Sunday, 18 March 2018

All is Well: Belum, Not Quite Yet?

I am afraid of nearly everything:
of darkness, hunger, war, children mutilated.
But most of all, I am afraid of what I might become:
reconciled to injustice,
resigned to fear and despair,
lulled into a life of apathy.

Unchain my hope,
make me strong.
Stretch me towards the impossible,
that I may work for what ought to be:
the hungry fed,
the enslaved free,
the suffering comforted,
the peace accomplished.

So may it be. Amen.

Words by that famous author “Anonymous”. It goes by the title “A Prayer for Hope.”

A prayer not asking, not petitioning for change to be done for us in some future dream like state, but a prayer asking for the person praying to change. If there is one thing I have learnt through prayer, and I pray a lot. is that prayer doesn’t necessarily change things, prayer changes people and people change things. Prayer is not an abdication of responsibility but an acceptance of responsibility in this life, right now. I know that prayer helps to plant those seeds of Hope deep within me to create within me the sense that all is well, not perfect, but well…You might find this hard to believe, but I do believe that all is well…

Theae last few weeks, as part of our annual Lent Breakfast series, the Churches Together in Urmston have been exploring the theme “Hope Now”, not some dreamed of Hope in the future but “Hope, right here, right now”. It’s been a fascinating few weeks. I took my turn to lead and enjoyed sharing in a fruitful conversation. It was wonderful to hear the different versions of people you would find everywhere in the world, the pessimists and the optimist, the cynics and the idealists, the ones who view humanity as basically fallen, but capable of ok things and those who see humanity as basically good, but who fall short from time to time and of course those who see life as suffering with occasional glimpses of heaven and those who see life as a blessing, a gift, in which suffering occurs. How do you see these things? It matters you know, it really does.

Now Hope, certainly for the future, is an easily criticised concept as it sounds like an abdication of responsibility. Hope for me though is not about that at all. Hope, as I experience it, is a way of being. We live in Hope, I would say that we live through and by hope or we don’t. It is not the same as optimism and it is not living in the expectation of something perfect beyond this life, or at least it isn’t for me. It’s actually a quality of our broken and vulnerable hearts. Hope is something that we give birth to, a quality we nurture and allow to grow through our vulnerable human being.

As Vaclav Havel wrote:

“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”

So often, from the most grotesque ruins of life, the most beautiful things have grown. I have been thinking of this a lot, as I have observed hope in action and cries of never again come from thousands of young people across the Atlantic following another dreadful school mass killing. Now the cynics have cried there is no point, we’ve tried this before the gun lobby will always win out, but the young people have said “no”! “We can change things”! And they have seemingly set something in motion. It has inspired me I can assure you. I’ve been deeply touched as I have bared witness to this in recent weeks.

It brought to mind the following little gem of wisdom I shared at last week’s Lent Breakfast. It is taken from “Dwellings. A Spiritual History of the Living World” by Linda Hogan,

"Seed. There are so many beginnings. In Japan, I recall, there were wildflowers that grew in the far, cool region of mountains. The bricks of Hiroshima, down below, were formed of clay from these mountains, and so the walls of houses and shops held the dormant trumpet flower seeds. But after one group of humans killed another with the explosive power of life’s smallest elements split wide apart, the mountain flowers began to grow. Out of destruction and bomb heat and the falling of walls, the seeds opened up and grew. What a horrible beauty, the world going its own way, growing without us. But perhaps this, too, speaks of survival, of hope beyond our time."

Yes there may be Hope beyond our time, but the seed must be planted now. The Hope has to be there growing in our hearts and souls or we won’t plant those seeds. It does not mean there is not horror and destruction in our lives now, but nor does that horror in the present moment stop us seeing that there is goodness in our time and place.

We need to live in and through hope, we need to be hope, we need to say yes to life. Just because there are problems and suffering in life it does not mean we should turn away from life and lose all hope, make despair the orientation of our heart. What kills us is cynicism, giving up on the possibility of what we can make things in life.

This brings to life a quotation from Stephen Colbert a rather wonderful late night American television host, who suffers great despair at the state of his country at times, but lives in and through Hope, it is an orientation of his heart and spirit. He said:

“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say "no". But saying "yes" begins things. Saying "yes" is how things grow. Saying "yes" leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say "yes".”

So I say yes to life, to possibility, to the Hope in my heart. That Hope though is now, that hope is present, not some other place somewhere over the rainbow. So I keep on planting seeds, despite those who tell me there is no point. For hope is, as Elizabeth Barrette says in “Origami Emotion”

“Origami Emotion” by Elizabeth Barrette

Hope is
Folding paper cranes
Even when your hands get cramped
And your eyes tired,
Working past blisters and paper cuts,
Simply because something in you
Insists on
Opening its wings.

Life is not perfect, there is suffering in all parts of life, but it is not life itself. We do not live in a state of despair, well at least not yet.

This brings to mind a winderful little piece of wisdom titled "Belum" by Robeert Fulghum

“Belum” by Robert Fulghum

"Americans, it is observed, prefer definite answers. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Yes or no. No grays, please.

In Indonesia, there is a word in common use that nicely wires around the need for black and white. Belum is the word and it means ‘not quite yet.’ A lovely word implying continuing possibility. “Do you speak English?”

“Belum.” Not quite yet. “Do you have any children?” “Belum.” Do you know the meaning of life?” “Belum.”

It is considered both impolite and cynical to say, “No!” outright. This leads to some funny moments. “Is the house on fire?” “Belum.” Not quite yet.

It’s an attitude kin to that old vaudeville joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I never tried.”

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Not yes or no, but squarely within the realm of what might be. Soft edges are welcome in this great bus ride of human adventure.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

I love this concept of "Belum" of  uncertainty, but a faithful uncertainty, that nothing is ever fully sealed, not yet at least. However hopeless things may feel at the present moment it does not mean that all is despair. Look around you, look into your own heart. There is love and goodness present both within you and in life. There are those around you that can bring inspiration to your being, who have the courage to say yes to life, that have hope lightening and inspiring their hearts.

All is well. Yes it doesn’t always feel like it, but it is. For an awful long time I used to say “all will be well”, don’t lose faith in life. In recent weeks I have changed my mind. Well actually my heart and soul have changed my mind. Minds are made for changing by the way. We should never, ever be ruled by our minds. I no longer believe that “all will be well”, to quote Julian of Norwich. Why you may well ask? Well because it sounds like an abdication and abandonment of this life. Such belief is of no use to me, is disrespectful as it rejects what I’m experiencing right here right now. It’s also a rejection of reality.

My truth, as I type these words right here , right now, is that all is well. Life is rich in meaning. It is not devoid of suffering and trouble, but it is well. There is love, there is goodness and it is my task, I believe, to share that with those all around me. It is the orientation of my heart and soul. It is Hope.

Living this way is not about perfection, it is not about completeness it is about planting seeds from our hearts and souls and living in the Belum, the not quite yets of life. To repeat those words of Robert Fulghum

“Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

So what are you going to do? Are you going to try, give it a go, plant those seeds in your heart and souls right here right now in this new spring or be cynical and claim the wisdom of fear and say we’ve tried this before it won’t work, what’s the point? People will never change. There is no Hope. Or are you going to join with me and believe in your heart that all is well, not perfect, but well. That there is goodness in the world and goodness in my heart and that this goodness can once again grow in the world if I would just let the courage work through me and rise once again.

It’s up to us right here right now. Hope is not something we passively dream of in the future, something beyond this life. It has to be born here right now, an orientation of our heart and souls or not at all.

All is well, have the courage to allow the seeds of Hope to form in your hearts and souls, let it become the orientation of your very being. Let’s not give up on our belief in love and life, well at least not quite yet, Belum.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Know yourself, know that you are mortal

Last year I was invited to Parliament to speak at a forum on obesity, specifically to talk about men’s health. It was an incredible honour. As you can imagine security was tight. It was actually the week before the horrific terror attack that took place there. I will neer forget the sickening scenes that took place just seven days later, the terrible loss of innocent lives.

As I entered parliament I had to pass through metal detectors and thus had to empty the coins in my pocket out onto a tray for unspection. One of those coins was a sobriety chip. The security officer seemed very interested in what it was and asked me about it. I explained what it was for a few moments and then turned the coin over. On the back it read “To Thine Own Self Be True”, which I read out to her. she looked at me rather oddly and then dismissed me. I moved on into the day, speaking from my heart of my own expereinces in the hope to help others. It was a good day.

Being true to yourself, living with honesty, authenticity and integrity is key to recovery and I would say it is the key to living with virtue in this world.

The ancient Greeks believed that the ultimate aim for a person of virtue was to know themselves. There were many aphorism on this theme such as “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The key for the ancient Greeks was to know yourself. Now “Know thyself” has been understood in many ways but ultimately to know oneself is to know that you are mortal and live in such a way, fully a part of mortal life. They constantly guarded against the dangers of hubris, the idea that human beings were God’s. Yes we are made in the image of the Divine but we are not God’s and it is vital that we recognise our finite mortality. In many ways this is the beauty and the energy of our lives, the fact that they do not last for ever.

Know yourself, know that you are mortal. That is what it means to be truly human. The word human is etymologically linked to humility. We are not god’s we are finite, we are mortal. We cannot live wholly from ourselves, no one is totally self-reliant, self sufficient and we do not live for ever. To truly know yourself is to accept the finite nature of your humanity. This is a stepping stone to discovering yourself and your unique place in the circle of life.

The fact that we are mortal is not to say that we do not matter, quite the opposite actually. Our lives matter, how we live matters. We impact on the whole of creation and we impact on the lives around us. Just as all that has existed before impacts on who we are today, including our ancestors. No one person lives a life separate from those around them and the history that they come from. Our lives are not singular cellular ones. The whole history of life has brought us to the point we are at today and who we are is made up of from that.

This is beautifully illustrated By Thich Nhat Hahn, who wrote in “Present moment, wonderful moment”

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

All that has been before is a part of who we are. We are not separate selves, to know ourselves is to know what made us who we are. To know who we are we need to know those who we are surrounded by, who help make us who we are and all those who existed before we did. How do we begin to know ourselves? By knowing the lives we are surrounded by. No one is an island. Then we begin to understand who we are and we can begin to know ourselves.

The book of Genesis describes humanity being made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. Now what on earth could this mean? Well image, from the Latin “imago” means reflection or portrait it does not mean exactly the same. I believe it is suggesting that each of us has something of Divine within us, that we are a reflection of the divine and that this brings a duty to humanity to reflect this image into the world in which we live. This is a real responsibility, to reflect the divine love into life, to incarnate it to bring it to life.

I believe that most of our human problems stem from our rejection of this, from our inability to see that we are children of love, formed from love. That this Divine spark is an aspect of our very human being. I know when I look back at my darkest days it is this that frightened me the most and so I rejected it. I know that I am not unique in this thinking about myself. Marianne Williamson beautifully illustrated this when she wrote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God?”

So who do you think you are? Oh and who do you think that everyone else is?

I believe that we are all formed from that same love, from that same image, every single one of us.

Now this puts a great responsibility on us as human beings, to make our lives matter in the short time that we have here on earth. What will our epitaphs read?

From time to time I am asked to conduct funerals for people who are not members of the congregations. Often they have had some connection in the past or are looking for something spiritual in nature but not too religious. Last year the family asked for the following poem to be included in the service.

The Dash – Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the the end.
He noted that first came her date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears, 1964-1994
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth..
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own;
The cars..the house..the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you”d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what”s true and real,
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we”ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile..
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy”s being read
With your life”s actions to rehash..
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?

Know yourself, know that you are mortal, but also know that how you live your mortal life really matters. It impacts on all that you meet and come into contact with. Each and every life matters, each is unique and each is vital and each has something to offer to the world.

You see we are all a part of this body that is life. Everything that we say and everything that we do matters, just as everything we do not say and everything that we do not do matters. This is why it matters how we see ourselves and one another, who we think we are and who we think one another is, for this will impact on how we live in the world.

To know yourself is to know that you are mortal. I believe that because of this, not despite it, it really matters how we live our lives, how we spend our dash.

We need to pay attention to who we think we are and therefore who we think others are. For if we see that we are formed in the image of divine love we will see that we have responsibility to this life that we lead and the history that we are a part of. If we do we can become champions of this life, we can become co-creators of the Love that is Divine.

By the way it’s never too late. Actually I suspect that it’s probably only later in life that we finally get to know ourselves. I’d like to share with you the following poem by “Now I become myself” by May Sarton

“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"Hurry, you will be dead before—"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

To know thyself, to be who we truly are, who we were born to be, is no easy task. Sarton wrote this poem when she was 83 years old. It would seem that it took her a long time to truly know herself and become who she really was, something she wrote of in her memoirs and journals. I commend them to you, they are worthy of exploration.

It is no easy task to be who we truly are, to live openly, to live whole and holy lives. To “find our path of authentic service in the world.” You see we learn by following others from the day we are born. We learn to be like those others we are surrounded by, who made us who we are, rather than becoming who we truly are. It takes a long time to let go of the stabilisers of others and become wholly ourselves. For May Sarton it only really began after the death of her parents during middle age, actually about the age I am now.

Forrest Church had similar experiences it was only when he stopped living in his father’s shadow that he found the courage to truly become himself and give his true mortal gift to life. As he said:

"I found my calling. I answered a call that was mine, and not someone else’s." And went on to say "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are."

The key he said of course was to always “be who you are.”

This is the key of course. This is what it means to live holy lives. This is how we become a holy, an authentic presence in the world. This is how we serve the world by our presence and you know what it is never too later. This is how we fill in that dash and truly live our mortal lives. It can begin right here right now. May Sarton was 83 years old when she wrote “Now I become myself”. Maybe, we only truly become our true selves at the end of our physical being. That said we need to begin some where and the only place to begin is right here right now. Right here, right now is the only place we can not only know ourselves, but truly be ourselves, to not only know that we are mortal, but to truly live our mortal lives and give our unique gift to the life.

Let us make it so.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Shyness and Invitation

The Smith’s famously sang “Shyness is nice, and Shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life You'd like to… Coyness is nice, and Coyness can stop you from saying all the things in life you'd like to. So, if there's something you'd like to try. If there's something you'd like to try. Ask me, I won't say no, how could I?”

Rather cute lyrics, to a lovely and funny song.

...I love the people who are courageous enough to ask me...

I’m not so sure it’s so nice though, shyness can be excruciating debilitating at times. It has affected my life negatively over the years. How many times has shyness stopped me accepting the invitation of life, too many.

Some folk might find this hard to believe, but I can be quite shy. It takes me time to feel comfortable enough to be myself in new environments. There is a shyness about me. I’m better than I used to be. I'm sure folks who see me in my work find this hard to believe, but it is true all the same. It takes me time to feel comfortable in my own being, in new company and new situations. Thank God though that these days it rarely leads me to turn down the invitation.

There have been times when I have hidden myself from view, literally hidden my face, afraid to pop my head above the parapet for fear of being shot down. My mother knew this and saw how different I was to my siblings on my first day at school. She walked us all to school on the first day, but I reacted differently to my siblings who just joined the other children. I did not, I walked through the gates of Birstall County Primary School, swallowed hard and sat down in the corner utterly overwhelmed and bewildered by it all. I did in time adjust and found a level of comfort in the crowd, but it took time. It has been the same throughout my life. I do eventually become a part of the whole, but it takes time.

I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings, in fact I know I’m not. We all experience shyness in some form or another, especially when invited and take the first steps into something new, particularly if is something that might be wonderful, but will definitely make them feel vulnerable. By the way we are always vulnerable, that is the nature of life.

Think about how you felt the first time you walked into a new community you bacame a part of. It takes time to feel you belong and can be wholly yourself. I know it does for me.

Shyness is a beautiful thing, so long as it doesn’t stop us doing those things our hearts desire. It’s ok to feel the trembling excitement of shyness, but it can become unhealthy if it enslaves us.

David Whyte writes that “Shyness is the sense of a great unknown, suddenly about to be known. It is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve”.

This is an exciting feeling actually. Yes there is fear there, but a kind of anticipated joy too. It is not in and of itself a negative feeling.

To me these feelings are the essence of the spiritual journey, which is not a safety first way of living and breathing by the way. No it compels us to deal with powerful feelings and discover new ways of being in the world. This can feel quite daunting at times, but should not cause shame. It is natural, healthy and necessary actually. To brashly step into anything without any shyness can lead to problems not only for ourselves but others too. These uncomfortable feelings are needed as we explore the great new mysteries life is offering us. This is the invitational nature of life. That said we are not alone in these feelings, no matter how alone we might feel, and this is why it is vital to be a part of a community that journeys on through these adventures, inviting us onto the great unknown that is our lives.

There is a place for shyness when it comes to spiritual growth. Carl Gustav Jung claimed that folks tend to be either introverted or extroverted. Now whether a person had an introverted or an extroverted personality depended on whether the individual increases in energy from being with others and is therefore an extrovert; conversely an individual who recharges his or her spiritual and emotional energy from being alone and recharging through solitary activities such as reading, prayer and or meditation tends to be introverted. I think ministers and those who serve tend to be introverts by nature. Yes we get meaning from giving to others, it is our purpose in life, but it’s not necessarily where we get our energy and connection with the divine from. Yes we have our peacock moments when we are listened to, but the solace and energy tends to come in those alone times.

Many of the great sages were introverted in nature and often highly sensitive individuals who needed time alone in prayer and meditation. Think of Jesus going off alone to pray, or the Buddha, Mohamad, Gandhi.

Now while they were introverted in some ways this did not stop them accepting their invitations by turning down their calls. The spiritual life is all about invitation. It’s about stepping out of ourselves, no matter how shy and or introverted, to serve our world and to fully become a part of the whole.

I was recently asked, by one of the folk I serve, why I don’t often talk about my understanding of God. I remember saying at the time that it was primarily about humility, how can anyone really speak adequately about the Divine. A bit of an evasive answer if truth be told.

So what do I think of when I speak of God? Well the truth is I see God as invitation really, that God offers itself to us, invites us to walk with. I cannot accept that God has pre-ordained everything that occurs in life and controls our every interaction. I do though believe in the Lure of Divine Love, that God invites us into life and love. An invitation I sometimes turn away from, although less so these days. I do not believe events are laid out before myself or others and yet I do experience synchronicity when I am truly in tune with life around me and spirit within me. Some days if feels like the whole of life is communicating with me, compelling me to follow. At such times it feels impossible to refuse such invitations. This year it has been immensely powerful and as it has been impossible to ignore the invitation, there really was no choice. It has been so powerful at times that it has felt like I have been directed. I’m not sure I truly believe this. That said my belief either way is irrelevant as to whether it is factually correct or not. Whether I believe something or not doesn’t make it true or not. I think it is important that we all remember that. I have felt powerfully directed at times and I have never known the presence of God more intensly.

The core of the spiritual life for me is invitation and I have discovered that the way to truly live this life is to became an invitation myself. It has mostly allowed me to transcend my own shyness and given me life deep and rich in meaning. It’s amazing what we can invite into our lives and encourage others to do the same. Do you know what, the invitation is often written all over our faces.

Our faces reveal who we are you know. In many ways our faces shape who we are and can actually shape our futures by what we invite into our lives through it; David Whyte in “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship” states that:

“We do not often admit how much the shape of our face can be an invitation to others or a warning to keep away. Our face influences our future by what it invites or disinvites. The way we face the future actually creates our future as much as individual actions along the way.”

He illustrates what he means by telling the story of two guests at a party that he hosted at his home. He stood at his door with his eight year old daughter welcoming guests. He described his daughter as being very shy with strangers and of hiding behind his legs and just waving a hand at the guests as they arrived. This apparently all changed as one guest Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk arrived, a man who had achieved great things through his presence and openness and welcome. Whyte writes that:

“At sixty, his face was so full of life and happiness and welcome and happiness that my daughter ran out spontaneously from behind my legs and held her hands out toward him. I was taken aback by the sudden courage of my hitherto reluctant daughter, but I could see what she was running toward. Satish’s face was an invitation to happiness itself. Seeing him always makes me want to practice the set of my own face as a kind of daily discipline. I only have to see him and I want to be as naturally happy and appreciative as he is, and more importantly he makes me want to show it.”

Whyte then describes another face that was the polar opposite of Satish’s that sent his daughter scurrying once again behind his legs. Whyte writes:

“A man whose face seemed to carry not only past disappointments, but also a sense that it was only a matter of time before it was disappointed again. This man’s face seemed almost hungry for circumstances to betray him.”

Whyte writes that as he observed these two faces together, all night long he could see with absolute clarity that these two faces had radically different futures in store for them. It mattered not what they did or would do, or what would happen to them. He could see it in what they invited or disinvited into their lives. One was open and welcome, while the other was closed off and disappointed. He could see it, because it was written all over their faces.

Our faces say it all...

Yes shyness is nice, there is a cuteness to it, especially in the young. There is a healthy place for it too as we step over the threshold into something new. That said if it leads us to refusing the invitations of our lives, it is not helpful at all.

So I offer you the invitation to openness, an invitation that begins to be expressed through our all too human faces. May we become the invitation that encourages others to overcome their shyness and step over the threshold and join in the courageous conversation that is the spiritual life.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Desire is the point of everything

I was recently listening to young woman broken by grief at the loss of a dear friend, someone she described as a second mother. She was grieving the very real physical loss of someone who had affected her life deeply, how she longed to spend just a little more time with her. It truly was her heart’s desire. This is the power of love and loss, the power of grief. No matter what we might believe spiritually, we miss the persons flesh and bone and being. We are physical beings after all. As she shared she spoke about her own spiritual beliefs. She spoke of something I hear a lot of these days, a kind of modern take on spirituality. Something you often hear from folk who claim to be spiritual but not religious. She said that she couldn’t understand why she was finding the loss so hard as she knew that we are spiritual beings merely having physical experiences and that what really mattered was spirit. I remember thinking to myself, ouch. I think so many of our troubles stem from rejection of our physical being, that somehow this is less than spirit. I often witness the opposite trouble by the way, that which sees us merely as physical beings, “lumbering robots” to quote Richard Dawkins, a view which sees no spirit animating our physical being. Both views are problematic to me and in some ways deny what it truly means to be human. For me our lives are animated flesh, brought to life by the one loving spirit. When we lose that which we love, a part of our body and our spirit breaks with this loss. I have thought this for many years now as I have experienced love and loss, as we all do as I have grieved, as we all do. The last 12 months have revealed this ever more strongly as I have had the privilege of sharing with others in “The Colours of Grief: Our Shared Experience of Love and Loss”. I know that love lives on, it is eternal, but when we lose someone we love dearly we grieve the loss of their physical being, how we long to see them, to hear them, to touch them once again. We should never decry this very real experience. We are animated flesh, we are the spirit expressing itself in lived reality. We all love, we all long and we all desire.

They say it's not about the destination, but the journey itself, that is the gift, the blessing of our lives. It is called the beautiful journey, the ultimate gift of life. Now while I accept this as truth, I do not see it as the whole truth. You see it’s not just about our individual journeys, our singular adventures, but who we journey with. We do not sail the ship alone. Some are with us and stay until the end, some are there at the beginning, but leave along the way; some join us for a short while and then they are gone and many others journey on where we are long gone. So yes it's about the journey but it's more than that, it’s about who we journey with. We do not sail this ship alone. To me this is what it means to truly live religiously, to live our spiritual lives with others. And each time we lose one, we journey with, our heart breaks and we grieve their loss. For each matters.

By the way we don’t go anywhere. Life truly is Groundhog Day, we journey round in circles and eventually return home with treasure. You see the journey is truly about learning to be at home where you find yourself, being grounded in our truly human beings. As Wendell Berry wrote:

“A Spiritual Journey” by Wendell Berry

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

This is why we desire. We desire to journey, to commune to become a part of and to belong, to be at home in the ground of our being. Desire is a vital aspect of our humanity that sometimes the spiritual inclined do not wish to speak of. Or the scientifically inclined try to reduce or some try to buy and sell, treat as a mere commodity.

As Eduardo Galeano observes in “Walking Words”

“The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business
The body says: I am a fiesta”

We are living breathing beings, animated and in my belief infused by spirit. What we experience right here right now is not merely a physical experience, it is the spirit manifest, alive. Yet we want to deny this, to reduce its meaning, to deny the sacredness of our all too human being.

So often desire is decried and yet desire is the point of everything. I have discovered that it is desire that animates our all too human being, perhaps it is desire that is that spark of the divine in our human being, in our flesh and yet so often it is the thing we fear the most because it cannot be controlled, it is an ungovernable beast that overcomes our rational and reasoning minds, its meant too. We are not just machines, lumbering robots. We are the body electrified, enthused with joy, wondering and suffering too.

I have come to believe that our bodily desire comes from that spirit within us. This longing and yearning for communion, for connection, for completion, for fulfilment and wholeness flows from our essence. It is heard in our first cry when we are born, the cry of the newborn to be held and loved. It is found in the yearning of young lovers to experience one another as one. It is found in the urge to adventure, to discover new lands, new scientific understanding and all creative expression. It is that longing to be loved and cared for, that creates family and community and it is this that cries out when we lose something or someone we love, when we grieve. It is desire that urges us to connect with a larger reality, to that which is greater than our singular selves. It is that power that is greater than all and yet present in each. Perhaps desire is that aspect of the Divine in our humanity.

I see clearly that desire is a deep longing that comes from our souls, the essence of our human being. Sadly it would seem that the spiritual traditions have not always recognised this. In fact many of the traditions, or at least how they have been understood have suggested that our desires need to be curbed and or controlled, that we should be ashamed of them.

Desire is often associated with greed, lust and egoism. Desire is often considered dangerous to the individual and society. It comes from this idea that fundamentality there is something deeply wrong with our human nature. The idea that we are fallen creatures. The idea it appears is that to receive enlightenment and or transformation that desire must be transcended. This saddens me, as I have found that it is through my real human experiences that the spirit comes alive, love expressed through our human lives and it is our task to bring that alive through our human lives. To me this is what the gospels teach in their essence as do other traditions in their essence too. As Diarmuid O'Murchu observed in “The Transformation of Desire: How Desire Became Corrupted and How We Can Reclaim It”

"In this analysis religion breaks loose from the chain of life. It becomes an instrument of death and destruction. It undermines that which is central to all spiritual growth and development. The desires of the heart are precisely those that keep us rooted in mystery, forever reminding us that the Spirit lures us forth into the transformative power of the new. This is precisely what is happening in every one of the parable stories in the Gospels, the seminal narratives offered by Jesus to break open the meaning of the Kingdom of God.

"Jesus took desire seriously, and wishes all Christians to do the same. We engage desire, not primarily by adopting a moralistic and legal coding, but by working co-operatively for the right relationships that facilitate liberation and growth at every level of life. Striving to get relationships right is the heart and soul of the New Reign of God. And it is not merely human relationships, but right relating at every level from the cosmos to the bacterial realm. Creation is forever held in the embrace of a relational matrix, and from that foundational source all relationships find their true place and purpose."

...The Lure of Divine Love keeps on calling me, thankfully I rarely refuse the call these days...

Desire comes from our essence, our soul, our being. It is desire that leads us to connect to be more than our singular selves. It is from desire that we respond to the suffering of others. It brings us to life and makes us feel alive. We are born to live alive and then to let go of life when our time comes.

Desire is the vitality of life, it is our longing for completeness, it’s what brings us together and forms community, family, friendship and human love. We are not spiritual beings merely having a physical experience, our physical experience is the spirit dancing in life. This desire, this human yearning, is how the spirit is known. I’m with the Sufi’s who saw yearning as God’s desire to be known. We ordinary humans are the spirit incarnated in life. Actually I suspect that all life is an expression of the Divine love. Desire is the point of everything.

Do not be afraid to express your desire it is the spirit come alive. Through our desire we become all that we born to be…Fully alive…

I’m going to end this "blogspot"  with the following poem by Rene Daumal, “I am Dead Because I lack Desire”

"I Am Dead Because I Lack Desire" by Rene Daumal

"I am dead because I lack desire;
I lack desire because I think I possess;
I think I possess because I do not try to give.
In trying to give, you see that you have nothing;
Seeing you have nothing, you try to give of yourself;
Trying to give of yourself, you see that you are
Seeing you are nothing, you desire to become;
In desiring to become, you begin to live.”

Let us desire to become, let us begin to live

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Let Beauty Awake

“A Modest Love” by Sir Edward Dyer

The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall,
The fly her spleen, the little sparks their heat;
The slender hairs cast shadows, though but small,
And bees have stings, although they be not great;
Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs;
And love is love, in beggars as in kings.

Where rivers smoothest run, deep are the fords;
The dial stirs, yet none perceives it move;
The firmest faith is in the fewest words;
The turtles cannot sing, and yet they love:
True hearts have eyes and ears, no tongues to speak;
They hear and see, and sigh, and then they break.

I suspect that this poem by sir Edward Dyer maybe one of the most beautiful in the English language. He must have known and recognised the beauty present in life. He must have been touched deeply by life, to recognise the beauty of the most humblest aspects of life. To be touched by beauty is to be fully alive. This is how love feels...

The great American poet Walt Whitman also recognised beauty in the ordinary, particularly the people in whose company he found himself. I feel it too when I am awake and alive to life. I have felt it intensly and powerfully all of this year. Time has felt very thick these last few weeks. I have been around much suffering and pain, but also deep, deep love and joy. I have felt alive and touched deeply by the beauty of life.

I have felt closer to the people around me than I have ever done before. To quote Whitman, from

“The Body Electric”:

“I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
Laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm
Ever so lightly around his or her neck for a moment
What is this
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, Laughing flesh is certainly enough to awaken me to life, to bring me alive, to truly animate my being, to awaken the soul of me. Such beauty makes one feel alive and thus to feel a part of life and act in life in ever more loving and open ways and thus pour out my own love on the world in which I live and breathe and move and have my being.

Matthew Fox claims that “The universe is in the habit of making beauty. There are flowers and songs, snowflakes and smiles, acts of great courage, laughter between friends, a job well done, the smell of fresh baked bread. Beauty is everywhere”

J. Ruth Gendler once claimed "Beauty doesn't mind questions and she is fond of riddles. Beauty will dance with anyone who is brave enough to ask her.” She later described beauty as being like water “ordinary and essential, as well as extraordinary and magnificent. That it takes many forms and permeates our whole environment.

She writes:

"Writing about beauty feels like drinking water out of the cup of my hand from a clear spring. As I bring this water to my mouth, so much spills away. The water tastes delicious; the freshness and purity startle me. I have been drinking water that was mediocre for so long. I have forgotten how good water can taste. Like water, beauty is ordinary and essential, as well as extraordinary and magnificent. That it covers everywhere, gathers and concentrates. “Beauty rinses our eyes. Sometimes beauty moves us to tears. We bathe in, drink the presence of beauty.”

She claims that “Beauty is an energy, not an image, and that energy can go anywhere; that energy takes on an image, a form, many images, many forms.”

Beauty awakens one fully to life, beauty makes you feel alive and thus a part of life and so act in more loving ways. Beauty awakens the soul of me in so many indescribable ways and it compels me to act in such a way as to pour out that beauty within on to all I engage with.

Beauty manifests itself in so many ways in the world in which we live and breathe and move. It awakens all our senses and thus feeds and nourishes our souls; it awakens our souls and it fills our hearts to overflowing. We not only drink from the well of beauty, we also fill it too. Beauty truly is about the heart, about filling the heart to overflowing. In "Beauty: The Invisible Embrace" John O’Donohue wrote

"The heart is the place where beauty arrives; here is where it can be felt, recognized and shared. If there was no heart, beauty could never reach us. Through the heart, beauty can pervade every cell of the body and fill us. To use a word that feels like it sounds: this is the thrill of beauty through us. Perhaps this is why we sometimes feel the absence of beauty in our lives; we have allowed the prism to become dull and darkened; though the light is near, it cannot enter to have its inlay of beauty diffused. Sometimes absence is merely arrested appearance. Compassion and attention keep the prism clear so that beauty may illuminate our life. Prayer of course is the supreme way we lift our limited selves towards the light, and ask it to shine into us. "

We feel alive in the presence of beauty, it awakens the soul and fills the heart to overflowing, it certainly compels me to pour my heart out on the world in loving ways. In fact perhaps true beauty, certainly in a human sense, is to act morally. As John O’Donohue has pointed out Plato believed that Love was born of beauty and that it tapped into our basic human drive and desire for Good, that it was not a private or self-indulgent act of pleasure and that “the ability to love beauty has created all the good things that exist for gods and men’. He quotes Pseudo Dionysius the Aeropagite who said, "For beauty is the cause of harmony, of sympathy, of community. Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty. And there it is ahead of all as…the Beloved…toward which all things move, since it is the longing for beauty which actually brings them into being."

We feel alive in the presence of beauty, it awakens our souls and inspires us to act lovingly in the world to pour out our love on the world. How do we do this you may well ask? Well I believe it begins with our neighbour the very people we interact with on a daily basis.

Matthew’s Gospel (Ch 26 vv 6-13) is a much debated passage, primarily because it has been used by some as a justification for tolerating poverty. I believe that to focus on this is to fail to recognise the central message of Matthews Gospel, the abundant blessing of love.

The power in this story is in its recognition of abundant love. The woman loves and cares for Jesus. She anoints him with oil because she loves him dearly. It truly is an act of loving, nay gracious abandonment. This is in complete contrast to the grumpy disciples who are definitely of the glass half empty brigade. At least they are consistent though as they appear this way throughout the Gospels. The woman though is overflowing with love and wants to anoint those she loves with this. This is beauty in action, bringing us to life, making us feel alive. This is a soul awakened by beauty and inspired to act lovingly. Her heart is over flowing with love and she wants to pour out this love onto Jesus who will soon no longer be with her or the disciples.

This is something we can all do we can all pour out this attentive love on one another and all life. We can offer care and attention to each and everyone around us. In so doing we will help create beauty all around us. It brings to mind the following little anecdote by William McNamara:

“I once lived near a mansion where only one of the many gardeners employed had succeeded with every one of the roses. I asked him the secret of his success. He told me that the other gardeners treated all the roses not unwisely, but too generally. They treated them all in precisely the same way; whereas he himself watched each rosebush separately, and followed out for each plant its special need for soil, manure, sun, air, water, support and shelter.”

To act beautifully is to pay attention to the individual needs all around us

Beauty is all around us. We are surrounded by it. If we open ourselves to it, it will fill our hearts, awaken our souls and lead us to act lovingly and morally. In so doing we feel truly alive. This is beauty in action. If we create beauty with our own hands we will touch each individual soul we meet and they will grow and flower to their own full potential. We are here to enjoy the beauty that we are surrounded by and to pour out the beauty that lays within us and thus bring it to fruition in the world around us. We are here to live our lives fully alive.

As Desmond Tutu has said:

“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of a sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew…Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful…and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”

Let beauty awake for beauty's sake. Awake from slumber and awake from dreams. Let beauty awake from deep within us, Let beauty pour from us and be lavished upon our world.

Let beauty awaken us to life, fully, abundantly.

...Let beauty awake for beauty's sake...

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Incredible Hulk

As a young lad growing up the 1970’s and 1980’s I loved the superheroes I used to see on American television programs. We had only three rv channeks to choose from back then, so we all watch the same things and we would act it our at gme and in the playground at school, My favourite was the Incredible Hulk, the version played by Bill Bixby and Lou Faringo. I was the younger brother and often felt physically weak, in a family of giants, so I would dream of being big and strong like the Hulk. My older brother used to call me the Incredible Sulk. He would wind me up until eventually I would explode, but I could not win. I indetified with the gis sdaness, loneliness and frustration.

There were many memorable lines and themes in “The Incredible Hulk”, one of the classics being “Mr McGee don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I am angry.” It had two memorable theme tunes too, the opening one and the one that closed it each week, a beautiful piano piece titled “The Lonely Man”. A sad and poignant piece of music that would bring a tear to the hardest of hearts.

I was talking with a dear friend the other day, we are the same age, and she mentioned the theme tune. Sge described Dr David Banner, the Hulk in human form, as a lonely wounded man wandering on. Each week he walks away from a situation alone, unsure of how he really feels, alone with no one to share his life with, for who could accept someone with the monster, buried but not so deeply inside of him. So on he wanders, a vagabond, but one who does good deeds though; he cries out against injustice and goes green with anger at bullies and he stands up and defends the weak, but still he is alone in the world, a feral creature.

My friend continued…”Maybe he is ok with that. Being useful and knowing we have helped goes along way but we have our own pots too, we can’t fill them by giving love out all the time, we have to be courageous enough to let it in too.”

She really made me listen. I remember thinking anyone can be a hero and do heroic acts, but courage requires us to live with a vulnerable heart. The wanderer, never stays long enough, in the company of anyone, to live with their hearts cracked open. This maybe ok for superheroes, but we humans need courage, we need heart. Doing good is a wonderful thing, but courage requires letting others love you too.

Dr David Banner set out seeking a cure for what ailed him, carrying his wounds with him, his lost wife who he did not have the strength to save and the monster within him that he cannot control. He wants to be incognito, but that is difficult when he keeps on transforming into a giant green monster who smashes everything up. As I was thinking of this I remembered other similar tv shows I loved as a child, such as the A-Team and The Fugitive. People in exile going about their business, on the run and doing good for others. Such characters brought healing to others, they help solve their troubles, they stand up for injustice, but they do not know healing themselves. They don’t form roots, or community, they journey on alone, vagabonds and fugitives, forever rolling stones.

This is an ancient story, the human cannon is full of such tales. This is the “Wounded Healer” Mythos. A universal tale that runs through human history. Like Chiron, they can bring healing and solve the troubles of others, but they cannot heal themselves and they continue walking on, or in Chiron’s case limping on. They don’t stay anywhere long enough to let healing come to them. so they journet on, forever seeking, all alone.

Heroes are easy, the stories are everywhere and every hero is flawed, cracked and wounded. They can be found in every single human tradition. They have existed ever since we began telling stories around the camp fire. Ancient Greek and Roman mythology spoke of Aneaus, Hercules, Odysseus and Theseus. The Hebrew Scriptures describe the heroic deeds of David, Joseph, Moses and Samson. Similar stories can be found in every culture. They describe heroic figures who stood up for righteousness and made a difference in their time and place. They were journeyers, but how many of them stood still for very long? How many formed roots?

The stories we tell today are full of heroic characters too. We only need look at the recent remaking of the comic strip super heroes such as Spiderman, Batman, The X-Men, The Avengers or Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dr Who, the Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These are modern day heroes, but they are no different in character to the heroes of ancient times.

The heroes of ancient times were endowed with great strength and were often descendants of the gods; while the modern day heroes tend to be superhuman mutations. Both the ancient and modern seem beyond the reach of mere mortals.

But do we really need heroes? Maybe we should not bemoan the fact, as “The Stranglers” sang, that there are “no more heroes anymore”. I’m not convinced. What we need are people of courage. We need humans, mortal humans who have the courage to live fully alive in life. Ordinary folk like us. Fools like us. People who have the courage to know themselves, to be true to their humanity..

The ancient Greeks believed that the ultimate aim for a person of virtue was to know themselves. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And other aphorism have been heard throughout time, or to quote Shakespeare “to thine own self be true” Now “Know thyself” has been understood in many ways but ultimately to know oneself is to know that you are mortal and live in such a way, fully a part of mortal life. We are not God’s we are mortals, we bleed, we wound and we can bring healing to one another if we can find the courage to live with one another with hearts cracked open.

Know yourself, know that you are mortal.

I remember sometime back I was visiting “Our Mandy” She was out, so while I waited, I chatted with bher huaband, my brother in-law and my niece. In the middle of the conversation my niece Aimee asked what the difference between heroism and courage was? Dave struggled to answer and I thought about it for a short while and then said something like “heroism is a single act, a momentary thing that a person does on the spur of the moment without really thinking about the consequences, it is also something that is recognised by others; whereas courage seems a quiet consistent ordinary activity that almost goes unnoticed and is rarely glorified. It's about sticking at something despite the presence of real fear. Courage is something that materialises in the ordinary.”

Courage is about life, the ordinary life, real life, it’s about living fully alive. It has nothing to do with heroism and certainly not super heroes. Courage is the very essence of our mortal being, it is our daily bread. Anais Nin once said “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Courage is about living by heart, fully alive. I’m sure we can all think of moments when our own lives have either expanded or shrunk in proportion to our courage, when we have felt more or less alive. Courage formed from the French “Cuer” meaning heart. To have courage is to have strength of heart. Courage is a consistent and sustaining love, it is a spiritual energy that sustains us in sickness and in health in loss or disappointment. It is this that brings healing not only to ourselves but those we share this life with and ultimately our world, but it is a two way street. Courage is as much about receiving as giving love.

As Howard Thurman said:

“...There is a quiet courage that comes from an inner spring of confidence in the meaning and significance of life. Such courage is an underground river, flowing far beneath the shifting events of one's experience, keeping alive a thousand little springs of action. It has neither trumpets to announce it nor crowds to applaud; it is best seen in the lives of men and women who do their work from day to day without hurry and without fever. It is the patient waiting of the humble person whose integrity keeps his spirit sweet and his heart strong. Wherever one encounters it, a lift is given to life and vast reassurance invades the being. To walk with such a person in the daily round is to keep company with the angels"

Courage is a way of living and breathing it’s about living openly and vulnerably in the world. It’s about walking with and not walking away from. It is this that brings healing not only to others, but also ourselves. It is courage that allows us to stay open to life, to give love, but also to accept it. There is no power relationship in love, something we ministers need to remember. It is courage that is formed in the heart; it is courage that is the ultimate act of faith; it is courage that keeps us open to life so that we can walk on together. As the song goes, “It’s not where you run, but who you run with.”

Yes we can all be heroes, we can perform heroic acts, we can all be heroes even if it is just for one day. Courage though is something more, something deeper, something that comes from the heart, from that place deep within each of us. It’s about walking side by side with others in and through love. It’s about loving and living our mortal lives, with hearts wide open giving and receiving healing love.

It’s not so much about journeying on alone, running from or running to, it’s about walking side by side, it’s about being rooted in reality…You see courage is about sending down roots into reality and being alive to our finite lives, an element of the interconnected whole.

I will end with the following words on courage by J. Ruth Gendler.

“Courage has roots. She sleeps on a futon on the floor and lives close to the ground. Courage looks you straight in the eye. She is not impressed with power trippers, and she knows first aid. Courage is not afraid to weep, and she is not afraid to pray, even when she is not sure who she is praying to. When courage walks, it is clear that she has made the journey from loneliness to solitude. The people who told me she is stern were not lying; they just forgot to mention that she is also kind.”

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The limits of language: That which reveals also hides

The following is taken from “The Cathedral of The World: A Universalist Theology” pp 10-11 by Forrest Church

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our vision so dim, over the course of our pilgrimage we are able to contemplate only a bit of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect on the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet by pondering and acting on our ruminations, we discover insights that will invest our days with meaning.

A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honouring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists claim that the light shines through their window only. Some, as we know from painful experience, go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshippers, they conclude that there is no light. But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.

We shall never see the light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden. The light is veiled. Yet, being halfway in size between the creation itself and our body’s smallest constituent part, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. Awakened by the light, we stand in the cathedral, trembling with awe.

Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly doesn’t mean God isn’t there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours through the windows of the Cathedral of the World”

...The above extract from Forrest Church's "The Cathedral of the World" puts beautifully into words my own understanding of my own universalism...Or at least it sheds a little light on it (Tee, hee, hee)

Each Sunday I attempt to communicate with with the beautiful people I serve, through the worship I create and lead. It does not come easy, sometimes I really struggle and I am never wholly satisfied with what comes out of my mouth. I can never put into words exactly what I am attempting to share and I know that it is never fully received from those who are engaged in this creative interchange. It is a challenge to find the right words, to touch the hard to reach places, to truly articulate the language of the heart.

It is the same when sitting with those who are suffering. To offer comfort in such times is impossible. All any of us can really do is be with one another. Prayer helps. I often use an adaption of the fear prayer “God please remove my fear and direct my attention to what you would have me be.” I’m not so much asking what to do, that can be tough to discern, but how to be is a whole different matter. I know how to be. I need to open my heart and hold space for others to be. The heaet transcends language.

People are often asked how do you feel? In reality it’s a difficult question to articulate, to put into words. Words are limited, they can never fully describe a feeling. Actually if truth be known when we communicate face to face we do not do so with only the words coming from our mouths. If you are anything like me, it will be written all over your face and in your body.

That said words are our primary form of communication, whether written or spoken. It is how we attempt to explain and pass on something. As soon as we do though we are already reducing the meaning of what we are articulating. Yes people can relate, but they cannot experience exactly what another person has or does experience. If you don’t believe me go and ask a friend to look out of window with you and describe what they see. I will bet you anything that what you share will not be exactly the same.

Now of course some communication is intuitive, some people are better at connecting than others this way. There are some people that we connect with on this level easier than with others too. There are people in my life who have and I do connect and communicate with on a deeper heart level, way beneath the limits of language and words. As I look back at my life I can remember moments, situations and people for whom words were not required, the connection was and is heart to heart.

There are also times when something happens and you are just completely lost for words. It is ok you know, I have been many times in my life. This is humble, it is human and the truth is there is a limit to what we can say about anything and everything.

Words have their limit. There is a gap between experience, process, articulation and receiving of words depicting experience. By the time we put it into words the experience has already been reduced greatly. The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich had an interesting take on the limit of language to describe ones faith. He claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” also hides it. I think it applies to all aspects of truth. Whatever we do to communicate truth will reveal aspects of it, but not fully. I’m not sure it is possible for any of us see the light of truth absolutely, we always see it through lenses. We never see anything absolutely and as soon as we attempt to articulate the meaning something gets lost in translation. We understand things through the lens of our culture and upbringing and we communicate it through this even more so. It is important to remember this. It certainly humbles me.

I was recently talking with someone who I feel it easy to communicate with, very much on a heart to hear level. There is quite a lot of synchronicity between us, which always delights me. During the conversation they asked me about the process of creating and sharing worship. A difficult question to articulate, as my muses are wide and varied. In many ways I just seem to stitch things together, but loosely, a kind of patchwork quilt really. I also explained that the sermons I deliver are less and less what I actually write. They are of course variations on a theme, but never what I initially write.

In spiritual matters sometimes words, language and understanding can actually get in the way. I remember many years ago when I was exploring ways to develop meditative practices I found the Brahma Kumaris. They practise a beautiful form of Raj Yoga meditation, which is open eyed and in principle is about focusing on light and love. I practised with them for many months and it helped me hugely. I still practise the methods today and can easily connect to those beautiful places deep within my being and all being. As in most things I was very enthusiastic and wanted to know more. The problem was that when I got into the theology and the imagery beneath the practise I found it impossible to follow. I suspect I took it too literally and not as mythos as a way of revealing deeper truth, rather than absolute truth. I was not so spiritually mature at the time and actually soon stopped practising with them. I feel a little sadness about this today as I wish I hadn’t got so lost in the images and the words and instead had just been happy with the practise. Why did I need to understand and articulate what I was experiencing? Why did I have to allow the literal and reductionist mind I had those days lead me away from aspects of this beautiful practise?

God only knows!

As I grown older, and a little wiser I hope, I have developed a growing love for poetry. There is a deep truth to poetry it speaks a language that allows the limit of words to go deeper. It seems to reveal far more than it hides, W.S, Merwin claims that poetry is “the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination.” It speaks a deeper truth. Perhaps a universal truth, it is mythos. As Stanley Kunitz has said, poetry is 'the most difficult, most solitary, and most life-enhancing thing that one can do. It's a struggle because words get tired. We use them. We abuse them. A word is a utilitarian tool to begin with, and we have to re-create it, to make it magical. You have to kill off all the top of one's head, remove it, and try to plunge deep into self, deep into memories, deep into the unconscious life. And then begin again.'

Poetry though frustrates people because it uses words illiterally, it tells the truth slant as the poem suggested that truth should be spoken.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

Now as many folks know one of my ministerial inspirations has been the writing of Forrest Church, who I only discovered shortly after he actually died. He speaks a language that hits my heart. He articulates something that makes sense to my head, heart and soul. I particularly love his view of faith and his attempt to articulate a metaphor for 21st century Universalism, a humble and a real approach to faith. This "blogspot" began with an extract from it.

His image of “The Cathedral of the World” is asking us to imagine the whole of humanity standing under the ceiling of the cathedral of the world. Around this cathedral are millions of stained glass windows. There is a light outside of the cathedral shinning through all of the windows; this is the light of truth, the light of God. No one inside is able to stare at the light directly, we all see it passing through a stained glass window. Each of the windows distorts the light in some way; they only allow some of the light to pass through. Sometimes the light is refracted, by the tinted windows and occasionally it is blocked by the opaque aspects of each window. In some places the light is almost completely obscured. By the way the light is not only coming into us from the outside the windows, but also from ourselves shinning out to the window. The light is in us too.

This metaphor is an attempt to describe a 21st century Universalist theology, one that speaks to the heart of me. There is one light outside of the window but there are many windows through which we can get a glimpse of the light. Each window is unique in its own way; each window is different; but none gives us a perfect image of the light. Each window is representing different religions, different ideologies, different philosophies, different dogmas, different views about life, the universe, everything. The key is to understand that each window has been fashioned by human hands, often with great skill, imagination, beauty, intelligence and artfulness that said through no one window is the light seen perfectly.

From where we view our particular perspective on the light we can begin to believe that what we see is the absolute truth and that the light only shines through our window. That only our window offers the true representation of the light. That what others see through their window is false, even stupid and irrational. Forrest Church’s Universalism though is saying something very different. He is saying that each window conveys part of the truth and that no one window has a monopoly on the truth. He is echoing those words of Paul Tillich, “that which reveals also hides”.

I think it is important to accept that none of us ever glimpses the whole truth, no matter which window we are looking through. Even if for s pit secend we could, we could never fully articulate this. Two people looking through the very same window can see something different or perhaps their attempts to put into exactly what they are experiencing may be very different. How on earth do any of us articulate this?

This humbles me, as most conversations I have with others about their faith humbles me. Humility is always the key by the way. This teaches us that we can only glimpse the truth and we can never make complete sense of what we see or ever adequately articulate it. Now the wonderful thing about this is that by genuinely accepting it we are opened up to a myriad of possibility that we probably believed were way beyond our capacity to experience. If we listen to one another lovingly we may just find a greater truth, if we can but just lay aside what we think we know, our prejudices.

The epistle Paul hints at this in his letter to the Corinthians (1ch 13), those beautiful words on love and charity. Here Paul gets to the very nature of humility when he says, “for now we see through a glass darkly”. He is making the point that even when our knowledge and understanding is not perfect, which I suspect, it never can be, we cannot go wrong if we follow love without prejudice as a guide. Love without prejudice is a universal principle found in virtually every one of the windows that the light is pouring through, it seems that the only ones not preaching it are the ones who are trying to throw rocks through the windows that others experience the light through. Not a different light, but a slightly different view and understanding of the light.

Universalism is a way of openness of truth seeking and love experiencing. They are not perfect though and they also glimpse the light imperfectly.

What’s the light like, that shines through your window?

This is my attempt to articulate something that is almost impossible. This is not easy. I hope it has helped you in some way to open you to the light which ever window you look through and attempt to share that with those you share your lives with and thus live more loving and charitable lives.

Let love continue long and show to us the way, it shines through every window.

Let it’s warmth transform us.