Monday 24 June 2024

Sabbath Time: Becoming Human Beings Rather Than Human Doings

“The peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I vital it is to rest in whatever grace, with whatever peace we can find in this world. So often in life we find ourselves wrestling with someone or something, often ourselves. Like Jacob at the river side. In the end though I usually surrender and find myself resting in the presence of still water and find peace.

I have been somewhat tired and a little run down of late. This was probably caused by a bout of ill health, that was stomach related and drained a lot of my energy. I also had one or two difficult situations that drained my emotional, mental and spiritual energy somewhat. I have been physically resting, including avoiding the gym. I returned on Monday and I have to say it was a real slog. In fact last Monday was a slog in general. Later in the day ideas about what I might want to look this week began to form. I thought about the need to find, space, to rest, the need for sabbath time.

I felt much better on Tuesday. It began in silence in my meditation group. It felt wonderful to sit in silence with others, to rest and not wrestle. I then went to Urmston to join the “Common Search for Meaning” group. John Poskitt led a wonderful conversation on “Pleasure”, the things in life that bring us pleasure, especially in difficult times. It was a real joy for all who were there. I found it hit that lovely spot. It got me thinking not just about sabbath and rest as a form of recuperation, but also how much leisure and pleasure are vital to the soul. In some ways my greatest pleasure comes from space, from pause. I have also found that sometimes the greatest pleasure is pleasure delayed. We live in an age when we want things and we want them immediately, right here right now. We live in such an instant culture where pleasure must come on demand. There is though a joy and pleasure in patience and in waiting. In many ways this is essence of sabbath time and living by pleasure. We want it, we want it all and we want it now. So much so that we can race through life, feeling nothing.

This is wonderfully illustrated in a favourite story of mine. It is of a workaholic businessman who decided to take an African Safari. He plotted a course and determined a time-table. He hired workers from a local village to carry the various containers and cases. On the first morning, the entire party roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the second morning, they roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the third day, the same. On the fourth morning, the local tribesmen refused to move. The man gestured irately and fumed at the translator to get them going. “They will not move,” the translator relayed.

“Why not?” the man bellowed, thinking of all the time wasted and money spent. “Because,” the translator said, “they are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

The story brings to mind a fantastic line from wonderful film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when the hero of the film Ferris Bueller utters “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

The pace of modern life can be quite frightening. People are always on the move. They always seem to be doing something or nothing, so long as they are not standing still or idling around. People always seem to be in a rush to be anywhere, but where they actually are, to be doing anything other than what they are doing and to be feeling anything other than what they are feeling. Seemingly we need to always be on the move; for fear that life might just catch up with us. So often we try to force things through, wrestle with everything to get our will, so much so that we tie ourselves and all around in knots. Sometimes we need to pause and to simply rest into the Grace of life.

I noticed myself doing this on Monday when I was out walking with Molly in the park. Instead of enjoying the experience of her enjoying herself. I was preoccupied with what I needed to do that day. I was wrestling and arguing with myself. Thankfully I let go of control and got chatting with folk there, while she ran around and played with the other dogs. I get great pleasure form Molly’s natural joy, friendliness and playfulness. It helps me to connect to and to allow my soul to catch up with my body, it feels like such a Grace. It is a spiritual practice as it increases my sensitivity to life, as I rest into life. Prayer and meditation do the same. They slow down my being and enable me to connect and somehow in that space I get to hear that still small voice of calm, that voice Divine, the “I am in everything”, including little dogs in the park. This Sabbath time in my daily life allows me to live more fully in the world, to rest into the Grace of life.

I remember a few years ago a friend invited me to Hale Synagogue to attend Friday evening Shabbat (pronounced Shabos). It was powerful, beautiful and moving, especially the singing as Shabbat was welcomed, like a bride. During the ceremony I felt like I was allowing my soul to catch up with me. I found myself resting in the Grace of the day and not wrestling with everything. I have also been in Jerusalem on the Sabbath and experienced virtually the whole sitting resting in silence. It was quite an experience, something we who live in the UK will probably never experience again. This shows to me how important it is to rest in sabbath in the busyness of life.

The Sabbath relates back to Genesis I, which depicts six acts of creation and on the seventh day, the climax, God rests, looks at his creation and sees that it is very good indeed. He pauses; he smells the roses and allows his soul to catch up with him. Why on earth would God need to do this? Why do we need to pause and look at our own creations, our own lives? Well maybe because it is only when we stop and look at our lives and our work that meaning begins to emerge. If our hearts, our souls, are not in what we are doing it is unlikely that we will make a good job of it.

How often do any of us stop and look at the meaning behind what we have created, what we are creating? How often do we actually spend time increasing our sensitivity to our own lives? When we do take time to stop wrestling with something and begin to rest into the Grace of life.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel claimed that “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”

Maybe by welcoming in the Sabbath, we allow our souls to catch up with our bodies. It allows us to connect to life and I have found that in life itself the Divine speaks to me, through reality, somehow in that still small voice of calm, something incredible happens.

The Jewish people invented Sabbath, but it didn’t make them popular. Again according to Rabbi Abraham Heschel “When the Romans first encounted the Jews and noticed their habit of keeping the Sabbath, of refraining from labour every seventh day, their reaction was nothing but contempt.”

The Jewish people had escaped slavery. Exodus recounts their wanderings in the wilderness as they searched for a home. They knew that slaves never rested and perhaps, during their time in the desert they never rested too. Maybe on Sinai they realised that although they had escaped Egypt and slavery, they were still slaves in so many other ways. Maybe this is why Sabbath was created

Maybe the rejection of Sabbath is not progress at all, but a return to a more de-humanising culture, where human beings are seen as nothing more than commodities who do without ceasing; “human doings, not human beings”. Perhaps we have all become enslaved by this need to constantly be doing. By constantly doing have we actually enslaved our souls. Maybe we don’t actually need to let our souls catch up with us, what we really need to do is free our souls once again. We need to find ways to stop wrestling with everything all the time and simply learn to rest in the Grace of life.

We live in an instant culture, which demands instant results. I think we even demand this with our leisure and pleasure time. We have lost patience with everything it seems.

They say that patience is a virtue, but it seems it is one that most of us still seem to need to learn. When things seem difficult I think patience is the hardest spiritual practice of them all. We want all our troubles over and over soon. Something I’m feeling in this run up to the election, it seems to have gone on for ever.

Patience, silence, stillness, quietly, humbly and passively waiting is considered almost inhuman, uncivilised in our age, like the businessman in the earlier story. Something I experience when stuck in queue or in traffic, or waiting on the phone for some operative to finally answer.

This brings to mind a wonderful piece of wisdom from Wayne Muller from his book “Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Delight”

Here is tells a wonderful story about the wisdom of waiting and resting.

He writes:

“I was speaking with Hans-Peter Durr, who for twenty years collaborated with Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the famous Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics. Himself a noted quantum physicist, Hans-Peter told me that he often had long, impassioned discussions with Heisenberg when they were working together on a particular problem. "We would be talking excitedly about the problem from every angle, and then suddenly Heisenberg would say, 'Wait, I think we have touched on something very important here. Let's not talk about it anymore. Let's wait for two weeks, and let it solve itself.' Then, when we got back together two weeks later, it would invariably be solved. We would begin talking, and we both knew we had the answer."

There is something deeply humble about sabbath time, about rest, about not wrestling, fighting with everything, about waiting. This in many ways is the power of spiritual practice, as it is this humility that opens up to something more, to something beyond ourselves. Something that is so easily missed as we rush around frantically trying to get from where we are to where we want to be or to solve all our troubles in an instant. Instead of constantly struggling and striving, sometimes all we have to do is be still…be still and know we are not God, and to rest in the Grace of the world. Then suddenly, in time and rest and space the answers come. We let our souls catch up with our bodies, we connect with reality and find we can be of use once more.

We need Sabbath. We need to stop and take in life. We need to feel our feet on the ground. We need to be still and silent enough to hear that still small voice. We need to rest in the Grace of the world. We need to allow our senses to sense life and then and only then we will see the riches in our lives and give thanks for life. We need to practice patience And then what ever our work may be, we will do it well, heart and soul.

Patience my friends, patience. Let us find peace and rest in the Grace of the world.

I am going to end with a wonderful poem “First Sabbath” by Nancy Saffer. A wonderful reflection on that first Sabbath, that beautiful mythos that was the first creation story in Genesis.

“First Sabbath” by Nancy Shaffer from “Instructions in Joy”

Tell me: did you really rest?
You who made day and night
and sky that separated
waters above and below,
you who told the waters
below the sky
to stay in one place
and out of them
asked dry land,
who told the earth
to send out growing things
and then made sun
and moon and stars,
who made birds that fly
and everything that swims,
and cattle and all creeping things
and every animal untamed
and then made man and woman
and finally, supposedly, rested:
tell me: how —
in the midst of all that buzzing
and flapping
and slithering and stepping,
all that bursting forth of leaf
and fruit and stem
that never had known themselves
before — tell me:
how could you possibly have rested,
after seeing what no one
ever had seen before:
beak, hoof, pebble,
after losing yourself
in a thousand versions of blue:
water in sun,
sky against sky,
the horizon where
sky and water meet:
how did you shut your eyes,
how not keep
turning and looking?
Didn’t you long to caress
each small thing — notice
how toes work, and
stamens, and fingers?
Weren’t you hollering out in amazement?
Weren’t you so filled up glad*
you couldn’t sleep?

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

Monday 3 June 2024

Living Spiritually Alive: With Open Hands, Eyes, Hearts & Minds

I will begin with a short extract from an interview of Kurt Vonnegut discussing his book “A Man Without a Country” when it was first published in 2005.

DAVID BRANCACCIO asks Vonnegut : There's a little sweet moment, I've got to say, in a very intense book-- your latest-- in which you're heading out the door and your wife says what are you doing? I think you say-- I'm getting-- I'm going to buy an envelope…What happens then?

KURT VONNEGUT: Oh, she says well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.

I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around.

And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

I came across this marvellous little piece the other day. In some ways this attitude is central to my view of what it means to live spiritually alive in this world. The spiritual life for me is about meeting life and each other in this way. It is about openness. It is central to my view of ministry in so many ways. I try to live by invitation, by inviting the other to be who they are. People think that openness is about telling people who you are, being open about who you. I’m not convinced. Openness to me is about inviting others to be who they are with you. Openness is about invitation.

My car has been in the garage for a few days. This meant I have had to make use of taxi’s. I experienced four very different taxi rides. All of the drivers spoke freely and openly with me, all in different ways. My invitation enabled them to do so. They talked a lot about their views of the world, about religion and spirituality. I had a particularly fascinating ride with one between Urmston and Altrincham last Sunday. He had very strong views about religion, formed from his upbringing. I listened with interest and interjected very occasionally. By the end of the ride, just twenty minutes later, we had openly shared so much with each other. His parting conversation went something like this, I have never met a clergy man like you before. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I felt listened to and understood, thank you.

I felt blessed by our open conversation. We were simply meeting one another, but it felt like the spirit was alive and well between us. As I got out of the cab I felt spiritually alive and led the service in the same spirit.

If I have learnt anything about spiritual living I have learnt that the key is openness; the key to spiritual living is to live with open hearts, open minds, open eyes and open hands. These four are spiritual living in practice, which I have come to believe is true essence of religion. Not creed like religion but truly living breathing practising free religion. True religion, intentional spirituality in community, should not only bring us to life as individuals but enable us to live truly alive and awake in this our shared world.

Unitarian minister James Vila Blake (1842-1925) wrote, "Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law. This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace, To seek the truth in love, And to help one another." I think in many ways this covenant articulates the essence of what it means to come together in love as a worshipping community. It has been adopted by many Unitarian Universalist and Free Christian communities. It expresses beautifully what it means to live in an open, living breathing spiritual community, what free religion ought to be about.

When I am asked what it means to be a Unitarian, the first word that comes to mind is “openness”. It seems to me that we are an open tradition. Now as I have come to believe the essence of openness is humility. We are a humble tradition.

Openness is very much a doing word. It’s not so much that you are open, more that you live openly. To do so religiously, is to be open in four ways. It is to live with open eyes, open hearts and open minds and open hands.

Now to live with these four open eyes, open minds, open hearts and open hands is no easy task. In fact to master them is virtually impossible. The key is to begin and to continue; the key is intentional practice.

To live with open eyes is to see the world as it truly is; to see reality as it really is, warts and all and in its beauty spots too. To live with open eyes is to not turn away from the suffering present in life but also to pay attention to life’s beauty too. To live with open eyes is to see the reality of the whole of life. This is not easy, so often we are tempted to turn away. To live fully connected lives, we need to live with open eyes, to see life with all its blessings and curses.

To live with an open mind is to be able to search for truth and meaning, while maintaining an awareness of the tension between certitude and curiosity. It is the balance of being receptive to what is new and alien, while at the same time holding onto what is most dear. It is to try to know while in the presence of the unknown and the unknowable. This can make others feel uncomfortable and others may try to close an open mind or fill it with their things. To live with an open mind does not mean that we do not discern that we don’t come to conclusions. Quite the opposite actually. It is vital to come to conclusions, so that one can act in the world it’s just that after the decision the openness must be maintained, it is never too late to change our minds. So, keep your minds open but please do be careful what you put in it.

The key to living with a loving and open heart is live with all our senses, including our sixth sense, our soul, open to all the wonders and mystery of life. This too brings its dangers. Living with an open heart exposes us to pain and fear. You see to truly live with an open heart is to allow ourselves to be touched in the most tender of places. This can hurt sometimes. Remember Cupids arrow had to first of all pierce the flesh before it could penetrate the heart, love hurts. To live with an open heart is to follow the great commandment, it is Agape. It is to love others, no matter who they are what they have done, where they have come from, it is to love without condition. It is to follow the Golden Rule. It is to love our neighbour as we would wish to be loved ourselves. This requires love and compassion for ourselves of course, which can at times be the greatest challenge. It is to feel a deep connection with all that is, all that has been and all that will ever be. It is to recognise that in order to feel this connection requires that we share ourselves. To love is to practice forgiveness, over and over again. Practicing living with a loving heart is to live willing to be transformed by what we encounter in our daily lives.

By living with these three open eyes, open minds and open hearts we can then practice living with open hands. Hands that welcome, hands that humbly accept our interconnectedness. Open hands are willing to do what they can do to serve, to play their part in the world. It means committing and recommitting to use our hands, our abilities, in the service of life. With our hands, our actions, we take responsibility for our part in working for what is just, to create the kin-dom of love right here right now, to create a better world, the beloved community. With open hands, we offer what we have and do what we can.

Our open eyes allow us to recognise where we can act in the world, if our minds and our hearts are open. It is these three that tell our open hands where they are needed.

Open hands though are not just about action, they are also about connection and perhaps more importantly humility. Humility is the key to openness and to my eyes the essence of this my chosen Unitarian faith. I say chosen but I’m not sure if I chose it or it chose me. Who knows?

Now humility is a word that is often misunderstood. To be humble is to be at home in our true humanity, to be grounded in our own reality and shared humanity. The key to humility is to recognise that we are a part of something larger than our singular selves.

Humility is not about being meek and mild and bowing and scraping, it is not about being self-deprecating or denigrating. Too often humility is seen in this way, particularly from a religious perspective, as an excuse for suffering and or meekness. To me this is not true humility; true humility is about living with open hands and doing what we can in the world, we can only do this if we live with open hearts, open minds and open eyes and by recognising our common humanity.

I feel that so many of our troubles are caused by our inability to be truly open to one another and to new ideas; our troubles are caused by our arrogance and belief that we know best. Therefore, by not living openly we fail to understand and therefore empathise with each other and we remain trapped by what we think we know. We are too closed down and we need to open up, to one another, to life and to God. We need to be opened up like the Buddhist Monk, arms out with his begging bowl. An image which as Thomas Merton explained “represents not just a right to beg, but openness to the gifts of all human beings as an expression of this interdependence of all beings...Thus when a monk begs from the layman it is not as a selfish person getting something from someone else. He is simply opening himself to his interdependence.” The key is to live openly and of course the key to openness is humility. No one lives apart from anyone else we are all interdependent. Also none of us knows everything, we all see through the glass dimly.

I remember the first time I heard Forrest Church’s assertion that humility and openness are the two keys to religious living, how much this struck me deep inside. I saw the truth in it. There is limitlessness in openness. Who knows how much we can truly change and learn to love if we just stay open, in our hearts and minds and eyes. Who knows what we can do with our loving hands if we live with truly open eyes, open hearts and open minds.

The key to true spiritual living is openness, to live with open eyes, open hearts open minds and open hands. To key is to live with true humility, to see that we are grounded in our shared humanity. The key is to see that we are a part of something far greater than ourselves and that through recognising this we will know the love present in life and begin to bring that love alive, right here right now.

Every day is a day when we can bear witness to a Power Greater than ourselves. We do this when we love one another with open hands, when we see the world with truly open eyes, when we live with minds that are truly open and hearts open to the love waiting to enter and to be poured out onto our world that really needs it.

I was reminded of this last Sunday morning on that taxi journey between Urmston and Altrincham. What a beautiful gift that was. Who knows it may have opened the eyes, the heart, the mind and the hands of the taxi driver who had never met a clergy man quite like me before. We shared a journey, where we lived spiritually alive.

I believe it is our task to live truly open lives. This is real spiritual living, this is true religion. I believe it is our task to bring love alive, through our openness. It is our task to allow God to incarnate through our lives. To do so we need to live with open eyes, open minds, open hearts and open hands.

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