Monday 26 June 2023

Do not follow blindly, 'cos you'll soon find yourself lost

I was sat with friends enjoying coffee, outside Café Nero, in the early morning sun the other day. I was facing away from the street, a position I don’t usually enjoy; I much prefer to face out, watching the world go by. We were in a positive mood, the beautiful hot weather no doubt playing a major part in this. This was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt. There was some kind of distressed sound from right behind me. We all stood up and turned round. Right there in front of us was the street cleaner with his cart, he had halted and looked shocked. There was also a woman with a baby in a papoose in front of her, she had a black Labrador. The dog was a guide dog as the woman was blind. We were all in shock, not knowing what had happened or what to do. There was the fear the baby was hurt, thankfully the child was not. The woman broke down in tears and was led to sit down. The street cleaner was ok too. Things settled down and all was ok. Folk continued about their business. I returned home a little later. The woman, her baby and guide dog were just behind me and two friends as we walked towards the chapel. I was stood talking with two friends having crossed the road. Molly has learnt not to cross until the green man appears and it begins to beep. I stood talking with the friends on the chapel side of the road. As we were talking we saw the woman, her baby and guide dog safely cross the road. We spoke with her, all was well, and interestingly she was coming to the large schoolroom at the chapel to go to her regular mother and child exercise class. The guide dog knew the way very well.

The whole incident has been on my mind ever since. It certainly awakened my “homiletic consciousness”, which I once heard described as “going through life thinking, “Can I use this in a sermon?” . Any person who uses their own experiences of life to create something for others does the same, such as an artist or poet, a writer, teacher, song writer or storyteller. As you can see this is happening now. It got me thinking about how much the woman has to trust in her guide dog to live freely in the world. How much that incident must have shaken her up. How frightening it must have been not only for her own safety, but also her baby. How whilst we were all shocked, everyone responded in loving and caring ways and just wanted to make sure everyone was ok. How after breaking down the woman picked herself up, dusted herself down and started all over again. She got on with her day, she trusted her dog absolutely and all was well. She knew the path that she must follow, as did the dog and she continued on it.

I was talking about the incident with the friends who were present a few mornings later, trying to make sense of what happened. We hadn’t seen it as it happened. It was the noise and change in atmosphere that caught our attention. We surmised that both parties must have been moving slowly. How did the dog not see what was in front of him? How did the street cleaner not see them? They just slowly walked into each other, like two ships in a fog. We surmised the road cleaner was probably daydreaming and the guide dog got distracted. One friend suggested that perhaps the dog had been distracted by the scent of Molly who is in season. This seems possible, but who knows. It got me thinking and as you can see it awakened my homiletic consciousness.

I’ve never had a great sense of direction and or spatial awareness. My mind does not operate in images. Maybe this is why I rarely if ever remember my dreams or even recall having them. I’m more of a communicator really and mainly through sound and conversation. I can describe to you exactly how things felt that morning, the emotions of the individuals, but the imagery is all a bit vague. I have other friends who will be able to describe who was say where, what people were wearing and what the individuals looked like. We are all different, it is very important to understand this. We truly do not all think alike, although I do like to believe that we can all love alike.

Now while my way of operating has its advantages, there are some disadvantages too. I get lost very easily. This is why since I learnt to drive I have relied on Sat Nav. Moving onto the Waze system in more recent years. It has usually proved reliable. The great thing about it is if you take a wrong turn, it will quickly adjust and direct you back on track. Generally, this has worked out well, but once or twice it has not. Sat Nav is very good but it cannot be relied upon 100%, sometimes it can send you down the wrong path, especially if you follow unquestioningly. Sat nav is a good guide, but you must never stop trusting your eyes, and or common sense. No guide is 100% reliable all the time, even the best trained of guide dogs it seems. We will take knocks, we will get lost on our journeys through life.

Life itself and the spiritual life in particular are often described as a journey. That said it’s not a journey in which we really travel a great distance. As Wendell Berry so beautifully wrote, echoing that great mystic Meister Eckhart, “And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”

On this journey we often come to forks in the road when we must take decisions on which way we ought to turn. Many times we make wrong decisions, I think we have to get it wrong many times, before we get it right. Many times we get lost too. Many times we take advice from others and follow it blindly. Many times this is helpful but other times it really is not. It can lead us down the wrong path, but that’s ok because we can always get back on track again.

Often this journey is described as a path, I have just done so, and I have heard many say that it gets narrower. I am not convinced of this. If I have learnt anything I have learnt that the spiritual journey is not like a path at all and certainly not a narrow one. In my experience it is broad and rooming all inclusive and welcoming, never exclusive or forbidding and open to all. What in 12 step culture they call “The Broad Highway” and one that allows a great deal of room for error.

I think one of the biggest mistakes we make when we speak of spiritual matters is when we describe them in narrow language. It puts people off, because it sounds too much and beyond us. It should not be like that, there is room for us all and it isn’t so hard to get started, it just requires a slight change in direction.

Let us also remember that the spiritual journey is one of depth and not really distance. Sometimes the biggest mistake we make is that we continue journeying on, head down, not looking all around us, too focused on a perceived goal. This is due, I am sure, to the fear that if we don’t keep on moving we might get lost or that our troubles might catch up with us. I do not believe that this is healthy. In many ways by just marching on ever forward we can become completely lost, in the sense that we lose who we are at the core of ourselves, that sense of belonging here in life, as we are, wanted, needed and loved. Or we walk into something without knowing it is front of us. Anyone can live their life as if they were blind.

These thoughts bring to mind the beautiful poem “Lost” by David Wagoner,


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

by David Wagoner

Sometimes when you feel lost you aren’t as lost as you think. What you are is actually in a place you would rather not be. This is beautifully illustrated in the following bit of wisdom form my old favourite Mulla Nasruddin

Nasruddin was sat on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side:

“Hey! how do I get to the other side?”
To which Nasruddin replied “You are on the other side!”

We are always on the other side of the river.

Throughout our journeys’ we pass through many stages of our lives and looking back no doubt we can see these staging posts, moments in our lives that have made us who we are, that have deepened our experiences of life and given us wisdom to pass on to others, if they would care to have it.

On our journeys there are not only staging posts, but guide posts and actual guides too, that have helped we pilgrims along the way. Some we have paid heed of, others we have not. Some ancient, some contemporary. Hopefully we have not followed them blindly, but sometimes no doubt we have as we have trusted too implicitly perhaps, a bit like those Sat Nav horror stories we sometime here about of people driving almost blindly into a lake or river. We have to learn to trust our senses as well as the sixth sense too, the inner voice, the inner light that speaks to us when we have ears that can hear.

The ancient stories give many great examples of the different types of journeys, pilgrimages and Odyssey’s that we may undertake. In his meditation “The Spiritual Journey” David O Rankin names a few who have walked courageously through theirs. Stating:

“It is Moses leading the Jews through the desert of Sinai, and Jesus enduring the temptation in the wilderness of Israel, and Buddha seeking enlightenment along the dusty roads of India.

It is the glorious voyage of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrow paths through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, and the confessions of the travellers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It is the pilgrims sailing on the Mayflower, the settlers moving westward, being On the Road with Jack Kerouac, and spinning through a black hole in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey”

We are all of us pilgrims on the sacred journey that is life and like so many of the more famous ones we think we have to go someplace else to discover our own Nirvana or to build the New Jerusalem. Just as the pilgrims on the Mayflower did in the seventeenth century, with those words from Hebrews we heard earlier singing in their hearts. They believed that they had to travel a great distance to a new land to create their heaven on earth. Well, I have discovered that this is not necessary. You do not have to travel great distances to experience the beautiful journey and you do not need to travel great distances to build the New Jerusalem, it must be here, in our own hearts or nowhere. The “Kin-dom” of Love has to be built here or nowhere.

I suspect it’s the same about finding ourselves once again when we feel lost. Who or what do we listen to? Well I am learning to listen to that inner voice, that light that shines bright within all of us. That spark of the Divine that is within everything. That which awakens the sense of my senses, that which guides me home no matter how lost I am and that which allows me to be at home wherever my feet are planted. That Kin-dom of Love, within me, within each of you and within everything.

Let love be our navigator it will always lead us home, to the place where we belong.

The problem isn’t getting lost, we all get lost at times. The problem is in losing faith that you cannot find your way again. The key is how we live when we find ourselves lost. Do we close down and get lost deeper in our fear, or do we pause and reach out and ask for help from those loving forces that are all around whether visible or invisible.

I saw a beautiful example of faith and trust the other day sat outside Café Nero. A woman who had experienced a terrifying knock, it must have been an awful shock to her confidence in herself and her guide. She took stock, she accepted help and comfort and then she got up once again, with her baby safe and secure in her papoose, hanging infront of her heart. She trusted her guide dog and she continued on her way with her daily activities. I saw she had absolute trust and no fear as she waited to be guided across the road. What a beautiful example of faith and trust and most of all love.

Thank you

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

Monday 12 June 2023

May we be people who embody hope for one another

Paul J. Wadell wrote:

“Hope has to be seen to be believed. It has to be made visible. It has to be something we can feel and touch. We are called to be persons who embody hope for one another. We have to be each other’s partners in hope.”

I have seen examples of this all around me, in the congregations I serve and the communities I am a part of and who love and care for the little oasis of love that are the gardens and buildings of Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel, at Sylvan Grove Altrincham.

Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism at its core, I believe, is in so many ways about embodying hope for one another. To me this is what it means to live this free tradition. This is not a creed or a statement of belief. We are and have always been a tradition where no one is compelled to believe in anything that their conscience does not allow them to. That said I do see Hope and “Embodied Hope” at the core of our historical tradition. I see it in our present and I know that it is vital for our future. A Hope not merely talked about though but shown through our very being. That there is a goodness at the heart of everything. A kind of “Radical Ok-ness”. This is not a denial of what is wrong in life. More the belief that there is a potential goodness at the heart of everything and that it is true religious living to bring this goodness to life, through our imperfect human being. To me this is what it means to embody hope.

I have in recent weeks received some beautiful emails from families who I have conducted rites of passage services for. They have all expressed the same thing. They have talked about our principles, the sense of welcome. That they feel they are valued.

This place is sacred to many it is holy ground, as it was in the past. I have seen a couple of beautiful examples of this in recent weeks. There was the recent response, of so many, to what happened to the “Wind Telephone”. I have seen it again this week. On Tuesday night I wasn’t feeling too well. I was resting when there was a knock on my door, it was a guy called Chris who likes to sit and eat in the Chapel gardens. He came to tell me he had chased off some flower thieves from the chapel gardens. I had conducted a scattering of ashes in the "Garden of Remembrance", that Sunday. The family had left flowers in Remembrance of their recently deceased dad. Some had been spread and others left in baskets. I witnessed both sides of humanity that evening. At first it saddened me, I know that the thieves must be desperate to steal the flowers, but still it saddened me. My heart though was lifted by Chris, we talked for some time, and I got to know him. Despite his own troubles he was clearly someone embodying hope. He has come to love this place. He doesn’t worship in the chapel building, but he does, in his own way come and find his own peace here. I have been touched by how much this place and community is loved by so many. It embodies both love and hope and it brings that out in them. I know that we who call this our spiritual home have a deep love as folk have for generations. We say come as you are, exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition. There are no tests to belong here. You are not asked to believe certain things or live in certain ways. We not only tolerate but truly celebrate difference, diversity. There is a faith in the goodness of life. I feel our purpose is to embody this.

It is not just the land and the buildings though, that are this community. We continued on in our own ways, embodying hope, through the pandemic. We met on line and kept together in other ways, we embodied hope. Others joined us from time to time. Some still do through Zoom. I remember a beautiful moment early in the pandemic when Rev Peter Godfrey joined us. Peter was minister at Altrincham and Urmston in early 1960’s. Send a child to Hucklow began at Dunham Road at this time. He began his ministry at Urmston before then. After the service Alison Jackson told him that she had been the very first child he ever Christened. A beautiful moment connecting past, present and future. In difficult times it certainly brought hope to me and others too.

I cannot tell you how many times over the years, particularly the last few years, so many folk have embodied hope for me. They have brought respair, a fresh hope, a new hope. The church I dream of is to be that kind of spiritual community. A place where fresh hope, new hope is embodied. A place where respair is blessed into being.

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

There has been a Unitarian community in the town of Altrincham for over 200 years. It did not begin here at Dunham Road. It all began in Shaws Lane as members from Hale Chapel instigated the beginning of this new congregation in the neighbouring town of Altrincham. No doubt the passing of the 1813 Trinity Act, which finally legalised the holding of Unitarian views, played a role in the forming of this and other Unitarian congregations at this time and over the following decades.

The congregation grew and thrived over the years and eventually moved to Dunham Road in December 1872. This beautiful chapel, designed by the great Manchester architect Thomas Worthington. They came and formed this fellowship of love that we have been sailing in for many generations. They did so in hope and with genuine enthusiasm. They brought a fresh hope, they embodied it through their lives as folks have continued to do over the generations. As those who congregate do today. Yes, things have changed, including in recent times. Hybrid Zoom worship would have been something from science fiction just a generation ago. Maybe eventually AI will replace me the minister, I doubt it though. It may offer theological correctness, but not humanity.

I am very aware that today we stand on the shoulders of giants as we look ahead as a free religious faith offering hope to a community and world that does at times seem so divisive. May we embody this hope, offer respair. I believe that this free religious tradition that I am a part of has much to offer our world, as those who came before us did. I live with hope in my heart that we can continue to build on those firm roots that those who came before us planted. A solid trunk grew from those roots and many branches have stretched from it, leading to buds and leaves and fruits that have flowered and nourished so many. This house of love is a place where hope is born again and again, despite the cynical times we all live in.

We are connected to both the past and the future, we are links in a chain of history. It is our task to do the best we can with this our link in this time and place. We cannot shape the whole world, but we can do something in this our time and place, in full knowledge that this will influence the whole of history. We can become embodiments of hope. Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life. Everything matters.

This fellowship of love that we sail in today is a place of nurture where the spirit can grow, but not alone. We do not sail this ship alone we do so in community with one another and with that eternal spirit that is present in all life and yet greater than it all. The Unitarian tradition is as much about community as it about individual freedom, something that seems lost in modern spirituality, something that is so needed in our time. We come together in love and to grow and flower in that same spirit.

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

The Chapel, the buildings and the gardens are holy ground. Here the spirit has spoken and been heard, just as the burning bush spoke to Moses. Here the Divine can speak to each, as it has for generations and encourage us to keep on moving forward to new freedoms. This though is not holy ground because it is especially sacred. No, it is holy ground because we who come consecrate it with our presence and the spirit that grows in and through us, that we bring to this place. Our task here is to increase the holiness and then take it out into our world where the worst aspects of humanity keep on desecrating.

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

As Wendell Barry so beautifully put it. “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” It is the task of this our free religious faith to nurture the sacredness from which we are formed and to carry that out into our world, through our lives. Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life. Everything matters. I have felt this, in my body, in my being, in the marrow of myself these last few months. A deepening closeness to this community. It is not just an idea. It has become embodied. Molly has helped, I am certain of this.

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

Like absence of love a life lived without hope quickly becomes empty and meaningless. Please do not get me wrong I’m not talking about optimism here, they are not the same. Optimism is about an expectation of something to come, whereas hope is more about allowing something to grow from within. It is something that must be embodied. It is a form of love incarnating in life, something that begins in our own hearts. Hope is knowing that something beautiful will grow, even from what feels like the worst kind of suffering. Hope always overcomes despair as meaning emerges from the suffering. To paraphrase Vaclav Havel “Hope is an orientation of the spirit...It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Or as Erich Fromm observed “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime, Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

So, what can we do in our time and place, how do we plant seeds of hope in our time and place? How do we take care of our link in the chain of life, in the chain of history? How can we ready ourselves “to help bring to birth that which is ready to be born”? How do we become people who embody hope for one another?

Well, I believe that it begins with two things. The first is to truly see our world and our shared life as a blessing, as a beautiful gift that we are a part of. This begins by first of all understanding that we too are blessings. We need to let this form and grow in souls, our hearts and our minds and then bring it to life, to embody such hope. We need to be filled with this spirit, to be enthused by it. To be enthusiastic. By the way that’s what enthusiasm means, from entheos to be filled with the spirit, with God. We need to be filled with this spirit and to set it free and begin to consecrate our world once more. We need to embody it. We need to let hope become an orientation of our spirit and to bless our world with this enthusiasm.

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

Now this maybe over stating it somewhat, but I have a friend who calls Dunham Road Chapel her Vatican. She doesn’t come here often, as she is a traditional Christian. She has been to a few services though and certainly sees this as a special place. She came the other day to sit quietly on the anniversary of her young brother’s death. For her it is a place of hope. It was certainly born here again for her one Christmas Eve.

May we be people who embody hope for one another. Let’s share this hope. Let us bless those we meet with our loving presence. Let’s make all ground holy ground. Let us show the world that everything matters. every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed, everything matters.

May we be people who embody hope for one another.

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

Monday 5 June 2023

The Spiritual life is Like a Flower


A friend Rob came on Monday to plant Sunflowers and other assorted flowers in the gardens at the chapel. He came for the first-time last year. This year he came a little later, due to one or two planting errors. The flowers are a legacy of love from his dad. His dad had died from Covid, right at the beginning of the pandemic. I had helped him create the service he conducted himself at the side of his father’s grave. It was filmed and broadcast around the world, his father had come to Britain from Zambia over 50 years ago. His dad loved gardening and since he died Rob has carried on this legacy. If you ever go to Southern Cemetery, on the edge of Chorlton, and notice an incredibly well kept grave, it is very likely to Rob’s dad’s. He devotes much of spare time taking care of it. He tells me even in his death his dad is taking care of him, keeping him on the straight and narrow. It is truly a labour of love, as was his planting here on Monday.

Last year Rob came on the second anniversary of his dad’s death. As he was planting he talked and I listened. The planting of the flowers was his gift to me and me witnessing him remembering his dad as my gift back to him. We both gave and we both received and the whole community benefitted from the beauty of the gardens, which blended beautifully with the loving beauty already here.

The planting of those flowers seemed to me to be the spiritual life in all its beauty and glory; it seems to me that the spiritual life is like a flower.

Now you may well ask, how is the spiritual life like a flower? It is a reasonable question to ask. I will attempt to explain.

The first thing that comes to my heart and mind is that the spiritual life is about opening up, as a flower opens up. That to live spiritually is to open up and to continue opening up day after day, season after season and year after year. Just as the flower opens and up to the light, so do we. How many times do we open up and reach for the morning light? Well infinite times it would seem.

That said we not only open many times we close down and shrivel up many times too. We seemingly close in, shrivel up and fade away many times in our lives only to rise and open once again in a new spring time. The spiritual life is about opening up and closing back in before opening once again, over and over again.

We are all of us like flowers in the garden of life. Each unique and yet similar. Each with something to offer if we grow and flower and be all that were born to be. Yes a flower looks beautiful when it stands alone. It has its own beauty and own unique qualities but it only truly becomes all that it is when it grows together with other flowers in the garden. It only truly becomes all that it is when it shares all that it is with all the other flowers in the garden of life.

It is the same with us and our lives. Yes, we are all uniquely beautiful and we all have our own qualities but we only truly express them and experience them when we come together in love and share them with others, encouraging them to do likewise. The spiritual life is never truly experienced or expressed alone. These things only really come alive in company and communion with others. Each of us have something uniquely beautiful to offer one another, things that only truly flower when we share them with each other.

The spiritual life is not only like a flower, but like a flower garden…The spiritual life comes alive in the garden of life…The garden of delights…

The spiritual life is not experienced alone, it does not exist alone. It only comes alive when we share it with others. No one life is an island. We cannot thrive or survive alone. We are interconnected, much like life in a garden is interconnected.

Margaret Silf captured this thought near perfectly in “The Way of Wisdom”. She wrote:

"We belong, not merely to the created order of things, but in a great web of relationship, and interconnectedness, in which every particle is intimately interwoven with every other, and in which, in some mysterious way, each particle holds and reflects something of the totality. This makes a huge difference to the way we live. Every choice we make, every response we offer, every reaction we reveal has an effect on that web of being. We are made for relationship. The Wisdom of creation insists on it. No single creature can disengage from the dance of creation without jeopardizing the eternal beauty of that dance. We are indeed created to be 'we'. To opt for merely being 'I' is to opt out of the creative process itself. It is only in interrelationship that we have our being and our meaning."

In my eyes this beauty of this interconnectedness is portrayed near perfectly in the observation of flowers growing together with all that makes up the nature of a garden. Our lives and all life is like those flowers in the garden.

You see nothing in life is separate, everything is interconnected. If we damage one aspect of life we damage all life, just as if we begin to heal one aspect of life we begin to heal all life. Or to paraphrase Jesus “What you do to the least of them, you do to me.” Everything is interconnected, nothing lives separately from all life and I believe that is all connected by a Great Universal thread from which all life exists. I call this thread God.

True reverential spiritual living, an awareness of the sacred in everything helps us to recognise the importance of everything. It helps us see that everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. It helps us recognise the intrinsic value of our own lives too. It reveals how we see life and how we live in life impacts on everything, including our own souls, our own beings. I am recognising this more and more as I live and breathe and enjoy my own being and that in which I live and breathe and share my being.

In recent months as I have simply enjoyed walking round where I live with Molly I have felt more connected to the people and the nature that I pass and interact with. As my reverence and love for life has grown, so has my love for my own being too. This has helped to continue the healing of my being in so many ways. It allows me to thrive and live and dance in the garden of life and thus be of better use in this life.

By observing flowers in a garden we can see clearly the interdependence of all life…The life in which we live and breathe and share our being…

The spiritual life is like a flower. I experienced this once more this week. May we all grow together in the garden of life, the garden of delights.

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