Monday 28 August 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To quote the philosopher of science Karl Popper

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

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

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

This brings to mind this little snippet from Anthony DeMello’s “One Minute Wisdom”

"To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the teacher said: “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” answered the student, “an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” said the teacher, “an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

To seek the truth, one needs humility and openness and enough self-esteem to see that we are wrong sometimes and of course the capacity to admit to this. If we cannot, we will not be able to see the truth, even when it is right in front of us. It is so easy to become blinded by what we think we know. We need the openness that comes with true humility, it is a truth that will set us free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 7 August 2023

In Giving and receiving we all enjoy the ultimate free meal

I recently came across the following: “it is a cliché that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliché is untrue”. It is attributed to Stephen Fry. I like it. It speaks to me. There is truth in many cliches and sayings, but there is also untruth. One I have found is not true is the following: “There is no such thing as a free meal.” It come from that cynical untrusting place, about the human condition. That nothing is given for free in life, that people always have a secondary motive, that no one gives wholly from their heart, without an ulterior motive. This the true joy in living. As Kahlil Gibran said: “There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.”

As I look back at my life, I cannot even begin to count the number of free meals I have been given. I am not just talking about food here by the way. Throughout my life people have given to me from nothing but pure love. There have been many helping hands, some visible and yet others invisible. Some have given to me before I was even here, that I have freely benefitted from. I have been freely fed by many hands throughout my life. I have eaten and have certainly been filled. Thank you. From this I have been able to give and others have been fed too.

“From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live”

I am going to share with a piece of wisdom that has been foundational to my ministry. A gift given, that has continued to feed me and those who I serve these last 13 years. It is titled “In The Soup” by Robert Walsh. Interestingly he did a short exchange ministry at the congregations I serve during the 1980’s when John Midgely served as minister. Sadly Robbie died a few years ago. That said his wisdom still feeds. Thank you.

“In The Soup” by Robert Walsh.

My dictionary says that the word minister is etymologically related to the word minestrone. I am not making this up. They are both derived from a Latin root that means to serve.

The image of ministry as minestrone is particularly apt for the ministry church people do all together that make us a ministering congregation. Each bean, each vegetable, each unit of macaroni or pinch of spice gives not only its substance to the soup but also its spirit, its texture its color, its flavour and aroma. Each person offers a unique set of gifts, and if we do our job organizing well, each gift will be creatively matched with a need – so that the whole business becomes a warm, nourishing, life giving religious community.

All who serve the church and the principles and values we hold dear are ministers. If you are doing part of that work, you are doing ministry, no matter how unlikely it may seem. You are in the soup – the minestrone of ministry!

Isn’t it wonderful.

“From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.”

I recently had the honour of participating

in “Ministry in the Making”, at Great Hucklow. Those in attendance were newly qualified ministers, those training for the ministry and those about to begin training for the ministry. One of those present was Janine Simms who will be on placement with the congregations I serve from September. It was a privilege to spend time with them and participate in workshops and other activities. They were on the whole an impressive bunch. I feel that our chalice is in good hands. Molly had a wonderful time and it seems that all present fell in love with her. This included the chef who ensured she had a sausage every morning. This has led to one or two problems since we got back as she has got a little fussier about food. Who would want to eat kibble after sausage. They did love her though and she came home with several teddy bears as she kept been given one by the students every time we went to chapel. They certainly want her back and apparently I can accompany her too. The whole week was a wonderful example of both giving and receiving. All certainly gained and abundantly, including Molly.

This year’s “Ministry in the Making” theme was inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s words on ‘Giving’, particularly the following lines: “Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving. And he answered: You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Giving of yourself is an intimate act. Like the disciples in “The feeding of the five thousands”, when they gave to those they were feeding face to face, in so doing they were filled, as were the disciples no doubt, as both were filled with love by this intimate interaction. In this ultimate free lunch, both receive.

During the week I was invited to speak about ministry. I shared the wonderful piece by Robbie Walsh suggesting that congregational ministry is akin to soup, particularly minestrone soup.

As Walsh highlighted minestrone and ministry share the same root, they both mean to serve. Love and service, I believe. are the essence of true religious living. Our Unitarian tradition is a free religious one, an open one. We come together and serve together, although we may not believe in exactly the same way. Thus we celebrate because as we come together and serve together we create a meal, made up of so many ingredients that could satisfy all and then we serve this meal to those who would like to taste what we have to offer. Our purpose is not to merely serve ourselves, but the world outside of our window. We cannot do this alone, we need one another. We all have something to add to the flavour.

Everyone thirsts and hungers even in our seemingly materially abundant lives. We cannot feed this hunger in isolation, in self-reliance. It is only fed in that relationship that occurs as we feed one another. To me this is the purpose of religious communities like the ones I serve, living breathing fellowships of love. It is also my experience that it is the space, in this relationship that occurs as we serve one another, that God is revealed, that God is once again incarnated. By giving one to another we can know the love that is God.

This brings to mind a rather wonderful teaching story from good old Nasruddin

One day Nasruddin saw a crowd gathered around a pond, watching a priest flailing in the water and calling for help. Of course some people were attempting to rescue--reaching towards the drowning priest and saying "Give me your hand!" The priest kept wrestling with the water and shouting for help. Finally Nasruddin stepped forward: "Let me handle this." He stretched out his hand toward the priest and shouted, "Take my hand!" The priest grabbed Nasruddin's hand so quickly that he nearly fell in. Soon the priest was extracted from the pond... and someone asked Nasruddin what just happened. "It is very simple," he replied. "I know this miser never gave anything to anyone. Instead of saying 'Give me your hand,' I said, 'Take my hand,' and sure enough he took it.

If you are drowning it is advisable to take a helping hand. We all need at times help to pull us out of water. Sorry if this is mixing too many liquid based metaphors, but I’m no Stephen Fry.

No one pulls themselves up from their bootstraps completely alone, all by themselves. From the moment of our births others are involved in creating who we are and who we become. As the old saying goes “It takes a village to raise a child.” No one lives entirely from themselves we are all a part of an interdependent web of relationships that are made of both visible and invisible. Life has taught me that asking for help is actually a sign of both strength and wisdom, rather than weakness. It is a sign of good, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Of course it is not enough to merely ask for health, true healthy humility is about accepting the help offered. We give to others when we allow them to give to others. Those numerous free meals we are given do not only feed us, they feed all. We eat and we are filled by the relationship. Maybe this is what is meant by the old clichéd saying, “there is no such thing as a free meal.” It isn’t true of course, sadly it is a cynical cliché that suggests that you shouldn’t trust generosity. Please don’t fall for it, give and receive abundantly so we can all eat and be filled. If you do it with joy, joy will be your rewards.

From the cradle to the grave we need to keep on giving and receiving whole heartedly, joyfully. We need to keep asking for help when we need it and accept what visible and invisible help is offered. We also need to make ourselves available to be of assistance to others in their need, to be that visible help and to help bring alive that invisible help too. This is not to say that we become unhealthily dependent on others and society as a whole, no not at all. We are though a part of a whole, a complex whole that makes life and community. As we grow and change and become the people that we are this changes shape and reforms constantly, it seems that we are being born again and again to new versions of ourselves. Of course we cannot do this alone. We cannot give birth to ourselves, no one can. We need help and sometimes we need to ask for help from others and in so doing we are of course doing not only a service for ourselves, but for them also. We all feed and we are all fed and abundantly so.

We all hunger for purpose and meaning. As Viktor Frankl pointed out we are driven by a will to find meaning and purpose. I would go further and suggest that we are also driven to find companionship in our increasingly isolated and isolating culture. We need to serve one another, or our souls will starve. I have discovered, and I keep on discovering, that our deepest pangs are not satisfied by the food that is laid on the table but in the relationship that occurs as we feed one another and as we drink from one another’s cup. This is fellowship; a living breathing fellowship of love. This is where the joy in living comes to life.

We are all in the soup of life together and it is our task to serve one another. We all can minister, we can all add substance and flavour to the ministrone soup in which we all share.

Remember we are all in the soup together, let’s all add our substance and our flavour. Lets offer one another those free meals and accept those meals that are offered to us. There is more than enough to go round. The giving and receiving of love is an infinite commodity. It is the joy in living, in life.

“From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.”

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