Sunday 28 January 2024

Person Centred Spirituality

I love watching Molly playing with other dogs. She loves to run and chase and wrestle. It doesn’t seem to matter the size of the dog either. When it snowed the other day she must have spent two hours just running and playing. She wore out about a dozen other dogs. They soon gave up, but she just carried on. How she loves to play. She has this ability to bring out the playfulness in other dogs too. I was talking to a woman and her Cavapoo the other day. She said her dog was not very sociable and doesn’t play. Well within a few moments Molly got her running around. She said her dog hadn’t done this for two years, it was only three years old. After a few minutes of joy she put her dog on its lead and walked away. I remember thinking to myself I am not sure that it is the dog that isn’t sociable and playful. It seems that some aspect of this lovely dog was not fully awake, a part that so desperately wants to play with others.

I love watching dogs play. They know intuitively when they are playing. They seem to instantly get in tune with each other. There are these momentary pauses in their wrestling and chasing and then they move into each other again. They are beautifully synchronised and understand one another. They quickly adjust to the size of one another too. They seem to understand each others needs and capacity. They seem beautifully centred on one another. It is a beautiful sight to behold how being in tune with themselves, they are in tune with one another, at least in play. It makes me think that this is a kind of empathy. It also got me thinking that maybe dogs at play is an example of the “Golden Rule of Compassion”; dogs at play seem to be a living example of “do unto the other dog as they would have done to yourself.”

Last Sunday Janine led a child blessing service. It was wonderful to watch her in action. To see how she had created her own service, that fulfilled the needs of the family. I enjoyed how she constructed the service. Afterwards we went for coffee and a chat. We chuckled to ourselves about the elements that she had combined together to create the service. Yes it was her own, but it was influenced by others, including myself. At cafĂ© nero we were joined by three people who had been at the morning services. One a regular Nick, who had helped with the music during Janine’s service, and the other two had been a couple of times before. They were already there and invited us to join them. Obviously, they wanted to talk about the Unitarian tradition. It was a fascinating conversation as we talked about so many different things. The subject of Universalism came up again. There was a lot of talk about the origins of the Unitarian tradition and our approach to religion. There were many attempts to label things, something I never like as it always seems reductionistic. There were questions about symbols. I talked, but mainly listened. I walked away with a broad grin on my face, went home, got changed and then headed off to the park with Molly. As I watched her play I thought what a beautiful metaphor she is for a free approach to religion and spirituality.

On Monday I was talking with a friend who is studying for a counselling degree. She had been reading Carl Rogers and his view on person centred counselling and the need for deep empathy. It was a lovely conversation and great to hear her so enthused by what she is learning. I love enthusiasm in anything and anyone. She asked me if I had thought about exploring “self actualisation” as a theme. I said I hadn’t, at least not directly. She then started asking questions about counselling, empathy and ministry, suggesting that the work of Carl Rogers seemed to correlate with Unitarian ministry. I think some of his ideas do point towards a person centred spirituality, which to me is the essence of the Unitarian approach to what religion is about. I then thanked her for being one of my Muses for the week, as she had just set my thinking in a direction for this service. How do you like it so far? She liked this.

On his journey towards developing person-centered therapy, Carl Rogers renounced traditional Christianity. Seeing it as imposing judgmental conditions of worth, by the way he viewed all religion this way. Rogers grew up in an extremely conservative Christian family. He had a particular problem with the foundational belief in the doctrine of “Original Sin”, a view I certainly share. The idea that at birth there is something fundamental wrong in humanity, in our nature. This is anti-ethical to Rogers concept of “Unconditional positive regard”

“Unconditional positive regard” is the attitude of complete acceptance and love, whether for yourself or for someone else. When you have unconditional positive regard for someone, nothing they can do could give you a reason to stop seeing them as inherently human and inherently lovable. It does not mean that you accept each and every action taken by the person, but that you accept who they are at a level much deeper than surface behaviour.

I see parallels here with “The Golden Rule of Compassion”, which can be found at the heart of every one of the great faith traditions. It is “Love your neighbour as yourself”, in one form or another. To me this suggest that if we see ourselves and one another as fallen in nature then we cannot love each other and if we can love each other then how can we love God. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the essence of the teachings of Jesus and thus Christianity and every other of the great faith traditions. This is one of the reason why I have never understood “Original Sin” as being in line with Jesus’ teaching. I do not accept that life and humanity is born fallen. I was thinking of this as Janine conducted the “Child blessing” service last Sunday, as she named the child, blessed her life and asked her family and friends to support her in her life. She blessed this beautiful blessing. I reject the concept of original sin, that said I do not deny that we all sin. In the sense that each and every single one of us fall short of our ideal of what we can be. That said despite falling short we should never lose sight that at the core of our being we are inherently lovable. We are formed from love and we are capable of love. Rogers believed that the purpose of psychology is to bring this inherent worth to life, I believe that it is the purpose of communities like ours to bring that alive too and to recognise it in others. In so doing we can begin to bring that love alive through our human being and in so doing we will truly love God with all our hearts, minds and souls.

As you can imagine this all got me thinking and relating to ministry, particularly in our tradition. In many ways the Unitarian approach is very much person centred spirituality. As a minister my role is to meet people where they are and encourage them to seek their own answer to life’s questions, particularly the spiritual nature of life. Surely this is person centred. I was thinking of this as I watched Molly playing with another dog, how in tune with each other they were and how by doing so both were gaining so much, as I watched the dance. Then it came to me what we are about is person centred spirituality, in community. My role is not to tell others what to think and believe, but encourage all of us to seek truth and meaning together and somehow in that dance, something remarkable happens. This does require unconditional positive regard for ourselves and others. We do need to believe that we and others are a blessing, or we will not trust one another, in the way that dogs do as they play.

Coming together with a sense of positive regard for ourselves and others is not a private affair, it is communal spirituality, something that appears to be increasingly lacking in this day and age. Many people report a need for spiritual sustenance but are put off by what is described as organised religion, of any kind, which they see it as detrimental to their own spirituality. I remember a friend once posting the following Meme: “Spiritual people inspire me; whereas religious people scare me.” This is because religion is seen as inhibiting and life constraining, which of course it can be.

Of course, Unitarians claim that we are a free and enquiry religion; that we are free to explore and develop our own personal spirituality in community with others. We, as individual members, of free religious communities, do not think and believe in the same way about many things, but we are bound together in mutual love. We are one faith, but we may not believe in exactly the same way, as that conversation in the coffee shop proved. That said there is love and respect and of course “Unconditional positive regard”. Well at least this is what we aim for. No one achieves this perfectly as none of us are perfectly self-actualised human beings, certainly not me. Maybe one day.

A person centred approach to spirituality and religion, with positive self regard for ourselves and others, recognising each others worth and dignity requires an openness to all that is, life, the universe, everything. It reveals truth and meaning in everything and everywhere and it reveals the divine in all aspects of life. It does not reject. It leads to a reverence for the miracle that is life itself and for one another.

This for me is the purpose of true religion, but it’s no easy task. Forrest Church said that in order to achieve it “We must embrace each day as the miracle it is and fashion our very lives into instruments of praise. This is religious work and it requires religious discipline. We perform that work together weekly in our Sunday liturgy. Once a week we pause and pinch ourselves. We can't take this life for granted. We must receive it as a precious gift, a pearl of great price.”

We need to recognise the oneness, the unity of everything. We are all part of a vast and yet mysterious living system. By recognising this we begin to participate consciously in this vast oneness. The mystics of every faith tradition have proclaimed this divine unity. It is called Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Brahman-Atman synthesis in Hinduism, when Jesus declares “I and the father are one” he is talking of divine oneness. We are all part of the one undivided whole. This is how we love God and our neighbour and ourselves. It is positive regard for everything and that that is at the core of everything.

Howard Thurman described this near perfectly in “Creative Encounter” when he said "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God."

This oneness, this sense of communion can be experienced by everyone, no one is excluded, it transcends all human created differences. What name we give it matters little, whether it be Universal Mind, Great Spirit, God, The Divine. Whether we name it or not we can certainly know it, I am sure we have all felt that oneness at one time or another.

I know from personal experience and from really listening to others that there is a deep human need to be at one with ourselves, reconciled with our neighbours and at home with the universe. It seems to me that our feelings of friendship and empathy are but a faint reminder of this essential oneness. We can all feel that oneness and it is through this oneness that we can truly know ourselves, our true natures. Can we achieve this alone? Does privatised spirituality allow this? How can we be at with all of life, if we cannot engage with one another spiritually?

To be truly religious is to let the sense of the eternal make a difference in our lives. It’s really all about being good neighbours. It’s about how we live with each other. As Thomas Jefferson said “It is in our lives not our words that our religion must be read”. You can be spiritual on your own, of course any one can, but we can only be truly religious requires us to come together. Coming together does not mean you lose who you are though. In many ways you may learn more about who you are, in interacting with others.

Last Tuesday morning , before I began writing this sermon I took Molly to the park once again. It was pouring with rain. There were only one or two other dogs out and about. Molly didn’t have anyone much to play with. She looked around, chased a few birds and squirrels. She was ok, but not like she had been in previous days. For she had to play alone. She was at ease though. She doesn’t suffer what so many humans suffer from, she doesn’t experience self-loathing, she has a healthy self-regard and as such goes out into the world with a sense of joy. That said Molly has known nothing but love in her life. No one has told her or treated like there was something wrong with her, in her nature. She sees most people in this light. If she has met you once she will greet you as an old friend, she likes to say hello to everyone. She has certainly enhanced my life and taught me so much about how to recognise my own worth and dignity and that of my brothers and sisters and attempt to build a community based on person centred spirituality.

To me this is how life should be and certainly what religion should be. It should be person centred, with love at its heart. With positive regard for ourselves, each other, life and God at the heart of it. Then we will truly live by the Golden Rule of Love and we will begin to bring to life the kin-dom of Love right here right now.

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

Monday 22 January 2024

The Opposite of Schadenfreude: Rejoicing in the Good Fortune of Others

I generally take a positive view of social media, as I do with most aspects of human interaction. When things are used in a positive way they enhance our lives. That said there are downsides. They can be misused. The one I have perhaps struggled with the most is what was once called Twitter and now X. I have never really got it. In fact, beyond posting my blog and videos I rarely interact. There is one person I love on Twitter though, this is Susie Dent from Dictionary Corner on Countdown. She is informative, funny and warm hearted. I have learnt so much from her in recent years as she has shared lost words, often as a way of social commentary. It was Susie who brought “respair” back into public consciousness, that word that means a new or fresh hope. She has also shared lost positive words, that are the opposite of negative versions that have remained in usage. Words like “gruntled”, meaning happy or contended, in good humour, it is the opposite of disgruntled; or “gormful, meaning sensible, not foolish or senseless, the opposite of gormless; or “ruthful”, meaning feeling or expressing pain or sorrow for wrong doing or causing offense, the opposite of ruthless; or feckful, meaning efficient or effective, the opposite of feckless. It is interesting that only the negative versions of these words have survived in common usage.

Another example, of the loss of positives, is the word “resentment”. I resent the word itself. Actually, what I resent is how I and others use the word. The word literally means to re-feel, to re-sense something. That said when we re-feel something wonderful or positive we do not say we resent it. There is no word in common usage that describes a positive way of re-sensing something.

Now one word that is in common usage, but we do not have an equivalent English word for is Schadenfreude, at least not in common usage. We used to have “epicaricacy”, but it has disappeared. Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure , joy or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, pain, or humiliation of another. A good example would be when a rival football team loses, or the political party you are opposed to suffers a humiliating loss. Or closer to home, someone trips over, provided they don’t get too hurt. When social media is at its worse it seems to be powered by such feelings; Schadenfreude seems to fuel Twitter or X.

Schadenfreude is derived from “Schaden” meaning damage or harm and “Freude” meaning Joy. We think of it as joy in someone’s misfortune. Now what is frustrating is that there isn’t a equivalent word for the opposite of Schadenfreude, say the joy in someone’s good fortune.

We have all lived through difficult times in recent years. As a result there are folk about who are trying to find ways to spread a little joy, to share good news as an antidote to the negativity abound. As a result people have begun using a new word -a neologism - “freudenfreude”. This is seen as the opposite of Schadenfreude.

“Freudenfreude” is described as positive empathy. It is the ability to feel someone else’s positive emotions as if they were your own. A small study published in the journal “Psychological Science” in August 2021 showed that this type of empathy helps people become kinder, more resilient and satisfied with their lives, it creates a sense of gratitude. It also brings people together, so it is thus an antidote to self-centredness. Social media at its worse can increase this insular self-cented way of seeing life.

Anyone can tap into the power of freudenfreude. All you have to do is look for the good things happening to people around you, look for the small examples of good news, not the big bad news on “X” or printed and tv news. Look around you, celebrate other people’s small successes. When you talk with the people in your life ask them about their joys and share in them. Do not be afraid to share your good news too, do not hide your light, let it shine. Be a bearer of the good news. It helps build community you know, something so needed in ever more isolating and isolated lives. This is not to say that we avoid one another’s troubles, freudenfreude is about developing empathy and you can’t have positive without negative. That said when we say we feel what you feel then we must feel positive as well as painful emotions. To feel with another is to do so wholly. This is true empathy.

Now when I think of someone who exemplified “Freudenfreude” Angela Fowler, a member of one of the congregations I serve, comes straight to mind. Sadly, Angela died on News Years Eve. What an example though of someone who encouraged and enjoyed the achievements of others. She did so much herself, despite her very real struggles in life. She certainly lived a life of gratitude and always made the most of every little thing that life gave to her. Not that Angela would have used the word “Freudenfreude”. She was an expert in language, speaking perfect French and was also fluent in German. So, I don’t want to insult her by not using correct language. Not that she would mind too much as she always encouraged me in my ministry and forgave all my terrible pronunciations.

Thankfully there is another word that means pretty much what “Freudenfreude” does. This is the ancient Sanskrit word “Mudita”. Mudita means vicarious joy or sympathetic joy. It is used in Buddhism to highlight the importance of feeling joy for others good fortune even if, or especially because, you do not directly benefit from it. Again, it suggests something community centred rather than merely self-centred.

There is a similar word in Hebrew too, this is “Firgun”, which describes the ungrudging pleasure one takes in someone else’s good fortune. A kind of generosity of spirit, an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened or might happen to another person. I think both “Firgin” and “Mudita” apply to Angela and I am sure as someone who loved interfaith interaction it speaks powerfully to her personal soul.

I experienced a great deal of “Freudenfreude”, “Mudita” and “Firgin” last weekend. On Friday I was at a good friend, Ian Etto’s, album launch at Manchester Art Gallery. It was wonderful to be with Ian and Jules and countless other people from their lives as they performed and we all joined together in celebration. Both Ian and Jules have had their struggles in life and it was wonderful to see them shine their lights so bright and to be together with others sharing in their joy. On Saturday morning I opened proceedings at Altrincham “Court Leet”. During the proceedings Barbara Thackray, a congregational member, was made a “Freeman” of Altrincham. In recognition for the years of dedicated service raising money for St Anne’s Hospice, following the death of her sister. Barbara took up running about 10 years ago, in her mid 70’s. She runs 10k twice a week and runs in events around the area raising money. She has become bit of a celebrity, appearing all over local news and even being the star of an Adidas advert with Mo Salah, her smiling face being the last image as she runs along. It was such a joy sharing in Barbara’s recognition. So wonderful sharing with these people who are a rich part of my life and the lives of others too, who have known recent joys. Yes it is important to be with others in their struggles, but also their joys. This to me is what loving community is all about. I just wish we had a word in common usage to describe such a feeling and to shine that light bright for all to see. So, I am going to join in with those who are using the word “Freudenfreude”, lets make it word of the year for next year.

You may recall I was deeply effective in a positive way by Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind” a few years ago. It came out just as we went into lockdown during Covid. It was a brilliant book and was an antidote to a great deal of negativity about human nature being peddled at the time. He offered a different perspective and suggested, as many have before, that if we only portray a low opinion and expectation of humanity, then this is what we will see and experience. The problem is that we under estimate our capacity and only really promote bad news and bad behaviour. Now one of the solutions that he suggested is that we should come out of the closet for the good that we do and others do. That we need to learn to celebrate doing good and promote it. I see echoes of Freudenfreude in his proposals.

Now this probably sounds a little shocking as it seems to go against the grain of what we are taught to do, to not boast about the good we do. We need though to let our light shine, so that people see another example other than what we hear and read about on the news.

As Bregman highlights

“Unfortunately, this reticence works like a nocebo. When you disguise yourself as an egoist, you reinforce other people’s cynical assumptions about human nature. Worse by cloaking your good deeds, you place them in quarantine, where they can’t serve as an example for others. And that’s a shame, because Homo puppy’s secret superpower is that we’re so great at copying one another.”

I suspect the same applies with “freudenfreude”. Let us come out the closet about the good we do. Let us learn to celebrate the good fortune of others. Let us hold up these lights and share in each others good news. You never know we might just begin to change our world and become a beautiful antidote to the prevailing cynicism that others promote around the world.

Let us not hide the good in ourselves and each other. Let us not deny the dark, what is wrong in the world. It is there of course it, but it is not all that is there. There is goodness, there is light, there is joy and good things do happen for us and each other.

I’m going to end this morning with a classic story, one I have told before, but one that speaks powerfully to me at our human nature and the nature of life. That each of us has the capacity for good and bad within us, for both Schadenfreude and Freudenfreude, what matters is what aspect of ours and others humanity we shine a light on. It is titled “Two Wolves.”

One winter’s evening whilst gathered round a blazing camp fire, an old Sioux Indian chief told his grandson about the inner struggle that goes on inside people.

“You see” said the old man, “this inner struggle is like two wolves fighting each other. One is evil, full of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, deceit, false pride, superiority, and ego”.

“The other one,” he continued, poking the fire with a stick so that the fire crackled, sending the flames clawing at the night sky, “is good, full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith”.

For a few minutes his grandson pondered his grandfather’s words and then asked, “So which wolf wins, grandfather?”

“Well”, said the wise old chief, his lined face breaking into a wry smile, “The one you feed!”

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


Monday 15 January 2024

Blue Monday: Finding Comfort, Solace and Joy in Winter

Today Monday 15th of January has become one of those days that have been marked out on the yearly calendar. Not an official public holiday, there isn’t one until Easter. That said it is still a day we mark. It is known as “Blue Monday”, no I don’t mean the song by New Order. “Blue Monday” has become regarded as the hardest day of the year, afterall the Christmas spirit has all gone and we are right in depths of winter. It is dark, it is cold and there is little light around, Spring seems so far away. The day light hours will increase over the coming weeks but still we must face winter. January and February can be difficult as we feel stuck in the cold on these dark winter evenings.

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

Whenever I look at the winter world it looks barren and bleak. Like those trees I passed as I wandered round Dunham Massey with Molly and a friend the other day. The trees look so vulnerable just standing there all alone and yet I know they are alive, standing there bold and upright. They remind me of my own vulnerability and my exposure to the cold of winter and to the challenges of life, challenges I do not shrink from, even though I do from time to time feel tempted to do so.

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

Comfort and solace offer something different; something so needed in winter; something that can be found in many ways. I was thinking of this as I enjoyed some traditional Transylvania soup that a friend had given me, a chicken type broth. It brought comfort to my body, but also my soul. It truly was chicken soup for the heart, the body and the soul.

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

That said we also need solace and comfort. Unlike those trees we have one another. We can share in each others warmth and we can seek help and comfort from both visible and invisible sources. This is how we live through winter, we find its power and beauty and instead of hibernating we learn to live fulling alive; we do not have to just survive, we can learn to thrive. Sometimes all you need is a bowl of soup, whether that be for the body, the heart and or the soul.

We all need solace, we all need comfort and consolation in times of distress. It is wonderful to be able to receive both visible and invisible help at such times.

As David Whyte so beautifully put in his essay on the word “Solace”

“Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of.”

Solace isn’t just about comforting as we understand it today, as a “there, there”, in its original meaning there is a sense of pleasure and joy too. This brings to mind the 5th verse of the 30th Psalm “Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” I and friends were sharing in joy early on Tuesday morning, there was much laughter in our coming together. Yes, some had their struggles and were offered comfort, a hug and listening ear, but we also shared in solace together as we laughed and had real fun. This is true solace and it certainly warmed our cockles on that cold winters morning.

Another thing that has been bringing me solace, a great deal of joy in fact, in recent weeks has been remembering songs my dad and grandad used to sing to me as a child. I have been sharing them with friends. They were often rude and funny musical songs, with a Yorkshire twist. Sometimes a little naughty, but always good hearted. They brought me solace when I was a child and they have been bringing me solace this winter.

Such as “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts”

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Seem them all a standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
A turn of the wrist a flick of the fist and up the showman said

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Every ball you throw will make me rich
There stands my wife, the idol of me life
Singing roll a bowl a ball a penny a pitch

Singing Roll a bowl, a ball, a penny, a pitch
Roll a bowl, a ball, a penny, a pitch
Roll a bowl, a ball, roll a bowl, a ball
Singing roll a bowl a ball a penny a pitch

Rememebring these old songs has brought me much solace these last few weeks.

Where do we seek solace, when life is difficult? Where do we turn for comfort? Comfort is another of those interesting words that does not mean exactly what it once did.

Comfort comes from the Latin word comfortare, which means “strengthen greatly.” To give comfort is to shore up the mood or physical state of someone else. It may take quite some time to shore up someone when they are lost, in a state or despair, or deep depression. It takes more than just going for a walk, taking flowers, encouraging them to find a love and connection through nature. Yes, these help, of course they do, but you cannot just lift a deep state of depression this way. The support maybe needed for quite some time. To strengthen someone greatly takes some time and effort and above all consistency. It’s about standing or sitting with someone through what is at times a long haul. This is counter intuitive to our age. We are living through the age of the quick fix.

When you are struggling in the need for comfort and solace it can feel like it will never end, a bit like a long cold winter. It will though, at least if we find ways to stick with it, if we find comfort and solace to keep on living through the winter. As Wendell Berry so beautifully put it in “Hannah Coulter”

“You think winter will never end, and then, when you don't expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.”

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always holding on to the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace.

We do not have to do so alone though. We can seek comfort and solace from one another. We can walk through this season together, experiencing it all, wholly alive. We can offer comfort and solace. Whether that is by being with one another in our shared suffering, offering something that warms the body, the heart and soul, like that bowl of soup. Solace can also come with joy and laughter. I was with friends on Friday night at my friends album launch in Manchester. A wonderful night of shared celebration. It was just wonderful watching friends shine, following their bliss. It can come in walking together on cold days enjoying the splendour of nature. It can come in so many ways. I hope you all have your oen Molly’s. She is such a treasure, who brings comfort, solace and above all joy to so more, not least me.

Where do you find comfort? Where do you find solace in the cold of winter. How do you find ways to stay alive and awake, rather than hibernate? How can you find ways to support and comfort those struggling around you? How can you offer solace? Whether by shoring someone up or bringing joy to their hearts, Perhaps something to think about this morning, rather than sinking into “Blue Monday”

I will end today with these beautiful words by Kathleen McTigue. A “Winter Blessing”

“Winter Blessing” Kathleen Mctigue

The world catches our hearts through its light:
splintering dance of sun on water,
calm moonlight poured through branches,
candles lit on early winter evenings,
a splatter of stars on a clear night,
and the bright eyes of those we love.
But the brilliance never ends,
even when the light goes out.
Mystery shimmers and shines in the world
in even the darkest corners.
It’s there where the roots push life into soil and rock,
in small lives lived under every stone;
there is the silent pulse beneath the tree bark.
It’s in the depth of slow tides as they turn,
there in the sky on moonless nights
when muffling clouds block out the stars.
It’s there in the prison, the hospital,
by hospice bed,
there at the graveside, in the empty house –
something beating in the dark shelter
of our hearts -
the small shine of hope, the gilt edge of kindness.

May we be granted the gift of deeper sight
that we might see – with or without the light.

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

Monday 8 January 2024

To all epiphanies great and small

“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.
“Here,” the elder said.
“When will it happen?” the disciple asked.
“It is happening right now,” the elder answered.
“Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted.
“Because you do not look,” the elder said.
“But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.
“Nothing. Just look,” the elder said.
“But at what?” the disciple asked again.
“At anything your eyes alight upon,” the elder answered.
“But must I look in a special kind of way?” the disciple went on.
“No. The ordinary way will do,” the elder said.
“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” the disciple said.
“No, you don’t,” the elder said.
“But why ever not?” the disciple asked.
“Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the elder said.

“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” by Joan Chittister

Saturday marked the end of Christmas, it was the 12th Day of Christmas, you all know the song. Have we all managed to take down our decorations etc?. Yesterday , at least in the western church, was the feast day of “Epiphany”. The day when it is said that the wise men arrived to visit the Christ child.

“Epiphany” is an interesting word. It comes from the Greek meaning “to appear” or “to be made manifest”. In the western church Epiphany signifies the day that Jesus was shown to be the divine Christ; the day that divinity was revealed to the wise men as they had completed their journey following that wondrous star; a journey which had taken 12 days, as they had travelled afar, or so the ancient story says. They brought gifts as they paid homage.

I was given a wonderful gift during the “Watch Night Service”, just after midnight, at the turning of the year. I was given an ancient Roman coin that represents Janus (January), a beautiful ancient Roman tradition. I was given so much last Christmas season and I love the meaning of the coin as I looked back in gratitude and forward in Hope. There were many changes last year, there were some “Epiphany” moments too.

Now of course “Epiphany” has taken on a more universal meaning in more recent centuries. Today when someone proclaims that they have had an epiphany they are usually claiming that they have experienced a sudden awakening to a new truth. These sudden awakenings generally do not occur in special settings. In fact what is usually significant is that they occur in a seemingly ordinary way. Like the Christ child in a lowly stable.

During my time serving you wonderful folk I’ve had many myself. I have had several early in the morning as I walked out my front door and heard bird songs. Those little birds speak a language that I now understand. They occur as I travel around, magic moments found in ordinary ones. I have experienced several spots of time moments when a new deeper truth has suddenly come to me. It comes in the ordinary things, in the unexpected things and when it comes it is beautiful. I know that many of you had similar experiences too. I know this because you have shared them with me. What a wonderful gift. Thank you! We can all experience Epiphanies; we can all experience moments when we glimpse the essential nature of things in ways that change the course of life dramatically and powerfully for the better; we can all experience moments of sudden discovery and or revelation when things seem to seamlessly fall in place and a new clarity is gained.

“Epiphanies” come in the ordinary moments of life, in its flow. It beings to mind the following from Shakespear’s Julius Caesar Act 4 scene 3. Here Brutus speaks:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Words suggesting we must flow with life, that this is where the power is. If we do so we can make each moment precious, we can bring them to life. That each moment can become momentous and perhaps life changing. The key is to awaken to the ordinary moments and perhaps see them as potentially transformative. Not to live passively in them, but to bring them alive.

It also requires us to look back, before facing forward, like Janus, from which January comes. I did that once again this Christmas time as I spent time with loved ones. There was one magic moment that occurred at my aunties at the old farm. My auntie talked of her son and how an old relative had heard him talking while working and how much he sounded like his uncle Billy her brother and my dad. It brought back a moment years ago when she had shown me an old video when we were children and I heard my dad’s voice, it was my voice. At the time I couldn’t watch it, it was too upsetting. This time I watched it again and it transported me back to so many memories, so many of life’s magic moments. It was an epiphany moment as it awakened something in me, that has once again brought new life. I had similar experiences the next day at my mums as she hosted a little family gathering and we talked and shared together, magic moments we enjoyed sharing. These felt like epiphany moments, or they were as I drove back in the terrible weather on the M62 with Molly by my side and tears rolling down my face. An epiphany is a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is important to you. It can be in the nature of a sudden and profound religious or spiritual experience, or it can be less dramatic. They often come to me in the car, but also when out walking. I enjoyed two wonderful walks with Molly and a couple of dear friends on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. As we walked and talked, I could feel I was aware of something new, something I was becoming conscious of in my being. Thank you.

As I look back at my life, I can bear witness to many moments of illumination or as I prefer see them as moments of awakening. You see every moment of our lives can become such moments if we would learn to seek them and learn to bring them alive in our lives and in the lives of others. We just need to be alive and awake to these possibilities.

William Wordsworth in his poem “Prelude” described such moments as “spots of time”. Wordsworth wrote:

“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book XI, ls 258-278)

“Spots of time” are, epiphanies, those moments when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon,; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary; moments when we experience reality on a deeper level.

These moments can happen anywhere. For Wordsworth these “spots of time” occurred primarily in nature. We all experience them in different ways, in different states and in different settings. Those moments when time seemingly stands still; those moments that touch us at the core of our being; those moments that transform our lives; those magic moments. Time seemingly becomes compressed or concentrated in these moments when the senses become heightened, when life seemingly has a deeper meaning. Moments when life becomes denser and deeper. These are not necessarily supernatural moments by the way; no, they are firmly grounded in reality. In these moments time appears to be slowing down, although obviously it does not. Time does not so much stop as become compressed, the moment becomes concentrated. There just seems to be more of life in that moment, but it lasts just as long. Maybe the moment is deeper, not longer. Time is time after all. It is what they call “Cairos Time”, not “Chronos Time”.

When I look back at my life I can think of those moments when deep powerful meaning has emerged seemingly out of nothingness and all of life has felt connected. I felt it once again walking with Molly and friends on both New Year’s day and Christmas Day.

These moments though are not just to be kept for me, they are to change us for the good of all. That has been my experience at least, as they have always come after difficult times. They have always shown me ways to better love the world.

I am sure if we look back we will find that we have all of us experienced such moments in our lives, moments that we carry with us, throughout our lives. Moments when time has seemingly stood still, moments that have changed us or as I prefer to see it woken us up or woken something up within us. I feel certain in saying that we have all know epiphanies great and small.

The question is though, what can we do with them? And can we “bring them alive in others”? I believe so. I also believe it is our task to do so. This is where the meaning comes in life, it certainly has in mine..

So, this is what I’d like you to do. This is your homework as we step into a New Year. I as you to look back through your lives and recall such moments, magic moments, spots of time. Those epiphanies great and small. Moments that have stayed with you. Perhaps you could look for a pattern in moments that either woke you up and or put you to sleep and perhaps think of ways in which you can bring these moments alive in others.

So lets pay homage to all Epiphanies great and small as we step forward into another year of life.


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

Monday 1 January 2024

Groundhog Day: A Perfect Allegory of the Spiritual Journey

So here we stand at the beginning of another year. We have passed through the cycle of life, one more time. Much is as it was and some things have changed. Mostly though is very much as it was, as it always is. This the journey that is life. The truth is we don’t actually go anywhere, we just move around the circle of life. That said we get the greatest gift of all. We get life. We get to journey on, experiencing life in all its beauty and sometimes horror. We get to live the spiritual journey too, which of course is not a journey of distance, but of experience, dare I say depth.

As good old Wendell Berry so beautifully put it

“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 own feet, and learn to be at home.”

This is the mythos that the great stories all seem to tell. Just think of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” after her great adventure she learned to be at home in Kansas. She needed the adventure in order to truly understand the treasure she already possessed. She had to go on the journey of change and then return home with treasure to share.

No doubt we have been repeating some similar rituals and practices these last few days as we have once again celebrated Christmas. Much will have been the same, but some things will have been different. Maybe they have been experienced differently. Eistein famously said that insanity is repeating the same behaviour and expecting a different result. There is truth in this wisdom, but not the whole truth. For actual in some ways this is what the spiritual life, the life of faith is actually about. It is in the repetition of the same activity that change happens, sometimes unexpectedly. So yes Eistein is right, it is the definition of insanity, but also of hope.

I spend a lot of my life wandering around Altrincham, bumping into people and passing others in the street. Often seeing the same people in the same places and often have similar conversations. This is the beautiful gift of the ordinary, sometimes it reveals pots of gold. Now some might think this dull, but it is not. Yes it is “Groundhog Day”, but this is a beautiful thing, it is not in the least bit negative.

I watched the film “Groundhog Day” the other day. It is a favourite of mine. It is set in the deepest dark of winter. I am speaking of it a little early, for “Groundhog Day” is not until the 2nd of February, not that it is something that we mark in Britain. Here, depending on our spiritual tradition we may well mark Candlemass, Imbolc or St Brigid’s Day.

Groundhog Day began as a pagan festival. It falls in the dead of winter, flanked equally on either side by the winter solstice and the spring equinox. According to folklore if the groundhog sees his shadow on this day there will be six more weeks of snow. So, the hope is that he does not see his shadow and that winter will soon be over.

It is not the legend of Groundhog Day that really interests me, more the film that bares the same name. It is one of my favourites and may well be one of the most spiritual ever made. That sounds like quite a bold statement for what is, on the surface at least, a Hollywood romantic comedy.

“Groundhog Day” is a tale of hope, of the possibility of transformation. That by somehow repeating the same day over and over again, somehow in this process change occurs, different results do in fact come. It tells the story of a self centred weatherman named Phil. At the beginning of the film he is sent on his annual excursion to Punxsutawney Pennsylvania, to record the thrilling moment when Phil the Groundhog makes his annual winter trek into sunlight in search of the shadowy predictor for the coming weeks. Phil ( the weatherman) hates the fact that he has to be there and treats everyone he meets in “the hick town”, with disdain. The film crew cannot get out of the town as the weather takes a turn for the worst. So, they have to spend another night in the town

Phil awakens the next morning to the same song he heard the morning before “I Got you Babe” by Sonny and Cher, he is to awaken to this every morning as “Groundhog Day” is repeated over and over again for days, weeks, months, years. Every day is the second of February; every day is the same day; every day he is offered the opportunity to experience that same Groundhog Day over and over again, running into the same people, having the same encounters. And yet within those very same limitations he is offered infinite choices. Where he can eat, how he can respond to each encounter, who he can hurt and who he can help. He is offered the opportunity to grow and to change every single day; he is offered the opportunity to become the man he wants to be, every single day. He can be the bad guy or the good guy, the funny guy, the happy guy, the free guy or the trapped guy, the suicidal guy. He is offered the chance to change which he begins to do, as he learns from his mistakes. He learns that he cannot control all that is going on around him and that happiness can only be found by truly living in what is there, the sacred moment. His inspiration is his producer Rita (played by Andie Mcdowell) she is the opposite of Phil, good hearted and at peace with herself. Phil falls in love with who Rita is, he awakens to the longing to be a person worthy of her love and he begins to allow himself to be that person. Each day is repeated and in the end he gets very subtly different results.

Now isn’t this one of those universal messages found within the mythos’ of the great faiths. That love can transform even the most self centred of hearts that we can all aspire to be the best that we can be. That hope can be found in total despair and that you do not need to seek some special place, it is found in the ordinary everyday things of life.

So could it be that this Hollywood Romantic comedy is the most “spiritual” ever made. Well Harold Ramis the films co-writer and director said that religious leaders and writers continually contacted him over the years claiming that “Groundhog Day” is an allegory of their traditions key messages. Buddhist have claimed that it illustrates their notion of Samsara, the continuing cycle of re-birth. Phil (The weatherman) is seen as the Bohisattva who keeps on being sent back into the world in order to save it, he never seems to reach enlightenment and has to keep on going through the daily trials in order to help others.

Jewish observers have noted that Phil keeps on being sent back into the world to perform Mitzvah’s (good deeds). The story is not really about his individual salvation and more about perfecting the whole world.

Still others have claimed Christian and Pagan interpretations. It has been suggested that the groundhog symbolises re-birth and the hope of renewal at Easter or spring. It is worth remembering that the 2nd of February is Imbolc and Candlemass, key festivals in both traditions. The story is also a classic redemption tale, very much like a Christmas Carol. Phil the weatherman is just another Mr Scrooge. Infact Bill Murray himself once played a modern day version in the film “Scrooged”.

Groundhog Day is a favourite film of mine, if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend it to you it will warm you through on a cold winters night. It is a film about hope; it is a film about the possibility of change and transformation. That by repeating the same ordinary activities, we can grow and change. Now I know some call this insanity, but I prefer to call it hope; hope in the possibility of change.

I am going to leave the last words to Bill Murray’s character Phil. Words he eventually said while signing off at the end of his final broadcast. Words of hope, of what might be. Words uttered not knowing that the next morning everything would change, for finally Groundhog Day had ended, it was February the 3rd.

Phil said: “When Chechov saw the long winter, it was a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope; and yet we know winter’s only one more step in the cycle. And standing among the people of Punxsutawney basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.

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