Monday 22 May 2023

Choose Life: Whatever Path You Follow

I woke up on Monday to two beautiful emails from the daughters of Alan Hardman whose ashes had been scattered in the Garden of Remembrance the day before. Just simple emails of thanks. They didn’t have to do so, but it was rather touching that they decided to. I stepped into the day, began my journey, with thoughts for the day and week ahead. I could have chosen to focus on work that day, but instead I chose friendship, some of which could have been named pastoral work. After taking Molly for a long walk. I went to see Helen Redhead at her mums. She was there with her powerlifting trainer Jason, a larger than life character in every sense. Helen had recently taken the courageous decision to start a new life in Kent, in order to primarily pursue her sport of “Power Lifting”. She had been in Manchester competing in the “British Powerlifting Union Championship” and had won her age group setting two British records. Helen had followed her bliss, took the courageous step to try something new in life. Yes, it had in some ways been birthed in tragedy, following the death of Andrea, but she had chosen to go down a new road and it was wonderful to see her choosing life. I was glad I was able to celebrate with her. She will be back on 18th of July to compete in Manchester, I plan to go along and cheer her on. I didn’t stay too long as I had to get home, to take Molly for a walk and do some work before heading to Stockport cemetery to attend the funeral of another friend John, who had died tragically. It was a moving but deeply sad service. I saw many friends who I have known over the years and remembered times we had shared together. One thing I have noticed about myself is that I am very quiet at funerals I am not involved in. I think some people take this the wrong way, but I think it is just a mark of respect. As I was driving home I remembered something I used to say to John when he was going through a bad time following the end of a relationship. I said to him to not see it as the end, but as a new possibility, “that all bets are open”. It helped him at the time and he would often say it back to me “All bets are open.” Yes, all things are possible, there is always time to change. Sadly, this is no longer the case for John.

My friends Martin and Jade weren’t working on Monday and had taken Molly for a few hours. I had just changed and was about to go and collect her when my phone rang. It actually rang three times, but it was the first phonecall that I would like to share about. It was a young man, at a similar age and crossroads as John was when I first met him. The young man was suffering with fear and uncertainty, unsure about life and which direction to go in. I listened for a while and then I told him about John. I told him that “All bets are open”. That he was free to choose whatever direction he wished. I also told him whatever choice he made mistakes would happen, things would go wrong, may even be a disaster. That this was ok and that he would be ok provided he could learn from the mistakes. He was about to go on holiday for two weeks and then would be returning to begin his next journey. I told him to enjoy himself and then I quoted good old Moses, I said choose life. I even gave him the full Deutronomy 30 v 19 quote:

19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

I had moved outside in the gardens at the chapel by this time. I was stood by the wind telephone. I was going to sit there for a bit and be quiet before going to pick Molly up. I was thinking about a few souls that have been lost in recent times. I was stood in front of it by now and was looking directly at it while talking to the young man, when I noticed something that broke my heart, the phone wasn’t there. Someone had ripped it from its bracket. This has happened once before. This time though they had not only damaged it, they had taken the old style phone away. I finished my phone call and then just sat down and wept for a while. I then took a picture and shared about it on social media, before going to collect Molly. I stayed for a while at Marti’s had tea and chocolate hobnobs and then we went for a walk. When I returned, I checked out my phone. My goodness me I was overwhelmed by the loving response form so many people. So much loving support and some anger. By the end of the evening different friends had gone to extra lengths and three new versions of the phone had been ordered. Tow have already been delivered to two different friends and another soon will be. So a replacement will be fitted in the next few days, with two spares if this happens again.

The phone means a lot to so many people in the community, as do the gardens at the chapel and myself. So many people have sat in that space and connected with those they have lost. It seems that soon the lines will be open again.

I went to bed that night touched by so many people I know, by their loving care and friendship; touched by how people will go out of their way at times; touched by how in general people choose to making loving decisions, decisions that are primarily about life. I also smiled as I found I had done the same I had chosen life, in all its joy and suffering, in all it’s blessings and curses. I also thought of John and those words “All bets are open”.

It seems a bit of no brainer to choose life, who wouldn’t? Well sometimes we do choose to stay in fear and avoid life. Whenever we turn from our God given gifts or fail to live authentically I suspect we are refusing life. Not that we should give ourselves too hard a time for this, as we can always turn back to life again; we can turn back down the path of life again. No one lives perfectly without ever being held back from fear.

To choose life is to accept life in all its joys and troubles. At John’s funeral there were many people who have courageously come through difficult challenges, two who have recently come through severe and life threatening forms of cancer. They carry their scars, both physical and emotional, but they were there and they were choosing life in every sense. One asked me if I was going to the wake afterwards, I said not. I often prefer not to. They were going, but primarily to ensure that John’s ex-partner was ok. Another decision based on love and care, despite their own suffering.

Choosing or refusing Life is a decision that we all make. It is not always obvious which one to take; fear in its many forms can often paralyse us in our decisions. So much so that we make no decision and thus do not choose life at all. Like the young man I was talking to on Monday, there is a fear that we could get it wrong, that “all bets are not open”, “That all bets are in actual fact closed.”

This brought to my mind the often misunderstood, misquoted and even mistitled classic poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

I will share it with you:

"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The poem is a gentle satire on indecisiveness. It is not primarily a celebration of rugged individualism and courageously striding on without fear, that many believe it was written for. This is why it is truly an every person poem, as I am sure we can all relate to this fear we feel when faced with such decisions. Frost himself said of the poem “ I wasn’t thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.” The friend was Edward Thomas who Frost had sent the poem to privately in a small envelope, under the title “Two Roads”. Frost had been inspired to write the poem by Thomas’s habit of regretting whatever path the pair took during their long walks in the countryside, Thomas would torturing himself over the decisions to turn one way or another, or not. Frost equated this indecisiveness with the romantic predisposi­tion for “crying over what might have been.” Frost understood that we all feel this fear, that we don’t always choose life and not to be too hard on ourselves for doing so. He believed that his friend would take the poem as a gen­tle joke and would respond and protest against Frost’s teasing. It seems that he didn’t see the joke initially at least and Frost had to direct him back to his point.

Whatever path we choose it will not be smooth, it will be full of challenges, full of life and if we find it is not the right move, we can always change direction. It is ok to give up sometimes and start all over again. This surely is choosing life.

There will always be some indecisions in life, fear we will get it wrong. The truth is that we will get things wrong. Every day I say or do something, or fail to do or say something I should have. This though does not cause paralysis. Every day we have to make decisions about little things and sometimes monumental things. In so doing we choose life.

To choose life requires discernment. Discernment formed from the Latin word “discernere”, which means to separate, to distinguish, to sort out. Just think of prospectors panning for gold or sifting through the rocks and dirt in search of gem stones. They are separating, they are sorting through the muck for the jewels, they are distinguishing, they are discerning. Discernment is about choosing life.

Discernment is the key to making those wise choices. We need to discover what is of value and what needs to be discarded in our minds. We need to discard the dirt and muck to uncover the gold, the gems, to have clarity of thought, so that we can “choose life”. This is not easy, especially when we think of all that information that swims around in our lives and our consciousness; information like an enormous shoal of fish swimming round and round aimlessly in a small tank and not really going anywhere. Our lives, our heads are just so full of stuff. How do we discern what is healthy, what is right? Well we need silence, we need time away from all this information and all these things that pull us in so many directions. We need time to be still, time to be silent, time to connect to our bodies and our breathing; time to hear that still small voice of calm. A voice less than a whisper, but somehow more than silence. The voice of love, the voice of life, the voice that overcomes fear. The voice of God within.

We need to awaken to our true consciousness in order to make those sane and sensible decisions about life. We need to learn to separate those things that are of value and those that are not. We need to do this in order to hear that voice, that is less than whisper but that is somehow more than silence; that voice that has spoken down the centuries, to those who had ears that could hear it; the voice that spoke to the people of Israel and said “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse. Therefore choose life”

The choices we make matter. It matters what we are and what we do. I do not think that God chooses this for us. Yes, God offers guidance, “The Lure of Divine Love” but it is up to us to choose the path that we follow. Remembering always that we can always change direction if we find that the road we are on is not one of life.

Let‘s choose life, by choosing the road in front of us. The road of love and the road that will bless all our lives. It won’t be pain free there will be joy and suffering, but above all there will be life.

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

Monday 15 May 2023

Ritual: The practice of cultivating extraordinary ordinariness

I spend a lot of my spare time these days walking round Altrincham with Molly. We bump into all kinds of people. I always use to say it could take me an hour to walk to Tesco and back, due the many conversations I found myself in, that was before Molly. These days the walks can take even longer. I walk her probably four times a day, it has become a regular routine. I was chatting with a woman the other day who has watched us from her apartment window for months. She says she sees us many times passing by during the week, sometimes the two of us, sometimes with different people and on occasions with a whole gang of folk. Molly is becoming something of a pied piper, I think.

On Monday, on the way back from the park, I saw our local poet Oliver James Lomax leaning on a post with a pen and notebook. We stopped to talk and he told us he had gone out in search of inspiration. He needed to be in the right frame of mind to get creative, it seems that the muses hadn’t been whispering in his ear for a while. He had been touring a lot and performing, but not writing. He asked if I fancied a coffee and off we trotted to CafĂ© Nero. Whilst in the queue we discussed the coronation, the pomp, the ceremony, the ritual. Last Saturday truly was a sight to behold. We also discussed some of the deeper meaning of such things. What such events and rituals mean to the ordinary people both involved and observing them. He told me of Simon Armitage ‘s poem especially written for Coronation of Charles III. He told me that the poem follows the story of a woman invited to attend a coronation and uses lines from Samuel Pepys diary, which described his encounter with the coronation of King Charles II, pointing to the historical significance of the occasion. He said of the poem and poet, “not bad for a Yorkshire man”, at which we both laughed. The conversation got me thinking about the power of ritual and how certain activities can get us into creative states of being, something Oliver was searching for. In the queue I noticed a woman I thought I recognised. I was sure I had seen her at the recent General Assembly meetings, representing Chowbent Chapel. I didn’t say anything at the time. A little later as I was walking home, when a man in the street called out my name, nothing new in that. Then I noticed it was Francis Elliott-Wright, he is a student minister currently at Knutsford and we had recently been in contact with me. He was meeting the woman from Chowbent for lunch. Francis and myself had a great conversation. One of things he asked me was “if I was out working on my sermon, seeking inspiration”. I said that I hadn’t given it much thought, but I am sure that something would begin to form during the day. I said that no doubt this conversation would be a part of it, which of course as you can see it is. I then headed for home chuckling to myself. Meanwhile thoughts about routine, ritual, spiritual inspiration were forming in my soul. As I removed her harness I thought to myself how mine and Molly’s walks were more than just a routine, they were sacred rituals, blessings in the ordinariness of life. How often we were blessed by them and how they blessed us too. This is because there is far more going on than simply exercise and stimulation. These little journeys were also touching ours and lives of others in deeper ways, there was something sacred in the activity. We were cultivating extraordinary ordinariness.

It got me thinking about what makes a routine a ritual? Is there a difference even between them? They may not be so different, perhaps two sides of the same coin that we name habit. Routine it seems is an attempt to contain the chaos of everyday living, ritual seems to make the everyday, seemingly mundane, sacred. Ritual is a way of cultivating extraordinary ordinariness. So often my walks with Molly seem sprinkled with sacred dust. I spent some time with a friend later that evening who was dealing with something rather distressing. The conversation we shared brought healing and understanding, it was sacred in every sense, it brought to life the language of the heart. As we listened to one another with the ears of the heart. He thought I was helping him, when in reality he was blessing me. It was an ordinary activity, but in that space between us we were cultivating the extraordinary.

Any every day ordinary routine activity can be made sacred, can be turned into ritual, can cultivate the extraordinary in the ordinary. I love what the author Anne Lamott has to say on the subject:

“Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.”

Rather like “The Dudes” rug in “The Big Lebowski” tied his room together. In so many ways I have noticed these walks with Molly tie so much of my life and that of others together. This simple routine has become a sacred ritual in my life and that of others too. Including people I don’t know so well. They notice if I walk though and she isn’t with me, so many comment. Our walks seem to have a way of cultivating the extraordinary in the ordinariness of life.

Routine, ritual is the very thing that holds life together, everyone engages in them. They help us connect to life to reality to the seen, but also to the unseen, that force at the core of all life, what I name God, but you may call it something other. It is this that helps me be of better use in the world. It is routine, transformed into ritual that cultivates the extraordinary in the ordinariness of life.

I had got up later than usual on Monday. Thankfully Molly’s bladder didn’t force me to get up too early. I was very tired and somewhat delicate. I had received some terrible news on Saturday night, a dear friend had sadly taken their life. I had worked a long day on Sunday, had so many duties to do that day and I did them. I was tired though, both emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. As several of you said on Sunday, you seem to have been through a lot these last few months. I have. I could have been tempted to avoid the world on Monday, but my routines and rituals ensured that I did not. I spent time in the ritual of prayer and silence and then we stepped into the world and the simple and mundane was soon transformed into the sacred. We were blessed by it as were others that we met as we walked around our daily routine, as we set out on our journey. Remember that journey means what you do or where you travel in one day. There is nothing more ordinary and yet often it does indeed become extraordinary.

Everything we do in life can be done ritually and thus can become meaning filled. Even the most simple basic task can be made deep and meaning filled, if we live reverently. If we live with reverence for life itself. If we see life as a deeply sacred thing. If we bless it with our true presence. The most basic human routines can become sacred rituals, even standing, sitting, walking, nay breathing can be done meaningfully, ritually. There is nothing more deeply ritualistic than deep listening. Last Monday was deeply enriched by this. The real beauty of life lays in the ordinary, in observing and experiencing the meaning of life in the ordinary. By so doing the great moments are created, they are transformed into the extraordinary.

Ronald L. Grimes captures this near perfectly in “Marrying and Burying: Rites of Passage in a Man’s Life”

"Ritual practice is the activity of cultivating extraordinary ordinariness. It is necessary, because human activity has a kind of entropy about it; life, like love, runs down. Things get tiresome and difficult. Body and soul cry out for something different, hence the impetus to ritualize. But if the ritually extraordinary becomes a goal or is severed from ordinariness, it loses its capacity to transform, which, after all, is what rites of passage are supposed to do."

To live spiritually alive, is to recognise the sacredness of the ordinary, the seemingly mundane. To do this all we need to do is pay attention to the world and the people around and truly inhabit the space in which we live and breathe and share our being. All we have to do is to pay attention, to live in such a way as to recognise the sacred in everything.

Now of course congregating for worship is a regular form of ritual, shared with others. There is something very powerful about coming together in love; there is something very powerful in opening ourselves up to one another and recognise what connects us what makes us wholly human, by living ritually we can begin to do so. Worshipping together is one way to do so, but it can happen in all aspects of life. It can occur in deep encounters with others, when love and attention is paid. We can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

We gather here together each Sunday seeking something, as we engage in the ritual of worship. We come for a reason, even if we are not wholly sure what that reason is. Each week in the worship we share I attempt to create through words, music, silence, imagery and more a sacred time and space that will enable us to open our hearts and help us connect to the Greater mysteries of life, to the Web of being, to know the spirit of life and love, to experience God and for this to impact on how you live our day to day lives.

Here in this sacred space at the sacred time where generations have worshipped we open our hearts to the greater mysteries of life. In so doing we begin to connect to the greater realities and mysteries of existence. It is this time that can help us to open up the lives we find ourselves in and to pay attention to the life around us and to touch the people we meet in our daily living. In so doing we make all life sacred, by blessing it with our presence. We can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

My hope is that when we leave this place that we are touched in those deeper aspects of our humanity and that when we leave this place that we begin to bless the world with your sacred humanity by recognising the sacredness of each person that we meet and that we bless life with our loving presence.

So let’s begin by choosing to bless this our world. May our ritual practice be an activity that cultivates extraordinary ordinariness.

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

Monday 8 May 2023

You are blessed by your name, it is whole and holy

Nasrudin gate-crashed a very posh reception and sat down at the top table in a very elegant chair. A guard approached and said, officiously, “Excuse me, sir, but those chairs are reserved for the guests of honour.”
“Oh I’m more than just a guest,” replied Nasruddin.
“Really?” asked the guard, with a little more respect in his voice. “Are you perhaps a government minister?”
“No, I’m much more important than a government minister!”
“Wow! Are you the Prime Minister?”
“No, I’m much more important than that!”
"Goodness, you must be the king himself!”
“I’m even more important than the king!”
“In this country, nobody is more important than the king!”
“That’s it! You’ve got it! I’m nobody!”

I have a friend who always says to me, whenever we get into conversations about more meaningful things, that more will be revealed. Well, it seems that more was revealed to me this week. I learnt the true origin of my name. I am named after an ‘oss (a horse to most normal speaking folk). My mum recently told me the exact origins of my name, she was correcting a little misinformation I shared last year. My grandma loved Old Testament names, especially David. It would have been my mums name if she had been a boy and it is my auntie’s son’s name. When my mum was pregnant with me, I the second son was going to be called David. My older brother was named Billy, after my dad and grandad. Well, it seems that my grandad’s favourite ‘oss a mare named Dolly had a foal named Billy and then another called Danny. While she was pregnant my mum would see the foals together and thought that Billy and Danny sounded good together and brotherly. So, it seems that David Daniel, became Daniel David, although I have never ever been known as Daniel. Always Danny after what my mum described as a lovely playful foal. Mt mum thought that Billy and Danny made us equal, that one wouldn't be considered the heir and another a spare. My paternal grandad had wanted to name me after his little brother Harry who had died when he was only a small child, I am told I looked a lot like him as a little boy. My mum wouldn’t have it though. As is always the case in naming children, compromises had to be made and no kid was called Harry in those days. She had actually wanted to call me and my brother Otis and Levi, she was a big Motown fan, but I am not sure that would have worked in small Yorkshire town in the 1970’s. My brother did change his name to Otis many years ago, it kind of worked for him as he is a musician. I have always felt happy with Danny, never, never Daniel, I’m kind of pleased I was named after an ‘oss, or more accurately a lovely playful foal.

Whenever I conduct a child blessing service, welcoming a new life into the world I say amongst many other things something like the following: “We take the opportunity to recognise this child by name. In this act we declare that the child is an individual, a unique and separate person with a dignity and life of their own. They come from us, but they are not ours. In giving them a name, we declare that we will respect them as themself, and give them the freedom to be themself.”

When someone recognises themselves in a new way I believe it ought to be done so similarly. If they change how they are known to the world, by name or pro-noun this should be recognised, blessed and celebrated also. I want to celebrate the diversity of all creation. I want to recognise everyone by their true name, bless them by their name as whole and holy.

When we name someone, or for that matter anything, we acknowledge their existence as separate from everything else that has a name. Yes, everything is interconnected, but also exists as itself. In naming we confer the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the named world. To name is to recognise, to acknowledge, to love, to make familiar. We name many things in life, not only our children. We give friends and those close to us “pet names” and “nick names”. I spent some time choosing Molly’s name. She is called Miss Molly Malone, although this has morphed into Molly Moo, Moo, Moo or just Miss Molly, Molly or Moo. Her actual pedigree name, the one given her at birth and registered with Kennel Club is actually “Kenzduo Spice of Life”. I have never called her that. It would be like calling me Daniel.

I have three friends all called John, we meet regularly. Obviously this can be confusing so they all have another name to help understand who we are referring to. They are known as “Welsh John”, “Tesco John “ and John the Chef”. In times gone by this is how surname’s were conferred upon people. I reckon it would be done to begin doing so again.

Molly had her first trip to the beach last Saturday. We went to one of my favourite places, named “Another Place” where on the beach you find those 100 identical cast iron figures staring out to sea, the creation of Anthony Gormley. They are of course in the seaside town of Crosby. It is a strange feeling walking round a place with your surname everywhere. This amuses me and to some degree pleases me also. I chuckle to myself every time I pass the sign reading “Greater Crosby”. By the way Molly had an absolute ball. She came home filthy and was worn out for about two days afterwards. It felt like a new blessing to her little life. I am sure we will go it again.

Last Tuesday I and many Unitarians attended the funeral of Martin West. It was held at his widow Jackie’s place of worship, Lymm United Reformed Church. Martin was an incredible man, lived quite a life, did so much for so many, as well as being incredibly successful professionally. He gave so much voluntarily also. Especially here at Dunham Road, where he was a beloved member and force for good, but also Queens road, the Manchester District and the national Unitarian movement, as well as so many other causes that were close to his heart. His daughter Angela gave a wonderful tribute to his life. One thing she mentioned was how much he did anonymously, behind the scenes for people and so many organisations. These things his name was not recognised for. This humbled me. It made me pause. It is kind of counter cultural, as we live in an age when names and faces are applied to everything. Anonymity, giving someone or something no name or label, is very rare these days.

It reminded me very much of the principles at the heart of 12 step Spirituality, in fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Personal anonymity is at the heart of their spirit. While their principles are promoted, their purpose, no names or faces are publicised. One of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous even turned being named Man of the Year by Time Magazine, although he did enjoy telling friends this. He was only named, publicly at least, following his death. Again, this does seem to go against the grain, where celebrity and endorsements seem key to promoting anything. There is a power in the humility of anonymity. Not everything we do needs to bear our name. It can still be done in the name of love.

We all have names, and we all have identities, things that describe who we are. No doubt we have all had nicknames given to us too. Some will have been loving, welcoming and rejoicing, others the opposite. These are names of rejection and disconnection, they tell us that we do not belong here. There is no love in such names, they make some people the other, such names are dehumanising. I see and witness this everywhere. I am not going to name such names here, but I am sure we can all think of some. They are often powerful words used to exclude people and make them feel somehow less than welcome. Such words deny the inherent worth and dignity of people, they reduce them to lesser people, or they try to. I am sure we can all recall such words and name calling. We should call one another by names of love and not names of shame.

We do like to name things, to label things. It helps with identification, with belonging, particularly if you feel that you do not belong. The truth is though that our names and even our labels are only one small aspect of who and what we are. Although each of us is unique in our own right, every single one of us belong first and foremost to the family of life. Everyone has an inherent worth and dignity in the fact they exist at all. Any name we give another that rejects this is dehumanizing and destructive to this. Everyone of us is a sacred blessing to life. This is why the child welcoming, naming, christening, Baptism, whatever you want to call them services I conduct I name as a blessing; this is because I see each life’s potential as a blessing, and I wish to recognise this in the service. We are all sacred beings born into this world and anything that rejects this, any act of dehumanisation, of a persons human identity, is a rejection of this. We need to bless more and we do this when we recognise one another’s sacred humanity. This begins with their name and how they would like to be referred to. I really do not understand why people seem to get upset by individuals preferred pro-nouns. I say come as you are, exactly as you…I want to celebrate your human uniqueness, the diversity of all creation. We all have the divine within us. We are blessed by our names; we are whole and holy.

When we look at another, we must first recognise their sacred humanity. I see all ground as holy ground and all humanity as precious. We need to see all people as wholly and whole and worthy of dignity, first and foremost. All have inherent worth and dignity, we are all children of life and love. We need to see this first before anything else. All have a name and have been named, all are formed from the same blessed earth and blessed life and should be treated accordingly. We need to be careful what we name one another. Our role in this life is to love and to bless, to see all ground as holy ground and all as whole and holy. The are no unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places, wrote Wendell Berry. It is the same with people. There are no unsacred people, there are only sacred and desecrated people. It is we who desecrate when we reject another’s sacred humanity. Our role is to bless, is to sanctify and once again shake off our shoes, for all ground is holy ground and all life is holy. Only God has no name, is beyond naming. That said I know how important it is to recognise the “I am” in everything. In me, in you and in everyone else too. Whatever name we are known as.

So, what’s in a name? Well maybe this is something to think about. Why are you called by your name? What do you think of your name? Would you consider changing it? Perhaps you have? If so, why? What other names, nouns and pro-nouns describe who you are? Do you live up to your name? How do we find better ways to recognise and celebrate everyone’s sacred uniqueness.

Me I’m happy I was named after an ‘oss, I’m just glad it wasn’t a horse with no name

Blessed be all our names; they are whole and holy.

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

Monday 1 May 2023

I am a Universalist, Universalist, Universalist: I Believe in a Hope that Helps

I received a message from a friend the other day asking if her son Luke could speak with me. We have met a couple of times before. He is an interesting young man. This time he wanted to discuss some ideas for an essay he wanted to explore, he is studying theology and philosophy. The essay was on theologian John Hick and his views on who Jesus was. Looking at ideas around God and the incarnation, as well as some 12 spirituality principles around the search for a God or Higher Power of your own understanding, that he wanted to discuss with me. I decided to give it a day to think about as I remembered my time when training for the ministry. It had been a long time since I had read John Hick. He called me on the Saturday afternoon.

It was a wonderful conversation. It stimulated me immensely and got me thinking about my own beliefs and doubts about so many things. How I apply these to my life and how they impact on myself and those I interact with. It was also an opportunity to articulate my own understanding of this our free religious tradition, there are many misconceptions. Luke thought we Unitarians had only been around since the 1960’s. He had done a little research on the internet and I assume he must have discovered something about the formation of the Unitarian Universalists in America, who came together to form one denomination in the 1960’s. I explained that Unitarian thoughts and ideas have been around certainly since the Reformation and actually since the time of Jesus, if not before. I talked about Joseph Priestley. Luke had attended Priestley college in Warrington and studied philosophy and religion but knew nothing of him as a radical minister. I explained it was the same for me. I grew up under his shadow, there is a statue of him in the village of Birstall where we both grew up, but we only knew him as a scientist when we were at school.

Luke wanted to talk about the ideas of John Hick and his views on who Jesus had believed he was. How this seemed to tie in with classic Unitarian thinking. This gave me an opportunity to explain my understanding of this our faith tradition. How it is today and historically of course. I explained that while originally we were none Trinitarians, that we focused on Jesus as a man whose example ought to be followed rather than the unique incarnation of God on earth. I then explained though that actually this isn’t the key principle. The key, as I see it, and this has been the case throughout this traditions history, is where authority lies. That we are none subscribers that we make no statement of faith that folk who worship in our communities must follow, but also that authority for Unitarians lays in their own honest reflection on their own conscience, that it is for each of us to seek our own truth. That we do this in community with others, knowing that more can be gained by coming together. Luke noted that this idea of seeking our own truth was very similar to 12 step philosophy and the beliefs of John Hick, I agreed with him.

What is distinctive of the Unitarian tradition is the idea of authority being in the enlightened conscience. This is distinct from Catholicism where authority is within the church structure, and general Protestantism, where authority lies in the Bible. For Unitarians it lies in the enlightened conscience. Now of course this does require a belief in humanity, that the enlightened conscience can be trusted. I quoted that wonderful nineteenth century Unitarian theologian James Martineau as we chatted.

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

I had a great conversation with Luke. He told me when he next comes home he would like to come and check out some services. I told him he would be most welcome. He thought I was helping him, when in truth he was helping me a great deal. Thank you.

I had another conversation that weekend with another friend. They are also exploring spirituality but have a fear of community. They would prefer to explore alone as they somewhat concerned about getting sucked into something that they didn’t trust. They have some misgivings about organised religion. They quoted the classic at me saying, “Religion is for people who are afraid to go to Hell whereas spirituality is for people who have already been there.” We talked for some time, and I spoke of my own Unitarian tradition and tried to explain that this view of religion is not entirely accurate. I spoke a little of the need for community and how this enhances one’s personal spirituality and that this can be achieved without dogma. I spoke specifically about Universalism and how they were even known as “The No Hellers”.

Both conversations got me thinking about the free religious tradition I am a part of and also my feelings of faith etc, how I identify my own beliefs. I had recently returned from our annual meetings, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I am also becoming more involved in helping to develop ministers in the future. We will have a student minister with us Janine Sim from September, I have also been invited to participate in “Ministry in the Making” which was created to help support ministers in training and those new to professional ministry. It has been good to reflect on why I am a Unitarian and why I became a Unitarian minister.

I celebrate the beautiful diversity of our free tradition. For I know that those who I congregate with do not all believe and disbelieve the same. Within our free religious tradition each congregation is linked through a wider denomination named “The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches”. There is no ruling body, and no one has authority over anyone else. Each congregation is self-governing and each member of the congregation is free to believe as their conscience dictates. We are closely connected to other similar denominations throughout the world. In America the denomination is called Unitarian Universalists. Which is essentially two denominations that came together as one in the early 1960’s. They each have their own history.

I have over the years read much by many Unitarians and Universalist and have found that I actually seem to connect, spiritually at least, more with Universalist than the Unitarians. So much so that a few years ago I declared myself as a Universalist. A Unitarian friend asked me “What kind of Universalist I was?” I paused and thought for a moment and then I answered “I am a Universalist, Universalist”. I remembered at the time they looked at me as if I were a little mad, this is not the first time this has happened. So, I explained that I was a Universalist in the old sense. I do not believe in hell and damnation. That the God of my limited understanding would never condemn anyone to an eternity in Hell; I do not believe that some are saved and others are unsaved. I believe that God has an intimate love for all, that if there is a hell it is a state of being that can be experienced within life. I talked about the "Prodigal Son" parable, and I also spoke of my belief that this love is always there waiting for us. I also said that I was a universalist in a more modern understanding too in that I see truth in so many other traditions. That none can reveal the whole truth, that they are windows that let some of the light through. I also talked of a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and that all that happens and does not happen matters. That divinity is present within everything, a kind of Universal Love I suppose. So I am a Universalist in three senses at least. That life is diverse and ever evolving. I remembered that beautiful banner I once carried at Manchester Pride “Unitarians Celebrate the Diversity of All Creation”. This is the beauty of life, its diversity.

Today I declare that I am a Universalist, Universalist, Universalist, I believe in a Hope that helps.

I remember a few years ago hearing a joke about the difference between the nineteenth century Unitarians and the Universalist. It is said that the Unitarians believed that humanity was too good to be rejected by God where as the Universalists believed that God was too good to ever reject humanity.

I am a Universalist. I am a "Universalist, Universalist, Universalist!"

I believe in and experience a God of Love who accepts all and rejects none; is present in all life and yet is greater than the entirety of it all. I also believe that there are many ways to understand and experience this Universal Love; it makes no sense to me to think that there can be only one way. Universalism has given me a code of hopefulness that I can live by. It sustains me through the vicissitudes of life and it connects me to the whole of reality.

Universalism speaks to my head, my heart and above all my soul. It has enabled me to observe and fully participate in life, to bear witness to what we do to each other and ourselves. It helps me come to terms with my past and my present and look forward to the future. It helps me connect to the people I have and currently share my life with. It enables me to live fully alive.

Universalism is a hope filled faith, but that does not make it an easy path. It is not about sitting back and waiting to be rescued by the God of love it promotes. Instead it declares that salvation, in this life, can only be achieved by facing up to the suffering present in all our lives and dealing directly with the despair that accompanies it. It's also about bringing hope to those in despair and to truly sing the joy of living.

As one of the founding fathers of Universalism, John Murray, so beautifully put it in the eighteenth century

“You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”

Whenever I feel despair both with myself or with the rest of humanity, which I do from time to time, I try to remember these words by the Universalist preacher John Murray. I feel a deep connection and purpose in life and through life. In so doing I experience the truth that everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. For love is both eternal and universal.

As we live our lives in this our shared world it is important to remember to widen our views and deepen our experiences, increasing our awareness that all life touches way beyond our horizons, not just directly those that we come into contact with, but with so many others also, often indirectly. In so doing we can welcome the wanderer to find their way back home and we will begin to repair the fragmentations of life and develop deeper intimacy. In so doing may we find our place among the family of things. May we all find ourselves safe and in love and here at home.

I am glad I found a home amongst the Unitarians all those years ago. I am grateful that it led me to this work, which I do imperfectly. I have had the opportunity to reflect much these last couple of years. I have learned so much serving the two communities and to some degree the wider denomination and I look forward to many years of this wonderful privilege. Yes. I am Unitarian minister. I am because I believe in the capacity of the human conscience to seek what is true. I believe in the teachings of Jesus as an example to us all, of what we can all be. I also believe there is a deep truth in so many other traditions. Yes, I am also a Universalist, for I believe in the eternal and universal love of God, that there is that of God in each of us. I also believe that there is so much truth yet to revealed. This cannot be discovered in isolation, we need to come together in love, to congregate. All life is interconnected. I celebrate it in it’s beautiful diversity.

So yes I am proud to be Unitarian minister, but I am equally at ease describing myself as a Universalist, Universalist, Universalist. How about you?

Perhaps that is something to think about over the next few days. How would you articulate your faith if you were to find yourself in similar conversations to me. Have a think about it this week.

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