Monday, 28 November 2011

The Ache of Loneliness

I was listening to the radio this afternoon, relaxing and preparing myself for leading worship this evening when I heard the tragic news of the death of Gary Speed, the forty two year old manager of the Welsh football team. Gary was a onetime hero of my mine as he was part of the championship winning Leeds United midfield of 1992. It emerged a little later that Gary had taken his own life. This was perhaps even more shocking. Why had this healthy talented and seemingly well balanced man taken his own life? No doubt more will be revealed in the coming weeks, but I suspect no satisfactory explanation will ever be unearthed. Suicide, depression and the aching loneliness that so many of us suffer from has never been adequately understood and it has never been resolved. In fact it would appear that has humanity has progressed materially it has regressed emotionally and spiritually. Loneliness, mental illness and suicide appear to be on the increase. I have been there myself and I have witnessed friends and loved ones going through this living hell too. Haven’t we all. I suspect that there is not a family in the land that has not experienced the shadow of suicide.

Today is Advent Sunday, which marks the beginning of the Christmas season; a time of joy and celebration, a time for family and fun. For most folk Christmas is the happiest time of the year. That said for others it can be the hardest. It can bring all those feelings and emotions that they have been trying to deal with to the surface. For some people Christmas can bring them face to face with their own loneliness. For some people Christmas can be hell.

For many years I struggled with Christmas as I struggled with my own humanity. For me Christmas brought me face to face with the extent of my own loneliness and isolation. This is no longer the case I’ve danced with most of my demons, but I do remember how it felt and I know that so many people still suffer with these feelings. I know this because they tell me. Yes people tell me of their joys and triumphs but they also tell me of their pain and suffering. One of the hardest aspects of ministry is being with people in utter despair. It does keep you humble though, as it shows you the limits of your power. Sometimes all that is left is tears and prayer.

Loneliness is a horrible, horrible thing. It separates us from others; it makes us believe we are the only ones. It saps our vitality. It makes us feel scared, insecure and vulnerable. The isolation and disconnectedness that it fosters leaves us feeling unloved and worse still unlovable, Loneliness is an assault on our humanity and our worth and dignity. It makes us ask the question, do I really belong here? It brings us face to face with the void, with those questions and fears we do not want to entertain; the fear that we are alone and of course the fear of death. It brings to the surface the suspicion that there really is no rhyme or reason to life, no purpose, no meaning.

Loneliness can be terrifying. We do all we can to avoid it. We spend an awful lot of time convincing ourselves that we are not alone. How many times a day do we check our e-mails, our facebook updates, or mobile phones, or convince ourselves that someone has knocked at the door? How often do we think we have heard someone call out our name in the street?

Loneliness appears to manifest itself in three basic forms. I have heard them described as intimate loneliness, social loneliness and loneliness of the spirit, an existential or cosmic loneliness.

The primary cause of intimate loneliness is the loss of a loved one. Such as a partner, lover, parent, friend, sibling or god forbid a child. It is not the only cause though. Many people long for an intimate connection that goes way beyond the closeness of everyday friendships.

Social loneliness occurs when we feel cut off from others, when we feel isolated from the social networks that we need. It stems from a lack of companionship and or community. Modern living is a major source of social loneliness. Modern life provides decreasing opportunity to visit friends and loved ones. We increasingly communicate through technology and less so face to face. We expand far less energy on human social interaction. Our culture sees more people working longer hours. Productivity is increasingly prized, while connecting and interacting with friends is seen as a luxury and not a necessity. When I look at how we live today I am forced to ask the question, is this really progress?

The loneliness of the spirit, this emptiness of the soul this existential or cosmic loneliness is more difficult to understand and or explain. Some describe this as a ‘God sized hole’ or hole in the soul. This makes sense to me. How else can this feeling of being lonely or longing for something, without knowing what it is be explained? How else can we make sense of the feeling of missing someone, we’ve never met, that feeling of loneliness in a crowd, that need for something more? This feeling of being cut off from life and the rest of humanity. This feeling that you don’t quite belong. I have struggled with all of these emotions at times in my life and am occasionally visited by these ghosts today. When they come they are as terrifying as they always were. Thank God they no longer linger.

This hunger, this longing, this deep rooted loneliness that dwells in so many of us cannot be filled by relationships or friends. It seems to be woven into our humanity; it is part of our human nature. But why Oh why do we carry this longing in our souls? Perhaps it is there to stir us to reach beyond the confines of ourselves for that something in the corner of our lives that we cannot quite see; that something that speaks in a voice less than a whisper and yet somehow more than silence. Perhaps it is there to compel us to delve deeper to the core of our very being. Who knows?

Social loneliness is not difficult to explain. We all need social contact and community to survive and flourish. No man is an island. We often only truly know ourselves through our relationships with others. The reasons for intimate loneliness seem very clear. In creating close bonds with people, we create families and communities. This gives our life meaning. It is this common humanity that binds people together. When it goes, or is absent, we mourn its loss. We crave for it once again. But what about the deeper longing of the spirit? Maybe this is a manifestation of our longing for wholeness. Maybe it’s a need to return home and perhaps it can only be filled by a relationship with the larger presence of life. But how can this be achieved?

Well perhaps the first thing we need to do is face the void and not try to flee from it and or fill it with other things. Perhaps one answer is to embrace solitude. Solitude and loneliness are not the same. One can experience solitude without being lonely and yet we can be miserably lonely and yet be surrounded by people. Solitude is a physical state; where as loneliness is an emotional, psychological and spiritual state. The difference between loneliness and solitude can be monumental and yet subtle. They may look alike, but aren’t experienced alike. It’s like seeing a body as naked, rather than a person being a nude. Naked is stripped and vulnerable, naked is lacking clothes; where as a nude is a beautiful bare body, it is art. Loneliness describes all that is lost, when we are alone; solitude describes all that is gained in all is beauty.

Loneliness can be caused by past hurts that can lead us to try to protect ourselves from life. We have all experienced the pain of betrayal and loss. No one likes being hurt, so we become wary. Because of these hurts we build walls, until finally intimacy loses its attraction. Loneliness is the price of feeling safe from emotional hurt. Of course it fails to even do that. We cannot escape the pain that accompanies the joy of life. All we achieve by trying to protect ourselves from pain is to create the suffering within the suffering. This is a worst kind of pain. I know this pain only too well as I experienced it for much of my life. This is a living hell. I thank God each day that it rarely visits me these days and when it does it no longer lingers.

This Advent, this season of hope and joy I will be thinking of those people in my life who suffer each day with that empty aching loneliness, whatever the cause may be. I will think especially of those suffering from the loss of those most dear to their hearts. I will do so though with the full knowledge that I alone cannot take away their pain. I can though be with them, I can walk side by side with them and even occasionally hold them in their pain.

Hold close to you the one’s that you love...because none of us ever really knows what they’ve got until it’s gone.

The Light of Hope: Which Wolf Wins?

The Light of Hope: Which Wolf Wins?

I can only imagine what it must be like to experience utter darkness. I was only a baby during the power cuts of the early 1970’s and therefore have no memory of them. And like most folk of my generation I have seen the images and been told the stories of the war time blackouts, but still I cannot really imagine what it must have been like walking those dark streets. The lights did go out in my home for a short time last year and I have to say I found it very difficult negotiating my way around the house, without anything to guide my way.

It’s pretty scary trying to find your way in the dark. No one likes to feel helpless, hopeless sightless. When we stumble around “in a land of darkness” we cannot protect ourselves and just end up stumbling around our own homes stubbing our toes or falling over furniture. That said it is not only material darkness that can cause us problems, we can also get lost in those metaphorical dark forests of life. This can be terrifying. The book of life is full of stories describing children getting lost in the woods. Those fairy tales explore universal themes that everyone can relate to. After all don't we all feel lost and or confused at times.

When we fall into one of life’s black holes we can lose all hope. In this pit we can begin to compromise the very values that we are trying to live by. In this darkness we can lose our dreams and our goals we can forget the path we are on and why we have chosen it. We can also lose sight of our security and supportive community as we search in the dark unaware of the many pitfalls. Sometimes we drive people away with our fear or perhaps they just walk away because they cannot stand our pain.

Perhaps there is another way, a way out. Even in the deepest darkness light can be found; the light of hope, which can show us a new way. This light cannot be resisted it is constantly revealing itself as life continues its re-birth. Isn't this what the season of Advent is all about, the preparation for the coming of the light.

Children bring that light into so many people’s lives. And of course it is the image of a child on which Advent and Christmas rest. The coming of Immanuel the child sent to rescue the people of Israel from their darkness.

I don’t accept this stories uniqueness; I do not believe that this is once in humanity’s life span thing.  Sophia Lyon Fahs is so right when she says “Every Night a Child is Born is a Holy Night.” The potential of every child brings hope; no one can remain completely lost if they can just glimpse this hope. There is that of God in each and every one of us. We all have the potential for great things, if we just nurture that loving compassion within us; we just need a little bit of hope and a sprinkling of faith to show us the way; we just need appropriate nurture. We know this from our own lives and we know it from the lives of those that have walked in the light before us. Even in our darkest hours there is a hidden strength that can be found, often from an unexpected source. All that we have to do is to let that light shine in and through us. Advent is a time of anticipation and as long as we hope, someone will light a candle against the prevailing darkness "and neither the winds of hate nor the gales of evil will extinguish it.” This light is universal and it is eternal.
The light of Universalism continues to speak powerfully to me. The concept of one light and many windows that my great hero Forrest Church spoke so beautifully about, keeps me humble and therefore open. I accept that I will never know the absolute truth about everything or even anything and that this enables me to experience life in a way I could never have imagined. The one light of God or truth is reflected through a variety of windows, which none of us can see directly or perfectly.

Universalism’s message of hope, of the everlasting love of God, also speaks to me. It brings Psalm 139 powerfully to the fore of my thinking, nothing and no one is beyond the reach of this eternal love. The dark and the light are both the same to this eternal love. We cannot escape it completely; we cannot flee from the range and reach of this eternal and universal love.

It is so easy to look at our world and just despair and give in and say we are doomed and lost in our own darkness. It is so easy to see life this way. Is this true though are we lost in despair? Is there no hope?

Tom Owen-Towle’s “The Gospel of Universalism: Hope, Courage and the Love of God” has helped me to understand that hope and despair share the same root, that they are joined together like Siamese twins. In the French language they share the same linguistic root; hope (espair) and despair (desespair).

To live in hope, to live in faith that we all have that light etched into our DNA, is not to deny life’s difficulties and pain. Instead it is to see the realities of who and what we are and what our true potential can be, if we just nurture it correctly. All we have to do is let that light shine that is there within us all. This sounds simple, but it is far from easy. It requires consistent effort to allow that natural compassion to grow, develop and nurture. We have to do it though because otherwise the other parts of ourselves take over and we turn with indifference from life. The opposite of hope is not despair, it is indifference.

I have written many times about the work of Karen Armstrong, the Charter for Compassion and her book “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”. Her central theme is this concept of nurturing our compassionate natures; that this nurture of compassion is a universal theme central to all the great religious traditions throughout human history. This is a message of hope and it is an eternal and universal theme.

Hope springs eternal all we have to do is to begin to let our little lights shine. Isn't this what Advent is all about, the illumination of hope.

I will end this little chip of a blog with a story I have shared here before. I do love the tale and I believe it is worth repeating.

One winter’s evening whilst gathered round a blazing camp fire, an old Sioux Indian chief told his grandson about the inner struggle that goes on inside people.
“You see” said the old man, “this inner struggle is like two wolves fighting each other. One is evil, full of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, deceit, false pride, superiority, and ego”.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Who is your Immanuel? Who is your “God is with us"?

Who is your Immanuel? Who is your “God is with us"?

Immanuel means "God is with us"
Who is your Immanuel? Who is your “God is with us”, the one you were promised, the one you have been waiting for?

For the ancient prophet Isaiah, he was a boy soon to be born who would guide the people of Judah back to peace and harmony with God. He would bring hope for victory and greatness in the tribe. He would be a gift from God to his chosen people.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

For Christians, he is Jesus of Nazareth. The baby in the Christmas story who grew to be a remarkable teacher among the Jewish people; whose ideas about love, forgiveness, and justice changed the world forever.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

Perhaps your Immanuel is a political leader, standing for the rights of the oppressed—a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi. Perhaps in their work with people you feel God is with us.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

Perhaps your Immanuel is an artist, bringing transcendence to the human spirit and lifting our hopes and dreams into the light—a J.S. Bach, a Picasso, a William Shakespeare. Perhaps in the presence of great beauty and creativity you feel God is with us.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?

Perhaps it is a child. Created from our bodies, the child who is filled with the potential to do every great thing. Your promise from God that the world has hope for justice and beauty. For in the presence of a child we too can feel that God is with us all.

Who is your Immanuel, your “God is with us”?
Slightly adapted from words by Sarah Movius Schurr 

We are about to enter the season of Advent, beginning this Sunday 27th November. It got me thinking about the following words spoken in the 19th century by James Martineau

The incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.

This distinctly Unitarian view of the Incarnation speaks powerfully to me. Unitarians have tended to see Jesus as a man worthy of following, rather than as the unique manifestation of the Divine. Cliff Reed hits the mark perfectly when he states.

While Jesus was, like all people, a unique individual, he was not other than human. He was our brother in every sense, sharing the same human lineage as us. And thus when we speak of him as a child of god, as incarnate divinity, as vessel of god's promise to humankind, we speak of him as embodiment, as symbol of what is true of every human baby.

The ministry of Jesus, and those who have walked the same path, was indeed an enfleshment of creative power, supremely that of love, which can re-make human beings by revealing to them their roots in a divine creation, their reclaimable goodness and wholeness, their oneness with the glorious universe.
Cliff Reed

The classic Unitarian position has always been that Jesus was and still is a man worthy of following but not of worshipping as the one and only incarnation of the Divine.

The theologian John Hick argues that Jesus did not know that he was himself God incarnate; that the idea of the incarnation ought to be seen as a powerful metaphorical image; that Jesus ought to only be viewed as the embodiment of God because God's love was manifested through his life. He was not literally God's son though in the sense that he was not the creation of a miraculous birth fathered by God in the Holy Spirit. He highlights that the phrase "son of God" was a common Hebrew metaphor and was given to those who exhibited Godly attributes on earth. Therefore it is not surprising that someone who was considered as righteous as Jesus would have been given this title, although it was not meant in a literal sense.

According to Hick, metaphorically speaking, Jesus incarnated God in three ways. The first being that he was living out God's will, therefore God was living through him in this world; the second being that by living out God's will he was displaying the perfect example of how a human being ought to live and was therefore incarnating God; thirdly in the way that his life was perfect agape, it was purely self giving love. In other words Jesus' finite life reflected perfectly God's infinite love, but he was not literally God in the flesh.

Experience has revealed to me that all life can be an extension of this Divine Love. More and more I see the incarnation manifested in all existence.

Process theology and the concept of the ‘lure’ of divine love has suggested this idea for quite some time. Jesus is the word made flesh in that within his life the divine action manifested itself completely. Christ is the expression of the word, within him is the genuine union of divine activity and human activity. He did not literally come down from heaven, this is pure metaphor. To quote  Norman Pittenger Jesus, “...was never a god; he was always regarded as the manifestation in act of the one and only God.” This would suggest that what occurred in Jesus could occur in all human life.

The former Dominican priest Matthew Fox appears to develop this idea further in what he describes as the "Cosmic Christ". He claims that through the Cosmic Christ is the “I am” in every creature, therefore that all life can become the incarnation. He believes that the purpose of the incarnation in Jesus is to reveal the immanence of the Cosmic Christ and that as we grow into who we really are and as our compassion is developed the divine “I am” takes flesh once more. As Fox states “We grow into compassion and in doing so the divine “I am” takes on flesh once again. Since god alone is the compassionate One, as we grow into compassion we also grow into our own divinity.”

So we humans and all life are potentially expressions of the divine and if we express that divine quality within ourselves we can then hopefully inspire others to do likewise

In recent years I believe that I have witnessed and dare I say experienced what I call Divine love. I experienced it the first day I walked into Cross Street Chapel Manchester and was greeted by Peter Sampson. I know it sounds like nothing, but it felt very special. I experienced as I connected to that short lunchtime service led by John Midgley. This feeling, dare I say experience, developed over the next few months as I became part of the community there. This grew as I listened and worship and shared and most of all sung. I fell in love with singing once again there. Every time I sing I experience life in a way I don't during anything else that I do. I always liked to sing, but I experience it differently today.

I first knew this magical mystical feeling when I experienced pure human love manifested in a unique life. I experienced it through knowing Claire and Ethan. Ethan, especially Ethan, showed me that loves is real and exists in every human heart. By just being a part of his short life I began to see that I had once been like him. I saw in him what exists in every human child and all life. I began to experience what Matthew Fox has described as the Cosmic Christ. “That that connects all life.”

Reverend David Doel captures what I mean perfectly when he states that, “The Christ Child stands for the Hope of the World and represents the great miracle of human birth. In every child God comes down to earth. In every child the 'promise' of God is repeated. Every mother is Mary the mother of God and every child is nurtured by the Holy Spirit - that mysterious, creative and healing essence we call Life. The Christ Child is the symbol of our human potentiality; like the oak in the acorn."

The tragedy of my life was that I lost sight of this. Somehow, over the years, I became disconnected from life and became addicted to alcohol and fear and virtually lost my humanity. What I was able to finally, see, accept and connect to in my own life was "That Great reality deep down within every man woman and child." That the book Alcoholics Anonymous describes.

I again experienced that incredible manifestation of divine love on the day, the weeks and months that followed November the 2nd 2006, All Souls Day, the day that Ethan was killed. I will never forget the way that people came together within the community to hold the family and I will always remember how the people in my own community held and supported me. Not that what all these wonderful people did for me would have been enough if that Great reality, that I had rediscovered, had not already begun to flower. The old me would not, could not have survived that tragedy.

I am a great believer in miracles I see them all the time in my everyday interactions with everyday people. I have learnt to appreciate and value every interaction and every moment of existence. Every breath is a Divine gift, if I am only able to see it that way. Every single human being has the capacity for great things, if they would only get in touch with that great reality deep down within themselves. That said we are all also capable of great destruction and evil, every single one of us. It is as important that we remember that too.

None of this is cast in stone though; I simply cannot believe that. I am NOT convinced that anything is pre-destined and pre-determined. I believe that life and existence is truly open and that all human beings are responsible for their own lives and this spinning planet that we all share. The very characteristic of the universe is one of process and change and the agent of this has to be free will. The Divine mystery does not control everything instead what it offers us is the persuasive lure of love, if we could only see that.

All we need to do is to tap into that great reality deep down within us as so many wonderful human examples have done over the years. If we can't see this within ourselves then hopefully we can see it within other human lives or nature itself and be inspired by the beauty of creation, always remembering that we are all made of the same stuff.

If life has taught me anything it is that in order to live to our full potential we humans need to be connected to that that is buried deep within us and that that is circling all around us. To live successfully and happily in this world all we have to do is to first of all find and then maintain that connection and to simply live our lives.

We don’t need to build boundaries to survive, I say pull them all down. We don’t need to work and develop our self esteem, because we already have it in bucket loads. We just have to live honestly and truthfully and that natural self esteem that we are made of will just shine out of us. Hopefully by doing so we will shine some light onto the lives of others and they will be inspired to do likewise. If we do human life is bound to improve for all.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Every night a child is born is a holy night

Every night a child is born is a holy night

Christmas is coming and the year will soon be turning. I cannot believe it will soon be 2012 and yet as I write this it is only mid November. I just doesn’t feel quite right to be thinking of these things just yet, but life compels me to. Well actually the job does. I have to constantly think ahead, while still living day by day, nay breath by breath.

The theme for the congregations I serve, Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham and Queens Road Unitarian Free Church Urmston, has been nurture. How we nurture ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. We are all born with potential, the ability to do many things but to achieve them we need to both nurture and to be nurtured. It's a theme we've been exploring together throughout the year.

I have recently been given the honour of conducting several blessings of both children and one adult. I have incorporated water into these ceremonies and blessed each child’s thoughts, words and deeds by touching them with water on their foreheads, their lips and their hands. At the ceremony with give out a certificate with the words “Every Night a Child is Born is a Holy Night” by Sophia Lyon Fahs.

And so the children come.

And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come --
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings,
No prophets predict their future courses,
No wise men see a star to point their way
To find a babe that may save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and Mothers --
Sitting beside their children's cribs --
Feel glory in the wond'rous sight of life beginning.
They ask: "When or how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night

by Sophia Lyon Fahs

We are each of us precious and unique and we each have so much to offer our world, if we could just unearth and nurture that greater reality deep within the core of our very being. There truly is that of God in each and every one of us; the potential to do great things. That said there is also the potential to destroy, to corrupt to abuse.

Karen Armstrong Author of “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” once said “Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way you will be transformed.”

The purpose of the religious, the spiritual, life is to nurture and develop the potential within each of us. I see this as the purpose of any religious community. It is more than that though; the purpose of a religious community is to share this in their communities and the wider world; it is their purpose to spread those concentric circles of compassion, that Confucius described two and a half millennia ago, out to the whole world. This compassion begins within the individual, and spreads to our families, to our communities, to our regions, to our countries before it encompasses the whole world. It begins though by healing and nurturing the individual's soul.

Let the light of love heal our souls and let us make each and every moment holy; let’s make every night a holy night.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Occupy movement

I have now visited two Occupy camps, one in Norwich and one in Bath, and the thing that really struck me about them was their openness and inclusivity.

The Norwich camp has a board where you can write what you think are the problems the world is facing, and another one where you can write a solution to a problem (such as the Robin Hood Tax, or more co-operatives,  and so on). We were welcomed by a really articulate woman explaining what the Occupy movement is about.

The Bath camp was initially set up by students but lots more people have got involved. They also have a world map with all the other Occupy sites marked on it. I chatted with one of them, who said that they sometimes get flak from people shouting "Get a job" which they either ignore or point out that they do have jobs. He also said that the other night someone had a go at the camp, but then they got chatting and he explained what it was all about, and they ended up shaking hands before leaving.  While I was there, they gave a man who seemed to be homeless a cup of tea and a blanket because he was cold.

Occupy Bristol recently held an interfaith picnic - unfortunately I couldn't attend, but I heard it went well.

You can see a map of all the Occupy camps on The Guardian data blog. The Guardian also has an entire section of news, analysis and comment on the Occupy movement.

The Occupy movement is not centrally organised - each camp is independent, and has sprung up in response to other camps. The movement is intended to be as inclusive as possible, and to raise awareness of the issues facing our world - climate change, financial meltdown, globalisation, poverty, greedy capitalists, war, environmental degradation, and so on - and to start a conversation about finding solutions to these problems.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Ethical Christmas gifts

Are you stuck for ideas for what to buy for your loved ones?

Why not make them a gift? A hand-made gift shows that you have taken time and trouble, and is uniquely personal. You can also meditate on the well-being of the intended recipient while you are making the gift.

You can knit, crochet, carve, sew, or quilt your handmade gift. There are many websites with hints and tips on how to make things; they even have videos demonstrating how to do it - which is how I learned to crochet.

If making gifts is not your thing, there are some lovely things available for helping with meditation and other spiritual activities. If you buy crystals, however, please make sure that they are ethically sourced and not strip-mined. If you buy items from developing countries, please make sure that they are fairly traded.

Suppliers of fair trade goods include Traidcraft, Amnesty, Oxfam, Shared Earth (fair trade and sustainable), Windhorse (ethical and sustainable), Natural Collection (fair trade and sustainable), and many more. Always look for the Fair Trade logo.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Transylvania and the Serenity Prayer: Lessons in love

Once again I have learnt how vital being able to communicate is. I have been reminded that this takes time and effort and a little acceptance. To speak the language of the heart you must first of all listen with the ears of the heart. I know that fear and a sense of vulnerability often block me from this. When I am in fear of vulnerability I do not have ears to hear: my ears are blocked, my heart is blocked, my soul is blocked and I feel alone once again. In such a state I cannot hear the language of the heart as it speaks to me...less than a whisper, but more than silence...

I have just returned from a wonderful and wonder filled trip to Transylvania, spending time with Unitarian brothers and sisters there. I had been invited to participate in the 16th anniversary celebration of the Unitarian church of Maros St George which is the sister church to one of the two congregations I serve, Dunham Road Altrincham. This first reflection will not go into detail about the trip, I will instead talk about three moments that opened my heart.

The first moment came towards the end of the day visiting several Unitarian communities in the region. It was in a small village called Icland - there is no other settlement in region whose name ends in land, the story goes that it was originally settled by people from Ireland or England – I walked up the hill towards the parish house and settled into a little schoolroom with a few adults and two teenage girls. For some reason I had images of Thomas Hardy or even Dickens in my mind as I walked up to house and looked at the village, none of the houses had running water, every one had a well. The minister lead a short religious education class and I was deeply moved by the conversation which she translatored for me. It was a conversation about struggles with the current economic climate and the importance of letting go of control and not becoming blocked off from God. The words of the serenity prayer came to my mind “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference” – if only we could all find the wisdom the know the difference.  I was able to participate in the conversation, we spoke deep into one another's hearts. I left these people knowing I will probably never see them again, but also knowing that this conversation would be etched on my soul for a long time to come. During the conversation I had felt the presence of the spirit that I call God powerfully. I can picture the woman Elizabeth in my mind’s eye as she talked openly and eloquently of her struggles with life and faith...I had ears that could hear the language that she spoke, the language of the heart.

The next day we visited some local sites and spent some time in the Cultural Palace. I had noticed that I had struggled a little due to lack of space as I was staying with my host family. I am someone who is use to a lot of time and space alone. I live a very busy life but do connect and reconnect alone, throughout the day. I could feel that I was missing this. I was able to sit quietly in the cultural palace, in the main auditorium. I looked up at the ceiling which was incredible and the space below in silence. After a while I began to hear the sounds of an orchestra and choir practising. I began to feel the beauty of the place and in the space and quietness I felt some barriers opened my heart and I was then able to connect to the heart of the place throughout the rest of the day...I can feel the gentle music now, it was barely a sound but a little more than silence.

On the Saturday I was invited to preach and participate in Maros St George's anniversary service. Press had been invited. There was apparently a great deal of talk about mine and Caroline’s visits. By now I was feeling a part of everything. I had got a real feel for the spirit of the place. It was beginning to speak to me and I was able to hear what it was saying. I had learnt an important phrase for the Translvanian’s this is Ishtan Adjah (not spelt correctly), which means God bless. It is both a greeting and a farewell. I decided as people arrived I would greet them at the door, with these words. I was told afterwards that they thought that they had been greeted by a Hungarian and not an Englishman, as I spoke like a Hungarian. This meant a lot to me as I felt that I had now got truly into the spirit of the place. It was wonderful to participate in the service, to sing hymns in Hungarian and to be invited to preach, along with Tamas, the minister, translating. I opened up my heart and I felt their love too. I also felt and witnessed the spirit that I know as God, flowing through all of this.

This has been a wonderful trip and no doubt I will reflect on it a lot over the next few weeks. The language of the heart is a universal language that can break through any barrier, even fear and self protection. All that it requires is a little bit of faith and a whole lotta love; all that is required are ears that can listen and the wisdom to know the difference...I’ve had a wonderful reminder these past few days. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Avoiding spiritual burn-out

Ask Grace: What are the symptoms of spiritual burnout and how to avoid psychic burnout

Spiritual burn-out is a real risk for spiritual leaders, counsellors, caregivers, healers and psychics. Grace, a psychic, gives advice on how to avoid it (and she should know because she has suffered from it). I have recently suffered from this myself, and have found in the past that if I was getting nurtured by others, and receiving energy from the universe, it didn't happen, whereas if you fail to do these things, you will get burn-out, and the symptoms can be quite nasty.

She first identifies the symptoms of spiritual burn-out, and then identifies how to avoid it, or how to recover from it if you already have it.
The symptoms of spiritual burnout or psychic burnout can include exhaustion, depression, dread before or after working, feelings of unbearable responsibility, feeling overwhelmed, crying for no reason, crying often, being overtired, insomnia, difficulty getting out of bed, restlessness, procrastination, avoidance, constant illness, problems with the heart, difficulty breathing, anxiety and panic attacks, extreme weight loss or weight gain, hair loss, irritability, and a desire to avoid people.
Grace's advice can be summed up in six key points:
  • Take a break and rest - Grace says "take a sabbatical from everyone and everything, and really nurture yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually".
  • Make sure your needs are met - physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Breathe properly.
  • Draw your energy from the universe - don't use up all your personal energy; make sure to be replenished from the source.
  • Charge for your services - either in money or in kind - Grace says "there always has to be an exchange of energy, which is what money is - it is the energy of worth and value given in exchange for the service received."
  • Maintain strong boundaries - visualise yourself surrounded by white light; set aside a special room for your clients; set fixed working hours. If there's an emergency, calm the client down first. Have a website which answers all the obvious questions about what you do.
  • Only work when you can give 100% - don't deplete yourself by working when you are ill, distracted, etc.
It's well worth reading the whole article, which gives more examples and some excellent techniques and advice.

If you think you are suffering spiritual burn-out, get help - don't leave it until you are absolutely exhausted.