousness these days, it does not paralyse me. I feel more connected, at one, with all that is, than at any other time in my life. I feel conscious, I feel awake, but I used to be terribly self-consciousness and I suspect that it was this that was the very root cause of so much of that aching loneliness that used to eat away at me. I felt, separate, cut off, alone. How many of us feel like this, it is so much the plague of the modern age.

It has been interesting to notice how I have been revisited by some of these feelings recently. I was terribly self conscious as a child, there are many reasons for this, or should I say I found many reasons for it. One being a birth defect. I was born with some of the nerve endings at the base of my spine being underdeveloped. It was something akin to a less severe form of spina bifida. As a child I had to frequently go for physiotherapy and there was a period when I was not allowed to engage in any sport. I hated the feeling it engendered in me as I looked at the other kids running around in the playground, knowing I wasn’t allowed to join in.

It was a few years later when the pain really hit me though, in my mid to later teens when I was painfully aware of the way I walked. I remember walking down the street of the town I grew up in and whenever I saw someone walking towards me I would stand up straight and attempt to push my feet inwards in the vain hope that they wouldn’t think that there was something wrong with me. I must have looked a right sight.

I was just so terribly self-consciousness; I was just so locked in on what I believed was wrong with me. Today I have come to understand that the problem was not my perceived physical imperfections. I suspect that if I’d been born without this physical difficulty the problem would have manifested in other areas of my life. The problem was the self-consciousness, I was locked in myself and therefore not fully conscious, I was separate and felt alone.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that I am not alone in this. So many of us suffer from forms of self-consciouness. We feel lost, lonely and cut off because we are locked in what we believe is wrong with us. Sometimes it is harder to see what is right, than what is wrong. This is a deeply lonely, isolated, way to be.

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Now while not wishing to argue with the great philosopher I do wonder if the “over examined life” can prove just as worthless. It is so easy to get lost in oneself, wrapped up in our own underwear to such an extent that we do not live at all. We can become so self-conscious that we fail to become conscious of all that is and all that has ever been. It is so easy to become wrapped up in our own perceived needs that we fail to live in the world with others and then complain about feeling lonely. Yes it is important to examine ourselves, to understand who we are and what makes us tick, but that should not be an end in itself, a destination. It is a staging post in the spiritual adventure, but not an end in itself.

Now this form of self-absorption has been labelled Narcissism. You remember the ancient Greek story of the boy who fell so in love with his own reflection that he fell into the water and drowned. I’m not sure that it is entirely correct to label this form of self-consciousness this way. There seems very little love there at all. Quite the opposite in fact the pre-occupation is with what is wrong. When you look at your own reflection in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone that you love? Do you see who you really are? While we may see ourselves warts and all, how many of us see the beauty spots too? The self-absorption that most people I come into contact with suffer from tends to be a deeply ingrained negative type. The preoccupation is often with what is wrong with them, with their shame, rather than how wonderful they are.

This kind of self-consciousness can become so consuming that it takes over our human interactions. I wonder how many of us suffer from this kind of commentary when we meet up with people. “What will they think of me?” “How do I look?” “If I say something, will they think I’m an idiot?” and then as it continues, “He gave me a funny look, he must have thought me a fool. Why on earth did I have to make that stupid remark? Gosh I’m such a freak, they all seem to be staring at me.”

This kind of inner dialogue can be so crippling. It can haunt us from the moment we wake and continue throughout our day, eating away at our every decision. Oh and of course because we doubt ourselves and every decision we make, we assume that everyone else must be doing exactly the same thing. This kind of self-consciousness can be so crippling and it blocks us off almost entirely from the world around us. When we become consumed by this kind of self-consciousness we see the world from our own point of view and it aint a pretty one.

So what can we do about it? How do we wake up to a greater consciousness? How do we break free from this crippling self-consciousness?

In the Gospel’s Jesus taught his followers that they must lose themselves in order to be found. That by emptying ourselves of our self-absorption we begin to be filled with the spirit of neighbourliness. So that when we look deeply into the still waters we are not drawn in by narcissistic self-consciousness and loathing at our own reflection, but rather into a deeper contemplation of our shared lives. We become conscious of all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. By opening ourselves to and for others we begin to shed that debilitating skin of self-consciousness that is so easy to become imprisoned in.

Gandhi said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others”

The Buddha talked of Nirvana, of being freed from the suffering that was the blight of humanity. He showed that we all suffered and that it was in seeing our suffering as individual that led to this sense of separation. He suggested that we needed to break through our suffering not only to serve others but to reach a higher state of being, true consciousness, to be awake.

Now please don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that we do not need to know ourselves to understand how we tick. All I am saying is that we must not get stuck there, we must not get lost there and we must not see this as a destination, more a staging post on the journey. The adolescent stage I suspect. Sadly for many folk, me included, this adolescent stage often goes well into adulthood.

So how do we move from self-consciouness to consciousness. Well Forrest Church in his wonderful book “Lifecraft” offered three simple suggestions, which he called the three “E’s”, “empathy”, “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm”. The key he claimed could be found in the literal understanding of these words. “Empathy”, to suffer or feel with another; “Ecstasy”, to stand outside ourselves; “Enthusiasm”, to manifest the god (theos) within us.

Empathy is a deep felt compassion. When we open our hearts empathically to another we are courageously refusing to allow self-consciousness to stand in the way of a higher consciousness that comes into being as we feel what another is going through. In so doing we serve both ourselves and the other person, as well as that higher consciousness beyond our singular selves.

Now ecstasy has often been misunderstood as some kind of hedonistic state and therefore self- indulgent, it is far from this. In its truest sense what it actually does is takes us out of ourselves and lifts us beyond the confines of ourselves. In so doing we transcend our self-consciousness and enter a realm in which purpose begins to emerge and meaning is found.

Enthusiasm means to be filled with spirit, with holy energy. Enthusiasm allows us to be fully involved and engaged in whatever it is we are doing. It allows us to see beyond the confines we have created. Forrest himself states that “Here, once again, consciousness displaces self-consciousness. We escape from our mirrored room. Its mirrors turn into windows. Or the pond grows so still that we can see beyond our own reflection to the trees and clouds and birds and sun. There is, by the way, no higher form of spiritual practice. When we step out of our own shadow, consciousness replaces self-consciousness.”

In so doing we are set free to walk with others in our own faltering ways. Instead of being lost in what we believe is wrong with us we are set free to do what we can in this our shared world and in so doing we encourage others to do the same, as perfectly imperfect children of God.

For me the purpose of the spiritual life is to develop a deepening sense of connection. We all have our troubles and our worries either within ourselves, those around us or our wider world. We need to see them for what they are, we need to acknowledge the truth, but we must not get stuck there, for that will paralyse us and stop us doing what we can. We cannot change the way the world is but that need not prevent us from doing what we can do and in doing so we will grow spiritually as we become integrated into all that has been, all that exists and all that will ever.

So there you have a solution to self-consciousness, a way to develop consciousness, the three “E’s”, “empathy”, “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm”. “Empathy”, to suffer or feel with another; “Ecstasy”, to stand outside ourselves; “Enthusiasm”, to manifest the god (theos) within us.

As a kind of conclusion I’d like to leave you with one final thought. I think that so much of modern spiritually gets it wrong because it is seeking the wrong thing. There is so much talk of finding ourselves, when in actual fact what we ought to be doing is losing ourselves. What we ought to be striving for, I believe, is integration and remove those aspects within ourselves that block this. We all ask the question “Who am I?” when really we ought to asking is “How am I doing? And if we are still feeling utterly dis-connected we need to ask why? And how can I integrate once again? You see if we can begin to integrate with all that is, all that has been and all that has ever been we begin to truly cohere. In doing so we transcend our self-consciousness and become conscious. We become spiritually mature. We become like the Buddha, awake.

I was thinking this as I watched Molly rolling and dancing and frolicking with several other dogs in the park the other day, what a joy, what a freedom, oh to be so awake.

So how conscious are you today? Are you truly awake?

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

Monday 20 February 2023

Friendship Love and Love Without Prejudice: The Stranger is a Friend You Just Don’t Know

I will begin with a telling of a tale I heard from Mark Nepo. It is called “The Two Tribes”. It is a modern-day creation mythos.

“In the beginning, when the first humans came across each other, it went two ways. Upon seeing someone different, the more fearful one said, "You're different. Go away." The other, upon seeing someone not like him, said, "You're different. Come, teach me what I don't know." While our reasoning has grown more complicated throughout the centuries, it's essentially the same. "Go away" or "Come, teach me."

Since the beginning, the two tribes have had their philosophies. The "Go away" tribe has always believed that human beings, by their nature, are self-serving and untrustworthy, in need of control. The "Go away" tribe believes in stringent laws and constraints, both moral and legal, to ensure that people don't run amuck. The "Come, teach me" tribe believes that human beings, by their nature, are kind and trustworthy. The "Come, teach me" tribe believes in empowering laws that cultivate freedom, to ensure that people actualize their web of gifts through relationship.

The truth is that we are born into both tribes and can move from one to the other, depending on the level of our fear. The times of genocide throughout history mark the extreme, malignant manifestation of the "Go away" tribe. Distorted by fear, it's not enough just to say, "Go away." For unbridled fear turns to anger, which normalized turns into prejudice and hate. Such deep, embedded fear dictates that we need to make sure that those who are different can't return. And so, we exile them, jail them, hurt them, and in extremely ugly cases, persecute and kill them.

However, the times of enlightenment throughout history mark the extreme manifestation of the "Come, teach me" tribe, which through learning and wonder leads to eras of compassion and cooperation. Empowered by trust, curiosity turns into interdependence and a belief that we are more together than alone. When allowed to blossom, we realize that we need each other and our diversity of gifts to make life whole.”

I recently explored Bronnie Ware’s “Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. One of them being “I wish I had spent more time with my friends”. I have been addressing this of late. To be honest I was already doing so, but Bronnie’s wisdom brought it sharply into focus. Last weekend one of my oldest friends Matthew come to stay, it was great to spend time together. Another very old friend contacted me in the week about going to see a gig later in the year. There are other older and newer friends Who I am rebuilding bonds with. It is feeding my heart and soul and I hope theirs. Old friends and newer ones too are so very important to your soul, you have known each other through thick and thin. These are chosen kin-ship, you get to choose them, much more than those deep relationships you have with family. They are a kind of chosen family I suppose.

Last Tuesday, 14th February was Valentine’s Day, a day set aside to celebrate romantic love, eros love. Did you know that Monday, 13th February is known in some circles as “Pal-O-Mine’s Day”. A day when fans of the “The Dude”, from the Cohen Brother’s classic movie “The Big Lebowski” mark the importance of friendship love, “Philia” love. The Church of the latter Day Dude says of the day “Valentine’s day can put a lot of pressure on couples and be a real drag for those who are single. Instead of celebrating romantic love, the Dudeist Pal-o-mine’s day celebrates pals, friendships and good buddies. Occurs one day before Valentine’s Day so that those who are in romantic relationships can celebrate it as well.” There is an equivalent day for female friends too, also marked on February 13th, this is “Galentines Day” which states that “The female friendships we so heavily rely on are celebrated each year on Galentine’s Day on February 13. Originating from the popular TV show ‘Parks and Recreation,’ the holiday is all about declaring love and affection to the girls who make up our support system. Go Girl Power!”

I think we all recognise the importance of such friendship relationships in our lives, our hearts and souls need them. These are powerful ties, a kind of kinship network, that is beyond ties formed by blood.

Now my little dog Molly is very friendly. She seems to love people and other dogs equally. Havanese are known for it. Like most young dogs she is very playful, especially with others dogs. She loves to chase and be chased. Her favourite thing though is to wrestle, especially on two legs. The hind legs on a Havanese are stronger than their front legs which allows them to spend a lot of time on two legs rather than four.

In the five months that we have lived together she has not yet met another Havanese, well this all changed last Sunday. She met a little boy Havanese named Toby. They had a wonderful time playing together, particularly wrestling, almost hugging and kissing on their hind legs. It was lovely to watch and hopefully they will meet again. People have asked me since if she knew that Toby was the same breed. I don’t know, she did enjoy him and he her, but then this is the way that Havanese are. I don’t know if she saw Toby as kin, or just another dog that she loved playing with. I like to think that she sees all dogs this way, she does mostly. Afterall, she seems to love Big Alf the massive German Shepherd, and she was wrestling with my friend Sophie’s Airedale Terrier Willow the other day. She doesn’t seem to mind the size or shape of the dog she plays with.

It got me thinking about how humans are with one another. Do we always see each other as kin, as the same? Do we always show another form of love, the love expressed at the core of the religious traditions, towards one another. This is Agape Love, selfless love, which is an empathic love, without prejudice towards everyone. This maybe the most challenging love of all, especially to those we see as different somehow, as not kin. Human history, religious history, is littered with violence towards those we see as different. People have preyed on this suspicion of the other, on stranger danger thorough the ages. It still happens today. Witnessed currently in the demonisation of transgender people and migrants. It has happened here in the North West only this week, examples being the violence towards refugees housed in Knowsley and the murder of Briana Ghey in Culcheth, in Warrington.

Do we see all people as kin, do we offer kindness to all people without prejudice, or are we suspicious of those that we see as different? I am sure that everyone can think of times when they have not lived up to the sacred command that we love one another.

This brings to my mind the parable of “The Good Samaritan” found in 10th chapter of Luke’s Gospel vv 24-37. It begins with: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’”

The parable is about paying attention and acting from Agape love. For love is an action, it’s about what we do and do not do. In the story both a priest and Levite go by and they both see an injured half dead man on the side of the road, but they walked on by, they passed on the other side of the road. Then a Samaritan (who would be the enemy of the traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho) also saw him and when he saw him he was moved to action and not only helped him he brought him to place of safety and paid for his boardings and lodging etc. He wanted no recognition or thanks for his actions, he was motivated purely by compassion, this is pure altruism, this is agape love.

Now I think this story is teaching something very simple and vital, each of us is capable of all the actions that take place here. We are all capable of walking on by and we are all capable of being Good Samaritans. We can all be good neighbours. I believe that to see the world through the hopefulness of our potential goodness is what kin-ship, radical love, accepting all, building the kin-dom of love here is about. It’s about seeing the good and becoming the good, so that others can see it too.

Sadly, so often in life we do not see one another as kin, we see the other as different and not part of the one human family. The religious traditions at their worst have often perpetuated this, but it isn’t the essence of their teachings, just the way that some have taught and practiced. The first book of the Bible Genesis in chapter 1 depicts humanity being created in God’s image. So, if one is to be a follower of the book then surely every act done by one person to another is done by and to a person made in that image, that all are part of the one human family. There is a similar suggestion in the Qur’an which in the fourth chapter declares 'Oh people, be conscious of your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from her, her mate; and from them, many men and women scattered far and wide.' Thus, suggesting a deep unity within the one human family and that all people are not only created by God but are descended from a single soul.

Buddhism extends this familiarity beyond merely humanity but to all sentient beings. Seeing all individual beings as being like waves on the ocean. Although each wave has a sense of its own separateness (its 'lesser self'), it is better understood as part of the ocean (its 'greater self'). Suggesting that the key is to awaken to the larger truth that not only are we a part of the ocean but that we are in fact in essence the ocean. Or to paraphrase Jesus “What you do to the least of them you do to me. This is more than interconnection it is deep kin-ship, in the family of life itself.

We are all part of the one family of life. We share a common heritage, but not only that, we share a common destiny too. We are deeply interconnected, in deep kin-ship.

Love of self, love of neighbors, and love of God are the foundational stones of the great religious traditions, the Golden Rule of Compassion is there at the core of them all. A classic example of this comes from the following story from the Jewish tradition:

“Standing on One Foot”

A man came to talk with Rabbi Shamai, one of the most famous of all the rabbis, nearly as famous as Rabbi Hillel.

"I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew," said the man. "But I don't have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot."

The Torah is the most important Jewish book there is, and this crazy man wanted to learn it while standing on one foot? Why, people spent years learning the Torah; it was not something you can learn in five minutes! Rabbi Shamai grew angry with this man, and he pushed the man away using a builder's yardstick he happened to be holding in his hand.

The man hurried away, and found Rabbi Hillel. "I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew," said the man. "But I don't have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot."

"Certainly," said Rabbi Hillel. "Stand on one foot."

The man balanced on one foot.

"Repeat after me," said Rabbi Hillel. "What is hateful to you, don't do that to someone else."

The man repeated after Rabbi Hillel, "What is hateful to me, I won't do that to someone else."

"That is the whole law," said Rabbi Hillel. "All the rest of the Torah, all the rest of the oral teaching, is there to help explain this simple law. Now, go and learn it so it is a part of you."

Simple I know but not easy, unfortunately we fear the other, we fear otherness. We do not always see ourselves in the people we meet face to face, especially if we perceive some aspect of their humanity as different.

Fear can eat away at the very foundations of our humanity. Fear can block us from the love at the core of our being, the love present in life. We can become afraid to risk ourselves in love; we can become afraid of what love can teach us and turn away.

Love is a universal principle. Universalism preaches the Gospel of Love for all, there is no partiality in such love. This is Agape Love. It offers an ever widening, deepening love, it preaches what Russell Miller has titled “the larger hope”. It is a love that embraces all life, engages in every aspect of existence, a universal love. It is born in the come teach me tribe. It holds out its loving arms and says come as you are, exactly as you are but remain open to loving transformation.

I am by instinct a Universalist, I am at home in the “Come, teach me” tribe, depicted in the story I shared earlier by Mark Nepo. That said, like everyone, I have not always made camp there. Fear has at times taken over me, fear of the other, fear of the stranger, I am as human as any of us. I have taken residence with the “Go away” tribe. I have at times mistaken which tribe I was in too. I have thought I was in the “Come teach me” tribe, when In truth I have taken up residence in the “Go away” tribe. This has usually been when I have not wanted to spend time with the fearful and negative, that I have somehow believed I was above these things. I have rejected the call for love, because I was afraid of becoming vulnerable because of it. I have been like the priest and Levite in the classic parable of the “Good Samaritan”, I have walked by on the other side because I was afraid of getting caught up in the suffering of others. I have averted my eyes, I have been unable to see what is in front of me. This is very human. I attempt each day to begin again in love, I return to love.

We can all begin again in love. We all know fear at times. We turn away from suffering. We all feel fear of the unknown, those we consider different. The truth is though that we all belong to the same tribe, the one human family. There are not actually two tribes, there is just one. Love calls us to recognize that in each other and of course in ourselves, so that we can live by the sacred command to love one another, including ourselves.

So I say to you, lets continue on in love, walking side by side. We need not fear the stranger, the unknown, the unfamiliar, we can all be kin and we can begin to build the kin-dom of love right here right now. For after all, a stranger is a friend we just don’t yet know.

I’m going to end with the following “Beginning again on the continuous Journey” by Marta I Valentin, which I invite you to listen to prayerfully

“Beginning again on the continuous Journey” by Marta I Valentin

By the grace of the Divine Power,
which is larger hearted than we can ever imagine
we are constantly given the opportunity
to begin again
as the signposts along the continuous journey
suggest twists and turns we had not brought into view,
for the focus was on the mountain just up ahead
beyond the ridge….

By the faith of the Divine Power
that lives through the trust of our human ability
we are constantly offered the challenge to test the waters,
not just smooth the inevitable ripples
to a satiny gloss finish as if
that were the goal in life,
losing all character by not realizing:
the swells are what make life
interesting, intriguing, and indescribable.

By the law of the Divine Power,
whose very core is compassion
for our earthly missteps on this journey,
we are constantly given an opening
to remember that we each have a place
in the kin-dom* of humanity,
and the knowledge”
and courage to begin again toward a faith-filled,
loving grace that is our birthright.

*from Ana Maria Isasi-Diaz

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

Monday 13 February 2023

The perfectly imperfect game of life

“Jigsaw” by Harold Kushner

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

There are many puzzles and crazes that seem to take over public consciousness from time to time. You may remember the Rubik’s Cube (pictured opposite) every kid had one in the early 1980’s. My family of course had a go. I was utterly useless. I seem to remember even the smarter ones couldn’t do it, even my brother. There were ways to cheat, the most popular was to remove the stickers and replace them. Did you ever give it a go.

Well it seems that “The Rubik’s Cube” is becoming popular again. I was talking with one my oldest friend’s Nick last Saturday night, at a mutual friends birthday celebration. It is always wonderful to spend time with old friends, those who have known you through thick and thin. He began by telling me how much his daughter is looking forward to seeing me again. I know it is not to see me, but to meet Molly. He then began telling me about his son. I think his son is a bit of a genius. I remember when he came over to Manchester last year he had a Rubik’s cube, which he could complete in a no time at all. Well he is utterly obsessed it seems. So much so that he is competing in the World Championship, which take place at the end of this month, in Spalding in Lincolnshire. Nick says he is incredibly confident, I understand why. He can even complete a cube blind. The technique being that the competitor gets to look at a muddled up cube, they are then blindfolded and they have to put it back in order while blindfolded. Well Nick’s son Alex can do so in no time at all. It blows my mind. I get the confidence.

People constantly amaze me. Yes, we are all made of the same stuff, but we can be so different in the ways we see and engage with life. I know I wouldn’t even know where to begin if given a Rubik’s cube. My mind just does not work in this way. I would imagine if my brother’s children got into such things, they would soon be geniuses at it. I am very different. My mind does not work through images, I am more intuitive and my memory is linked to language. I used to find this a bit of puzzle. I do less so these days. It is just part of the beautiful tapestry of life. It helps me to understand how differently people can experience life. Some folk love quizzes and games etc. Board games are very popular once again. I have never been that interested personally. I am much more interested in the puzzle of what makes each of us human and making sense of the mystery that is life and that which I find at the core of life. That spirit in life, that I call God.

It is hard at times to come to terms with life, particularly the horror and suffering. There is the natural horror, which we have no doubt witnessed this week in Turkey and Northern Syria, thousands of lives lost due to the earth quake. We also see corruption and all kinds of other human made horrors, war etc. At the same time we also see the incredible things we do for one another in times of strife. The human response to disaster can be incredible. When someone suffers, most people are only too willing to offer a helping hand. There are many other troubles too, that are so hard to make sense of. Life is not a game, a puzzle to be solved. Reality is not a mathematical equation, or a Rubiks cube that can be simply put back in order. It is not a jigsaw puzzle where all we have to do is put the pieces back together, to create the perfect picture. I supect even if we had all the pieces and the picture, it still would not fit together perfectly and neatly. Life is not some game of perfection and or perfectionism. Nothing in life is complete, there is no such thing as perfection.

Now this might shock some of you, but it seems I am not mad after all. Here’s the proof. I cannot draw a perfect circle.

Now I know that this test may not hold up in court, but I think it’s revealing. Now I don’t think it is one’s ability to draw perfect circle that is actually the true test of madness, the true test is to actually try. I think the true test of madness is to keep on trying to draw the perfect circle, or to even think that such a thing is possible.

The circle is never perfect, in fact I’m pretty sure that the circle will remain forever incomplete. I think it’s better that way.

One of the great plagues of humanity is perfection, is 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.

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. Life is not a jigsaw or a Rubik’s Cube.

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” that I shared earlier. 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 been searching for.

I played a little game this week with friends. I shared the following “The imperfectionist” by Forrest Church with a whole load of friends. It had come up as a “Facebook” memory that morning. As I was about to start sending it round I noticed I had made a typing error in the title, it read “Imperfectionsit. I had made the error several years ago, but no one noticed it at the time. For some reason I noticed it as I read it through. So I added, at the end, that there was a prize for anyone who can spot the imperfection. The responses were wonderful and fascinating. Many replied that they loved the piece, but couldn’t find the imperfection. They told me how the piece spoke to them. Three found it immediately. Several suggested other mistakes, there weren’t any others, but could not see the typo in the title. One cheated after several attempts. They told me that they are a problem solver in work. She didn’t give up, but eventually found it after cheating by copying the text into “Word”, which highlighted the typo. One or two are still looking for it. I loved the whole game and responses that people gave. It showed to me the wonderful and fascinating diversity of the people I have in my life. Beautifully perfectly imperfect folk. It was also an interesting experiment in what different people look at and how many people see what they believe is there, rather than what is actually there.

Here is the piece “The imperfectionsit” by Forrest Church (It is really “The Imperfectionist”)

"The reason I’ve been able to produce so much is that I’m not a perfectionist – I’m an imperfectionist. I’m confident that everything I say can be improved upon by others, and that’s my great strength, because I know that it won’t be improved upon by others unless I take the first step. When we only do things which please us, or don’t frighten us, after a while fewer and fewer things please us. Over time, our circle of options diminishes until we are prisoners in gardens of our own making. The more decisions you make in your life, the more times you act, the more certain it is that you will be wrong. To be fulfilled we need to recognize, all of us, that the world doesn’t owe us a living – rather we owe the world a living. And in the brief time that is given us, we must somehow learn to give ourselves away."

It is a wonderful bit of wisdom don’t you think. Not perfect of course, but very interesting.

Life is a mysterious thing. Nothing fits perfectly together. It is not a perfect circle or a cube that can be put back in perfect order. It is messy and sometimes confusing. It is made up of many pieces, some broken and damaged. It is difficult to make sense and to work out where everything fits, including ourselves. This need not cause us fear. This is the nature of reality. Our task is to make the most of what is ours to draw our imperfect circles and do our little bit with the pieces we have, to place them together, to encourage one another and to bring to life that little mystery that I have come to believe is at the heart of each and everyone of us. In so doing we make this puzzle that is life a little more loving and meaningful for each and everyone of us.

So come play with me at this beautiful game that is life. This perfectly imperfect game of life.

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


Monday 6 February 2023

Speaking the language of the heart: Listening with the ears of your heart.

Someone said to me recently “I can’t always tell when you are joking or when you are being serious.” I was half pleased about this. The truth is that sometimes I am at my most serious when I am joking, or at least half joking. There is a place for humour, even in the most serious situations. Sometimes absurdity, helps get you through. “There is a time for everything under the sun.”

People often call to ask my advice about things. I am not sure why they do, as I am loathed to give advice. I will listen and I will share my experience, but I am loathed to tell another person what they should or shouldn’t do. How would I know in any case. The times I do, when I am very direct, are few and far between and they are usually what you might call emergency moments. Again “There is a time for everything under the sun”

I have learnt that often in life all that people really need is someone to share things with, someone who will listen and empathise, not solve their problems for them. I am usually good at this, although sometimes I am not. I have my limits. I noticed I had drifted away while listening to someone the other day. The truth was that I was exhausted. I had been holding a rather challenging memorial service, which had just ended. Someone was sharing some things with me afterwards and I had just drifted away. There are other times when I get distracted by the events of my life too, sometimes the distraction can help.

This happened on Monday. I was out in the park with Molly. She was a having a whale of a time playing with other dogs. She has become a bit of a ball thief. She is not really interested in the ball, she has just learned that if she grabs the ball and runs off with it, then the other dog will chase her. She loves being chased and she loves to wrestle with other dogs. While she was playing my phone rang. It was a friend whose mum has been seriously ill and has been in hospital. She had some concerns about her mum as well as other family issues. She needed to talk. I listened and encouraged and then suddenly found myself distracted by the dog Molly was playing with getting over excited and somewhat amorous. It is ok as he isn’t intact. The dogs owner did nothing as she was engaged in an exercise class with a whole load of other women. I have met them before and her cockerpoo likes to dominate. I spent the next twenty minutes trying to be there for my friend, whilst having to constantly pull the other dog off Molly, only to have her run back to him to continue the wrestling. It was right scene. I kept apologising to my friend. She didn’t mind. Infact if truth be told I think it helped her. The levity and absurdity of the situation lifted her out of her concerns. She was calling for advice or someone to solve her problems, she just needed to talk. More importantly she just needed someone to listen, despite their own problems, someone to bare witness. Not someone to fix, or solve the problem, just to listen, to be present to her. Thankfully as the week has gone on her mum is improving as his her anxiety.

I spend much of my time listening to others, actually to life itself. It is a large part of my role as a minister. Most of the worship I create comes from listening, on oh so many levels and then making some sense of it all. This address being a good example.

Now while I do listen to life on oh so many levels, I do enjoy listening to words spoken from human lips. Words are powerful things, they touch deep places within us. And yet all that words are, when reduced to their merely physical components are vibrating air. This is true and yet it really isn’t true. Words are so much more than their physical components. They connect people to deep, deep places in one another’s beings. They are imitations of the Divine I suspect, they are like seeds in so many ways, they begin to bring salvation or utter destruction. And yet they are just noises formed from vibrating air.

I love listening to people when they speak from their heart; I love listening to people when they speak what they must speak. I have particularly enjoyed listening to the many and varied people who have attended the groups I lead at both congregations. I am fascinated by what comes from those in attendance. I just love listening to folk as they try to articulate their varied understandings of life and their personal spirituality to others. It is the same thing in other groups that I attend, as folk try to articulate their experiences. I love to hear the language of the heart and I love to listen with the ears of my heart. It is Divine activity, it is love coming to life.

Being listened to and especially being accepted and understood is so vital to all people. I have noticed this particularly in the grief group I host. Whenever a new person attends the one common feature for everyone is this sense of loneliness that they express after the loved one has gone, how they feel unheard by others, like their words are not being accepted or that others have tired of hearing them. The beauty of the group is that each can come and speak freely and are truly accepted. I have witnessed some moments of deep connection within the group. I have truly seen love incarnated in the air and words that we share together, it is a truly beautiful blessing.

There is something truly beautiful is speaking words, heart to heart. The language of the heart is not really about correct use of words but a way of being with each other, it is an intention, it is about invitation it is about allowing others to be who they are in your space, this is true openness by the way. Openness is not about telling another all about yourself, instead it is about inviting another to be themselves in your space.

Words connect us in some very special ways, they can be incredibly powerful. They can begin to bring deep healing or can be deeply destructive. What matters is the intention behind them. What seems to matter is the condition of our heart and soul as we speak what we must speak.

Words are powerful they can be either destructive or creative. Perhaps an example of their creative power comes at the beginning of John’s Gospel and the following lines:

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.'

According to John the spoken word can literally create life, in fact all life. Now of course in the original Greek, which these opening words were written in the word for “Word” was originally “Logos” which roughly translated actually does not mean merely “word,” but also “speech,” “principle,” “meaning” or “thought.” In Greek philosophy, it is also referred to as Divine Reason or the Mind of God. So it could mean God speaking life into being, linking it to the first verses from Genesis when God is said to have breathed life into being, remembering always that he saw this creation as “Good”. So “word” here means, in my view, that life is the meaning coming into being and Jesus is the example of this in human form. An example we can all aspire to. For we can all incarnate Love, we can all be a part of the Divine creation. It begins in our words and how we say these words for they are an expression of our meaning. It also begins in how we listen to others. Our ability for each to share, an open loving invitation. This Divine activity. This space between us is the Kin-dom of Love.

When we speak we are not merely flapping our lips, vibrating air we are engaged in Divine activity we are creating or destroying life. It is the same with listening. If we listen with ears of heart we are creating sacred space, this Kin-dom of Love.

There is no greater gift that you can give to another than your time and your presence. When we do, we are truly engaged in Divine activity. You don’t have to say much. Rarely can you solve their troubles. You can give them the most precious gift you possess though, your time and your loving presence. I have often found in those moments the love of God coming alive in me and in the person I am sharing my time and space with.

Minister need it too. I have been accompanied by many people this last year or so. It has touched me deeply. So many folk have been a good loving friend at times. I also sought out professional help, which has now come to an end. Thank you for the help there. This time and space has helped me heal and be ready to move forward in love. I was also intently listened for a couple of hours at the beginning of the year. I was interviewed for a book. I was sent the first draft of the section written from this interview the other day. It was fascinating to read what the author came up with. He was a great listener. I noticed that during that time, sharing my heart and being listened to, I reached some deeper truths about myself, this life, and the God of my limited understanding that is the heart of it. Something the author noticed and commented on in the piece her wrote. It was the same with Hannah the psychologist. That time being listened to in a skillfull way has enabled me to find those sometimes hard to reach places. I am grateful for this. It has enabled me to do listen more intently, to be fully present to this life and those I share it with.

I love people; I love listening to people, to connect with what they are sharing, what they are struggling with. I love to identify with others, to connect. It makes me feel so alive. Now of course this is my job, I am after all a minister. That said we can all minister, to minister is to serve and how do we serve, well by giving our hearts to each other, by opening the ears of our hearts, by creating sacred space.

I’m going to end this address with a beautiful bit of wisdom by Nancy Shaffer “Hauling Out Stones”, which I believe exemplifies what I have been talking about here.

“Hauling Out Stones” by Nancy Shaffer

Once, he said an odd thing:
Forgiving begins with someone
sitting near.
Later, he said, It isn’t for the one
who did the hurting.
It’s the other one who needs it.
One day, without warning,
he wept.
I sat close.
He told an old hurt
in half-sentences and single words
like stones he was coming upon, new;
like tree limbs, broken,
which he needed both arms for hauling aside.
A half-dozen times that summer we sat,
he weeping, hauling out stones,
gathering limbs; I near.
The stones got smaller,
his sentences, longer.
He said, It’s the crying part
I couldn’t do by myself.
And later he said, I feel cleaned out.
A wan smile.
Still later, he said,
I think I’ve done it.
Made a kind of peace, he meant.
He slapped his palm hard against mine.
Laughed. Slapped his palm again.

So lets create that space, where love comes to life. Let’s encourage the language of the heart, lets listen with the ears of our hearts. For if we do, that Kin-dom of Love will begin to built right here, right now.

The devotion below is based on the material in this "blogspot"