“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Creed (December 2016)

I have been feeling quite reflective over the past few days, and decided to try to articulate my beliefs, as we come to the end of 2016:

I believe in an all-loving God, who is
   creator of all things,
   at the centre of all things,
   and also the flow in-between,
   which we name Spirit.

I believe that Jesus was the Son of God,
   as we are all sons and daughters of God,
But that God flowed in and through him
   in  a particular way,
so that he could share some important truths with humankind,
   as other prophets have, before and since.

I believe that every human being has the God-given right
   to seek truth and meaning in their lives,
And that the tools they must use to do this
are faith, reason, and conscience,
based on their own lived experiences.

I believe that faith must involve uncertainty and mystery,
   because this is where God lives.

I believe that every human being is loved by God,
   and is worthy of that love.
But I also believe that we are free to choose
   to turn our backs on Her,
   separate ourselves from the flow of Love,
   choosing independence over communion.

I believe that dark and dormancy
are as important as light and growth;
and that our lives move in cycles,
  or perhaps spirals.

I believe in the sovereign importance of compassion,
   in loving your neighbour as yourself,
   which means also loving yourself,
   as Jesus taught.

I believe that living authentically, wholeheartedly,
   being vulnerable and open to new light
   and new ideas,
is vital for spiritual growth.

I believe that words and actions both matter;
   words help us to comprehend our world,
   actions flow from that understanding.
And when our actions match our values,
   that is the virtue of integrity,
   to which I aspire.

I believe that all any of us can do
   is the best that we can,
   with the tools that we have,
   at any particular time.
That we will always make mistakes,
   and upset and hurt other people,
   and ourselves.

Therefore I believe that we have to be responsible,
   for our words and our actions,
   to each other, and to God.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

That Bit

A friend of mine just posted a lovely meme about the days between Christmas and New Year:

And the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I realise that I really love "that bit", when the frenetic socialising in the lead-up to Christmas and the two Big Days (Christmas Day and Boxing Day) are over, and I have the chance to sit down quietly and appreciate the days that have gone, and the people with whom I have spent them, and the gifts I have received. I am blessed in usually being able to take the period between Christmas and New Year off work. There is generally oodles of food left in the fridge and cupboard, so we can nibble on our favourite dainties, and drink our favourite drinks (peppermint and liquorice tea, in my case) without the pressure to put on a show. And there is often something good to watch on the TV. It is an interlude of peace between the frenzy of Christmas, and the re-dedication to work that the New Year brings. And I am very grateful for it.


I wish you all a very blessed That Bit, and a Happy, Peaceful, and Productive New Year.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Both / And, not Either / Or

There is a very neat meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment, which sums up the two Spirits of Christmas for me. It is a Christmas Bucket List, with six items, partly crossed out, and substituted with other words, so I'll have to paraphrase for it to make sense:

1. Instead of buying presents, be present.
2. Instead of wrap gifts, wrap someone in a hug.
3. Instead of send gifts, send love.
4. Instead of shop for food, donate food.
5. Instead of make cookies, make memories.
6. Instead of see the light, be the Light.

And yes, I get it, but in my opinion, it should be both/and, rather than either/or. I have bought presents for the people I love, but welcome the reminder to be present in the moment, day by day, instead of getting lost in the busyness. I will be wrapping the gifts I have bought this weekend, but will also be wrapping a lot of people in hugs, during the next few weeks (and being wrapped in hugs also, I hope!)

I will be sending gifts, but also sending love to all those people who make my life so blessed. Including you. I will be shopping for food, and have already paid a visit to the Northampton Food Bank with a donation. This Christmas, sadly, I won't be making or eating cookies, or mince pies or many other sweet Christmas treats, because most of them contain gluten, but I will surely be making memories, particularly on Boxing Day, when the whole extended Ellis family gets together at my parents, for what my mother insists on calling Christmas Day Two. And a very kind friend, who is also gluten-intolerant, has made me a beautiful little GF Christmas cake - so very lovely of her. Finally, as well as seeing (and enjoying) all the beautiful, colourful Christmas lights, I will be striving to be the Light for those I love.

It was a good reminder about the things which really matter at Christmas - not the tangible things that one can buy, and consume, but the gifts of love and awareness, which cannot be bought and always renew themselves. The things we can look back on with fondness, when the food has been eaten, the presents have been opened, the paper recycled, and the decorations taken down.

I also want to acknowledge what I think should be the true spirit of Christmas, "the spirit of good will and peace ... [the] spirit that bids us renew our hopes amid the gathering darkness, that kindles our generosity and our concerns, that attunes our ears to the ever-renewed angelic chorus" as Max Gaeble puts it. Because that is here too, in our minds, and in our hearts.

Wishing you a peaceful, blessed, and mindful Christmas.

Friday, 9 December 2016

More Blessed to Receive?

I have often heard that "it is more blessed to give than to receive", as it says in the Book of Acts. Indeed our Discussion Group at Banbury was discussing this question yesterday morning, and came to the conclusion that both are equally important, but that it is probably *easier* to give than to receive, graciously, and thankfully.

But God had other ideas for me yesterday, and I spent the rest of the day being blessed by many small kindnesses.

the sweetest little Christmas cake in the world
First of all, I got stuck in traffic on my way back from said Discussion Group, and was able to phone ahead and ask my best beloved to have my lunch ready for me. So that when I shot into the house at 1.20, a nutritious and delicious meal was waiting for me, which I was able to eat and enjoy, before rushing out again at 1.40.

Second, when I got to the car park on time, and was feeding pound coins into the machine, a young woman stopped on her way out and rolled down her window: "I have a ticket here that's valid till midnight - do you want it?" Yes please - thank you!

Third (and fourth), when I shared some very intimate good news with two friends, both had tears of joy in their eyes for me.

Fifth, another friend, who eats gluten-free herself, had baked me the prettiest little Christmas cake in the world.

And finally, when we were sharing out stories about the gift of difference in the Encounter group, I felt so honoured to have *been* the different person who had unknowingly helped someone else to grow spiritually.

By the end of the day, I felt so light, so blessed, so very grateful. Yes, it is blessed to give, but also so blessed to receive.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Digital by Default

Sometimes, on very rare occasions, a book or film comes out that is so important, it becomes a personal signpost in your life. Time divides into "before" and "after", and life is never the same again, because your eyes have been opened, and there is no alternative but to respond, to change, to act.

I can think of two straightaway, in my own past - Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth,  which opened my eyes to the futility of war, and the necessity of working for peace; and the film Cry Freedom, about the life of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody.  Others include Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant, so memorably brought to life in a factional film by John Hurt; Pride,  about a group of young homosexuals who came to the aid of a village of Welsh miners; and the graphically violent Twelve Years A Slave, which portrayed the horrors of slavery in the US. Although for me, it was the book Noughts and Crosses, by British author Malorie Blackman, which really woke my conscience to the issue of white privilege.

All these books and films have one thing in common: they show the viewer / reader very clearly what it is like to be on the losing side of the System. Tonight I can add another to that list. I went to see the award-winning Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake with a friend, and it affected us both profoundly.

To sum it up in a phrase, it is a tale of the dispossessed, based on a true story about two real people, who fell through the cracks in the pavement of "normal" society, and about the unthinking, unfeeling prejudice they encounter. It is about the inflexibility of the welfare system at its bureaucratic worst, in which jobs-worth employees of the Department of Work and Pensions and its associated companies blindly stick to the rules in their dealing with their "clients", denying their common humanity. Valid reasons for not complying with the many and varied regulations are dismissed as excuses, and no leeway is given, no mercy involved.

[PLOT SPOILERS] In the case of the title character, Daniel Blake, a seriously ill widower and trained carpenter of long experience, is recovering from a major heart attack, but officials refuse to listen to his clear explanations that his doctor and consultant have both told him that he is unfit to work, and insist that he applies for Job Seekers' Allowance. Which involves completing online forms, producing a digital CV, and other pleasant impossibilities, which Blake, who is computer-illiterate, like many of the older dispossessed, is simply unable to do, although he tries and tries.

And because they deem that he is "fit for work", he has to prove that he is actively searching for it. He hawks his CV round the streets and working sites of Newcastle, walking miles a day to do so, but is unable to provide digital "proof" of having done so, and so is sanctioned (denied any benefits at all) for four weeks. He is warned that the next time this happens, it will be 13 weeks.

One particular DWP employee is portrayed as sympathetic, and tries to help him (for which she is severely admonished by her superior), but the rest just stick to the letter of the law, and refuse to listen to him. He is told by one pompous official "We are digital by default", to which he retorts brilliantly, "Well, I'm pencil by default!".

Eventually, after having to sell virtually all his possessions to stay alive, he finally gets to an appeal to be allowed to claim Sickness Benefit, but succumbs to a second, and this time fatal, heart attack just before it.

The other main character, Katie, is a young single mother from London, who has spent the previous two years living in a one-room hostel with her two young children, before being offered a flat, hundreds of miles away from friends and family, in Newcastle. Her story is similarly heart-breaking.

One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film comes at a visit to a food bank. Katie, who has been denying herself food to stop her children from going hungry, is given a tin of baked beans with one of those snap tops. She loses control, goes into a corner, tears open the tin, and begins to scoop the cold baked beans into her mouth, avidly, desperately, Dan and the food bank volunteer are both moved and horrified, as she apologises: " I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I was just so hungry." Both my friend and I were in tears at this point (and many others) as were the people around us.

Katie is eventually forced to turn to prostitution in order to pay for food and clothing for her children. She hates what she is doing, but feels she has no choice.

We came out at the end of the film feeling helpless and angry. What sort of crappy society is it that we live in, where people are treated without kindness, without compassion, where obeying the system matters above all, and where breaking any of the System's rules has dire consequences?

The only rays of hope that we could find were in the ordinary human-kindness of neighbours and friends, and of Dan and Katie towards each other. The mercy shown by the store manager when Katie was caught shop-lifting; the concern of Dan's young neighbour; the various folk in the library who tried to help him on the computer. These stand out as beacons of hope in a cruel world.

I, Daniel Blake has left me feeling angry and helpless, but filled with a desire to *do* something to stop this crap from happening to people in my country, right now.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Does It Spark Joy?

I've recently been reading a fascinating book called 'The Life-changing Magic of Tidying' by Marie Kondo. This Japanese woman has raised tidying to an art-form, and believes that if you once really, thoroughly tidy your house, using her KonMari method, you will never need to tidy again, because there will be a place for everything, and everything in its place.

I found some of her suggestions to be slightly OTT, but there were an awful lot of commonsense hints and tips as well. The KonMari method is a two-stage process: firstly you go through all your belongings and discard what you no longer need, secondly, you store the remainder in an orderly fashion. If you google 'KonMari method' many video clips will come up which illustrate the process.

One suggestion that really jumped off the page was what she said about how to decide what to throw away: "the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one's hand and ask: 'Does this spark joy?' If it does, keep it. If not, throw it out." Apparently it is necessary to actually take each item in your hand, not just look at it, in order to get the authentic reaction, the 'spark of joy' (or lack of it) which will tell you whether to keep or discard.

It occurs to me that this might be a very good way of approaching life generally, not just our possessions. "Does this spark joy?" If it does, keep it in your life; if it doesn't, throw it away, or stop doing it. It could be a yardstick for almost anything ...

Thursday, 6 October 2016

On the Move Again

Those of you who know me "in the flesh" will know that I have been suffering with a bad knee for the last couple of years, and have been unable to run.

Which has depressed me no end, because for me, running was the great stress-buster in my life. After a run, I always felt on top of the world, and up for anything. But my physio drily pointed out that I had a choice - carry on running, and book in for a replacement knee operation in five years' time, or find something else to do.

So I've found something else to do. I joined a gym in mid-July, and since mid-September, I have hooked up with a Personal Trainer. It's costing me an arm and a leg, but I looked up the cost of smoking recently, and to have one hour-long session with a personal trainer every week costs the same as smoking ten Silk Cut Silver a day.

Understandably, I have decided to burn fat rather than burning tobacco! And I'm loving it! Loving stretching my body, using muscles which haven't been challenged for years, working up a sweat, and generally Going For It. In fact, my trainer keeps on reining me in, as he is concerned that I am going to injure myself if I am too "neck or nothing" in my approach. So I'm being good and doing what I'm told. I go to the gym four times a week, and see my trainer on a Monday morning, which sets the tone for the rest of the week. He's also told me to eat more healthily, which I'm trying to do.

What I'm also loving is the link between moving my body and looking after her, treating her as a temple rather than a dustbin, and my overall mood. My body is *loving* getting back to regular exercise, and I am much happier, more serene, as a result. I am also finding it easier to meditate in the mornings, since I have discovered Head Space.

Mind, body, spirit, they are all connected. We need to remember this more often ... or at least I do.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Insidious Sexism is Everywhere!

September, the beginning of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and also the month in which all the Christmas catalogues begin to come through my letter box. I stash them away for future reference, as I refuse to even *think* about Christmas before mid-November.

The latest one was the Qwerkity catalogue; yes I am going to name and shame. The whole thing is divided into 'Presents for Men' and 'Gifts for Her' which is sufficiently infuriating in the first place. Let me share the contents list for each part:

Presents for Men: Books, Boys, Teens & Twenties, Food & Drink, Gadgets, Grooming, Home & Garden, Music & Hobbies, Out & About, Sport & Leisure, Stocking Fillers

Gifts for Her: Accessories, Animal Lovers, Beauty & Pampering, Books & Leisure, Christmas, Food & Drink, Garden Inspired, Gifts for Everyone, Girls, Teens & Twenties, House & Home, Kitchen, Stocking Fillers, Unusual Presents

So ... women aren't interested in gadgets? men aren't interested in cooking? To add insult to injury, the Books section in the men's part is four pages of books; the Books & Leisure section in the women's part is two pages of books & four pages of colouring books & drawing & jigsaw puzzle stuff. And that is just one example.

But the thing that Really Really Annoyed me was that each of the Teens and Twenties sections featured a student cookbook - the male students' one was called 'The Hungry Student Cookbook' and the female students' one was called 'The Hungry Healthy Student Cookbook'. Implicit message: if you are a female student, you need to watch your weight. This made me spit feathers. I am sure that the books themselves are aimed at students of both sexes, but the placement within the catalogue ... just infuriating!

WHEN are we going to start treating each other as human beings, with equity and respect?

Friday, 16 September 2016

Landscape Memories

Have you ever visited a new place, experiencing it for the first time, and felt a strange, haunting sense  of familiarity? Like you know it so well?

This happened to me yesterday, when my DB and I walked the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail. As soon as we set foot on it, I felt the resonance. It reminded me so much of Dolgoch Falls in mid-Wales, perhaps my favourite walking place in the world. The lively sound of the water as it chuckled and gurgled its way over the rocks; the sun-dappled oaks and beeches, their trunks furred with vivid green moss; the wonderfully evocative smell of the damp ferns, now beginning to turn into brown bracken -   all these were so familiar, so well-beloved.

And the path itself, an eclectic mix of textures, widths, and colours. Partly a network of exposed and ancient tree roots, the dirt between them carpeted with moss, and last year's leaf mould. Partly naturally outcropping stones, and chippings of slate. And partly concrete steps, laid to make the going easier, aloe with stout posts and rails which also serve to prevent the adventurous from straying off the path, in search of a more advantageous viewing point.

Even the background sounds were the same - the deeper rushing roar of the falls themselves, the twitter of birdsong, and the baa-ing of the sheep on the fells above. It was magical.

Every so often, I stopped, closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and gave thanks for such beauty, and for all the people who work to care for such places, so,that people like us can enjoy them, and re-connect with the Divine.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Autumn Blessings

This is a beautiful time of year. The long heat of the Summer is over (except that we didn’t get very much this year), and we can settle down and enjoy some warm, golden days before the Winter sets in. In our hemisphere at least, and in spite of the not-so-wonderful Summer we’ve had, the harvest has been largely gathered in; although this doesn’t mean what it once did. For the last few days, the sounds of this traditional agricultural task have been drifting in through my open window, reconnecting me with the rhythms of the natural world. Even if it is now largely done by machines.

 I think it is a shame that Western society has grown so far away from the cycle of the seasons, and the agricultural round. Even when I was a child, which I know my children think was sometime in the Dark Ages, but really isn’t so long ago, harvest still meant something, at least to a child brought up in the countryside. But now, ask anyone where their food comes from, and they are likely to reply “from the supermarket”. You can buy pretty much anything all the year round – strawberries in December, parsnips in June. We’ve got a recipe book at home called The Cookery Year, which is full of wonderful recipes to cook for each month of the year, using “seasonal ingredients”. And at the beginning, there is a four-page table entitled The Fruit and Vegetable Year, which explains what you can get from which country at particular times of year. It makes fascinating reading.

I love the in-between seasons, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, when there is a reasonable chance of warm, sunny days, and still-light evenings, when it is a pleasure, rather than a penance, to walk abroad, either around the village, or in my beloved Salcey Forest.

I go up into the Forest as often as I can - it only takes five minutes to walk from my front door, to the gate which leads to the path to the Forest. I can be in the "Forest proper" in ten or fifteen minutes, which is such a blessing. The Forestry Commission has done a lot of work to ensure that the path is navigable all year round (when we first moved to the village, it used to be "wellies only" except in the driest part of the Summer). Nowadays, I can walk in trainers for most of the year, and walking boots for the rest. Working from home as I mainly do, I can choose my times of walking, whenever the weather seems propitious, or to clear my mind, or to soothe my spirit.

I have blogged on here before about the glories of Autumn in the Forest, and I am looking forward very much to the next few weeks, as the leaves begin to turn, and the trees show just how colourful they can be when they really try. I am so very blessed to live in amongst it all.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

This Changes Everything

I've been attending our Unitarian Summer School at Great Hucklow for eight years now, and each year, I come home changed, enlightened, and enriched (and generally a couple of pounds heavier, but that is another story!)

My friend and colleague Danny Crosby usually invites people to worship with the words: "Come as you are, exactly as you are...but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition..." and Summer School is much the same. It provides a rich mixture of worship, theme talks, engagement groups, and other optional activities.

This year's theme was 'This changes everything'. We were treated to some outstanding theme talks, and inspirational engagement groups. In my group, we were asked to discern / work on a credo or touchstone to which we might turn in times of shock, uncertainty, and change. This was a very deep and enlightening process.

But the thing I have taken away this year, that I haven't been able to stop thinking about in the last couple of days, is a lovely song, which was taught to us all at the end of one of the theme talks, by Nancy Crumbine, a Summer School stalwart from the US. It goes like this:

Here I am, here and now, in this moment,
Here I am, in the place I am meant to be
Nothing can hurt me, nothing can shake me
I am free, I am whole.

This is what I love so much about Summer School - the unexpected, life-changing gifts it provides, year after year. It is the spiritual highlight of my year, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. I am so very grateful to everyone who contributes: to the Summer School Panel, who work for months to get it all in place; the facilitators of the engagement groups; the leaders of the optional activities; the worship leaders for morning devotions and epilogues; the minister for the week; and the Nightingale Centre staff. And to all the participants who come along prepared to be open and vulnerable, and to trust the process, and to grow and change.

Friday, 12 August 2016

On Perfect versus Good Enough

Over the Summer, I have been re-reading Brene Brown's wonderful books, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong.  One of her strongest messages about living wholeheartedly is to let go of the need to be perfect, to be the best. Striving for excellence is good, beating yourself up for not making 100% not so good.

I've recently re-joined my local gym, and am enjoying pushing my body a bit, trying to get a bit more toned, a bit more healthy. On Wednesday, I decided to up the ante a bit. So instead of doing 15 minutes at level 1 on the main cardio machine I'm using (which simulates running, but without the impact), I did 20 minutes at level 2. There were bellows to mend by the end, but I had a great feeling of achievement. I've also upped the number of reps I do on the upper body machines from 12 to 15. It's such fun to challenge myself, to push myself. Lots of lovely endorphins!

But here's the thing. I'm not comparing myself with any of the other gym users, not beating myself up for not being able to run for an hour on level 5 (or whatever). The only person I am competing with is myself - the idea is to improve my fitness over time. Because it makes me feel good.

Then yesterday evening, one of my oldest friends came round to play canasta. I don't get to see her much, so it was lovely to catch up while we vied for the mastery.

We have been playing canasta together sporadically since 1988, when we used to play every morning, going down to London on the train from Northampton. It is such huge fun - we both play the very best we can, and thoroughly enjoy the contest, but it truly does not matter who wins. Last night, she won the first match; I won the second. We are both openly triumphant about our wins, and commiserate with each other's losses.

But the absolutely most important thing is the huge fun of playing the game. Neither of us has any innate need to beat the other - our self-worth is not on the line. We just enjoy playing.

And that is so precious.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Right Words at the Right Time

For a while, I have been struggling with some guilt, over some behaviour in my past, which has made me feel unworthy of love.

But sometimes, by purest grace, you are given the words you need to hear. Today, on Facebook, these words by John O'Donohue turned up in my feed:

"When personal guilt in relation to a past event becomes a continuous cloud over your life, then you are locked in a mental prison. You have become your own jailer. While you should not erase your responsibility for the past, when you make the past your jailer, you destroy your future. It is such a great moment of liberation when you learn to forgive yourself, let the burden go, and walk out into a new path of promise and possibility. Self-compassion is a wonderful gift to give yourself. You should never reduce the mystery and expanse of your presence to a haunted fixation with something you did or did not do. To learn the art of integrating your faults is to begin a journey of healing on which you will regain your poise and find new creativity. Your soul is more immense than any one moment or event in your past. When you allow guilt to fetter and reduce you like this, it has little to do with guilt. The guilt is only an uncomfortable but convenient excuse for your fear of growth." (emboldening mine)

This has hit me like a train. It has taken this to finally help me to recognise that I am *more* than my past behaviour, and that to carry on letting the guilt over that past behaviour define me, I have indeed put my soul into prison. And so I am worthy of forgiveness, worthy of love.

Now I can finally believe that I am worthy of love, that my past behaviour doesn't define my whole self. I can't believe it has taken so long for the penny to drop. But drop it has. Thank you God! And thank you, John O'Donohue.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

A Small Kindness

I had to go into town this morning, for an eye test, and to buy some bits and pieces. I was just about to head back to the car-park, when I noticed a stall in the Grosvenor Centre foyer. It had been set up by some members of the St. Giles congregation, and they were offering free hand massage and nail painting.

And so I stopped, and got my hands massaged by a kind lady called Elizabeth. We got talking, and I asked her why they were doing this. She explained that they wanted to show God's love to the people of Northampton. And that there were some events for children up at the church.

I thought that this was such a lovely thing to do - they weren't proselytising, or anything like that - just trying to make some people's days a little bit brighter. I can only say that it worked - I was touched by her kindness, and my hands felt wonderful.

I do believe that this is the way to live - to try to make a little difference where we are, in the hope that the ripples will spread out and make the world a kinder and gentler place to live in.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Living the Words

I have a beautiful prayer, adapted from some ancient words from the Celtic Christian tradition, that I use daily, which encapsulate my conscious wish to live whole-heartedly, bringing my whole life under God's influence.

God to enfold me (in his loving arms)
God to surround me (so that I am always aware of His presence)
God in my speaking (so that I think before I speak / write, and don't use words that have the capacity to wound others)
God in my thinking (the "What would Jesus do?" question)

God in my dreaming (so that I have big plans for a better world)
God in my waking (so that I bring Her to my mind as soon as I awake)
God in my watching (so that I am aware and mindful of His presence, and also that I watch my own actions and words)
God in my hoping (so that I never give up)

God in my caring (for others, and also for myself)
God in my loving (because Love is the greatest force for good in the world)
God in my choosing (to live whole-heartedly and vulnerably and mindfully)
God in my trusting (that God *is* everywhere - particularly that there is "that of God in everyone", as the Quakers say)

God in my life (so that I try to live it mindfully, in awareness of Her presence)
God on my lips (so that my words do not wound)
God in my hands (so that my actions match those beliefs I am professing)
God in my heart (because Love is at the centre of everything)

God in my sufficing (so that I understand that who I am is enough, and that I don't need to "please, perform and perfect", to be loved)
God in my slumber (because I know the fundamental importance of rest and relaxation)
God in mine ever living soul, God in mine eternity (so that I recall that I came from Her and will eventually return to Her. And that the time in-between is the only life I have on this earth, my only chance to live wholeheartedly, striving to be the best person I can be).

Amen, Blessed Be.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Standing on the Side of Love

My Facebook feed this week has been filled with an outpouring of grief for the 50 innocent men and women who were senselessly murdered in the Pulse Club at Orlando, because one man was filled with hate for the LGBT community.

Many vigils have been held, both in the US and over here, in which people of all sexual orientations have been drawn together to mourn their loss, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other.

I have been incredibly moved by this up-swelling of love and solidarity. I posted this quote (shared by Sue Kelly Squires) on my own Facebook page yesterday, and was touched by the response of a friend: "Thanks Sue. I really needed to see this post today. I've been shocked by the homophobia of some Christians this week. I'm so tired of defending Christians to the gay community. It's time now for the Anglican Church to step up. You are so lovely to post this! Thank you!"

I felt both humbled and shamed as I read her words. Living as I do, a heterosexual white person, I had not truly appreciated until this week, the difficulties and fears that many of my LGBT friends still have to deal with every day. I had not realised how unaccepted and separate and vulnerable many of them still feel. I apologise for my lack of sensitivity and understanding, born of unthinking privilege.

Then this afternoon came the news of the murder of Jo Cox, a young MP who had spent her life fighting for the rights of those less fortunate than herself, notably Syrian refugees. She was shot, stabbed, and then kicked as she lay dying, by her vicious murderer.

Later on, her husband Brendan Cox issued a very moving statement: "She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one, that our precious children are bathed in love, and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race, or religion. It is poisonous."

Maybe standing on the side of love, standing up for the best that humankind can be, sharing a message of hope, not hate, is all we can do. To quote Nick Lowles, of HOPE not Hate, "The best way to do that is for us all to redouble our efforts to challenge hatred, prejudice and intolerance, wherever we encounter it."

May we all remember this, in the weeks and months to come.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

A Warm Welcome

Part of my role as District Minister for the Midland Unitarian Association, is to do two services a month "around the District", either covering for ministers' holidays, or for congregations who don't have a minister at present. It is a part of the job I really enjoy, meeting all the different congregations, and catching up with their news.

This morning, I travelled down to Cheltenham, to do a service at Bayshill Unitarian Church, and got a warmer welcome than I had anticipated ...

image by Cressida Pryor
I had decided to give them a nice, peaceful, reflective service entitled The Tree of Faith, and we were half way through the Time of Stillness and Reflection, when a series of what sounded like small explosions came from outside. One of the congregation went to look, and came back in and said, very matter-of-factly, "The building next door is on fire; I think we'd better get out."

So we gathered our things together, and left. Sure enough, there were smoke and flames pouring from the roof of the adjacent building, and there was some concern that it could spread to the church. But the fire brigade soon arrived, cordoned off the area, and put it out.

In the meantime, we adjourned to the Bayshill pub, where. over cups of coffee, I delivered the address and benediction. It was certainly one for the diary.

Monday, 16 May 2016

"Just Pop Your Card In There, Dear"

This morning, I went into town with the Chair of my congregation, who is 70, but looks younger, to see the borough council about organising waste collections for our new building.

It has also been in my mind that we need to set up a Twitter account for Northampton Unitarians (watch this space) so as I don't know much about Twitter, I decided to buy a simple book about it. The one I found is called Social Networking for the Older Generation.

We went to the till to pay for it, and I became, for the first time, the victim of age dsicrimination. The woman on the till could not have been much younger than me, but I don't think she actually looked at me once. She saw the title of the book, and the whole tone of the transaction was set by it. She adopted a sing-song, cooing tone of voice, and said to me: "Just pop your card in there, dear."

I was so taken aback that instead of challenging her, I meekly did what I was told, completed the transaction, and then lingered to see whether her tone to the person next in the queue (a young man) would be the same.

Needless to say, it wasn't. She was much brisker and normal with him.

It left me thinking about how I treat elderly people. I *hope* that I am not as patronising as that woman - I certainly don't adopt a "special" tone of voice when talking to older people. But it was a real lesson in What Not To Do.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Delight in Creation

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero writes: "On Sabbaths we are called to enjoy and delight in creation and its gifts. ... We are to take the time to see the beauty of a tree, a leaf, a flower, the sky that has been created with great care by our God. He has given us the ability to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, that we might feast with our senses on the miraculousness of life."

When I read this, I realised that I do this all the time. Most mornings I go out for a two-mile walk, either round the village or up into Salcey Forest. And I always have my phone with me, so that I can snap anything particularly lovely that catches my eye. I am so grateful for modern technology, because the camera in my iPhone takes surprisingly good pictures.

When I'm out and about, I try to open all my senses to the world around me, and walk mindfully, which makes it a quiet pleasure to wander alone in God's world, seeing the natural or cultivated beauty around me, listening to the ever-present birds, and sometimes, being intoxicated by the wonderful smell of newly-mown grass, or the roses in one particular front garden in our village.

I am so very blessed to have such beauty on my doorstep. Yet it is also present in the urban environment, as the photos of friends on Facebook testify. As Wayne Dyer writes, our aim should be to  "Recapture the childlike feelings of wide-eyed excitement, spontaneous appreciation, cutting loose, and being full of awe and wonder at this magnificent universe."

Monday, 18 April 2016

Discovering the Source

In the last couple of days, two memes by very different writers have been posted on Facebook. The first was by Richard Rohr, one of my favourite religious authors, who is a Franciscan monk, and Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation:

"Love is the source and goal; faith is the slow process of getting there; hope is the willingness to move forward without resolution."

(image: Center for Action & Contemplation, shared by Contemplative Monk)

The other was by Geneen Roth, whose books about women's relationships with their bodies have had a huge impact on me, particularly Women, Food and God, which taught me to love my body, rather than hating her. She wrote: 

"You already have everything you need to be content. Your real work is to do whatever it takes to realize that."

(image: Geneen Roth)

It strikes me that they are both talking about the same thing. For me, the recognition that God is Love, and that my whole life should be about growing into a more loving relationship with Him/Her - both source and goal, is a life-changing revelation. 

Having faith is the realization that God *already* loves me, just the way I am - I already have "everything you need to be content". My "real work" will be to be aware of this every day, so that I can grow closer to God, and grow into the sort of person who walks lovingly through life, cherishing that of God in everyone, and in the the natural world..

It will take a lifetime, but now I know where I'm going.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Food, Faith, and Fellowship

I came home from our General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches Annual Meetings on Saturday, feeling quite uplifted. The Meetings are a wonderful opportunity to see "Unitarians at their best" - to meet old friends, make new ones, and learn more about our beloved Uncommon Denomination.

When you get 300+ Unitarians together all in one space, there are bound to be differences of opinion (come to think of it, this happens when there are 3!) but this year, there seemed to be a spirit of tolerance and respect around, which was lovely to experience and behold.

The title of the Anniversary Service summed up these Meetings for me - it was a Feast of the Heart. A feast of good food, vibrant faith, and good fellowship. From the Peace Fellowship's Opening Celebration to the investment of Dot Hewerdine as our new President, it was a very special few days.

I know that our numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate, but I refuse to give  up hope. I believe that what Unitarianism has to offer is so special that we need to positively articulate what we *do* believe in - freedom from subscription to a particular set of beliefs; an opportunity to share our spiritual journeys in the company of like-hearted folk, a broad, inclusive, welcoming community, and compassion and respect for those different to ourselves. What's not to like?

Friday, 25 March 2016

Still Beautiful

The glowing orange roses I was given on Mothering Sunday have aged in an extraordinary way. They have dried up and withered, but have neither dropped any petals, nor lost their shape. Their colour has darkened from that bright silky orange to a rich old red with hints of dark yellow. They are old, yet still beautiful.

They were bought to celebrate my 25th year as a mother. Like the roses, I am older, a little more dry and withered on the outside. But they have taught me that I am still beautiful, and can still give pleasure. And that it is what is on the inside that matters.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Patience and Trust

As some of you will know, I have recently been called to be quarter-time minister at Northampton Unitarians. This has been a leap of faith on the part of the congregation - we are currently very small in number, but great in heart. We moved to a fine new building at the end of last year, and are hoping that the opportunities for growth from these developments will prove to be a turning point in the life of the congregation.

We have started regular Tuesday Gatherings, a different one for each week of the month - Discussion Group, Happiness Project Group, Meditation Group, Heart and Soul Gathering, and also regular Friday Gatherings to walk our splendid new labyrinth. Some people are coming along, which is super. It is early days yet,

But I am finding that, like Ce'Nedra in David Eddings' splendid books The Belgariad,  I am "not emotionally constructed for waiting." So it was good to be reminded that my focus has to be on my call to provide spiritual ministry in Northampton, and then to let go of expectations and outcomes. It is only three months since we moved in, and there is plenty of time yet for people to discover us, and the wonderful faith that is Unitarianism.

So I was so pleased to come across this quote, by Leon Brown:

"You cannot expect miracles to happen overnight. 
Be patient, be loving, 
and little by little the change you seek will come."

I am going to take this for my mantra in the days and months ahead.

Friday, 4 March 2016

A Break in the Clouds

I was driving back home from Evesham yesterday, when I noticed this dramatic sky ahead of me. It spoke to me so much that I found a parking space (fortunately I was on a dual carriageway, not the motorway), parked up, and took a picture.

I'm not sure whether it will show up on your browser / phone, but the contrast between the dark, rain-filled clouds and the brightness of the unchanging blue sky behind was remarkable to the naked eye.

In fact it reminded me of a metaphor much used by Martin Laird in his book Into the Silent Land, which is about learning how to do contemplative prayer. He says that our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, but that there is something deeper within, which is not affected by changes in that weather, that is deep, and luminous, and aware. Laird refers to it as a mountain, Mount Zion. Which is that-of-God within each of us.

Seeing that bright blue sky behind those menacing clouds helped me to understand that although our thoughts, moods, and feelings may change from day to day, or even from moment to moment, there is a deep, peaceful, sky-blue awareness behind and above them, into which we can sink, if we just have the patience to sit in silence for a while, and let our passing emotions do just that - pass by. It's not easy by any means - the chattering monkeys are loud and clear; the inner video is always there, ready to seduce our attention away.

But fleeting moment of peace are possible, and the knowledge that this deeper, calmer centre is there may help us in our everyday lives.. It surely helps me.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Convenient, Fun, or Horrifying?

It was my birthday yesterday, and when I logged on to the internet in the morning, to my surprise and delight, the Google logo wished me Happy Birthday.

I posted about this on Facebook, and was surprised to get some mixed reactions. One comment read: "Quite nice, or very scary, depending on one's level of paranoia."

By coincidence, a couple of days earlier, I had shared another post which got similarly mixed reactions. The post read: "Place of birth! Play along, if you'd like. It will be fun to learn where all of our Facebook friends are from. Comment with your answer below on this post, then copy and paste this onto your own page. Be sure to put your birthplace at the end. -- Liverpool, England" And again, people were anxious; "D'you know what? I think I'll not put that on the internet." and, in response to that comment: "I was thinking the same given how often that's used as a security question!"

I went out for lunch with a friend, and mentioned this, and we got on to the subject of the wonderful clock in the Harry Potter books in the Weasley household, which could tell by magic where the members of the family were. There had been another post on Facebook recently, to say that somebody had succeeded in making one in real life. I was puzzled as to how that could be, and my friend told me about an app she had on her phone which could use GPS to track where her children were. Oh.

Then I got to thinking about how you can control your heating and oven and TV via an app on your smartphone, and about how, if I log on to Amazon, a list of recommendations come up, based on my browsing history, and  I began to wonder ...

Until now, I have found such things convenient and/or fun. But I am beginning to feel the stirrings of alarm in my soul, and to wonder just how much information there is squirrelled away about me deep in company computers owned by the likes of Google and Facebook and Amazon, to name three much-used websites. I read something on Facebook the other day about the new emoticons - that they are going to be used to tailor what I see in my Facebook feed. I'm not sure I like the sound of that at all.

I would be interested to hear other people's reactions to this - fun? convenient? or horrifying?

Monday, 22 February 2016

Tell Me A Story

We've been watching a fascinating series on the BBC recently; The Story of China, narrated by Michael Wood. It has been a proper, old-fashioned documentary, with no stupid gimmicks or annoying music, and I've learned a lot about a country of which I knew very little.

One feature of contemporary Chinese life that has featured in the documentary has been the professional storytellers. It seems that the Chinese people love to listen to both history and legends, and it is a very specific art form. The storytellers are beautifully dressed, and use what I imagine are traditional intonations and gestures to tell their tales.

Watching them made me realise how much I would enjoy listening to English history and legends - for example, King Arthur, or Robin Hood - told by a professional storyteller. But if such people exist, they seem only to share their skills with children.

I know from my years as a minister that the "children's" story is often the most popular and memorable part of a service, and have been enchanted by stories told at big Unitarian gatherings such as Summer School or the GA Annual Meetings.

I think it would be really lovely if we could do as the Chinese do, and go along to a cafe to listen to tales of our national heritage, so that they are not lost. Because it's not as though people in this country don't still love stories. But nowadays we either read them in books, or watch them in films or on TV. Or go to the theatre, which is the nearest to the living oral tradition.

Tell me a story ... please.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

My Life In Eight (and a Bit) Objects

The colour supplement of our Saturday paper has recently been running a column entitled My Life In Eight Objects, which features eight beautifully photographed objects, accompanied by the chosen person's explanations. And I find it fascinating. Some of the things chosen seem to be so random, but obviously stand for an important part of that person's life.

So I decided to do my own ...

I'm not computer-savvy enough to put in little numbers by each object, but I think they are fairly easy to identify. So roughly from left to right, and then top to bottom within that:

1. a photo of my two children-no-longer-children, taken on our last family holiday in 2013, before they both went off to university.
2. a silver bangle, which was a present from my husband on our 30th wedding anniversary. It was made in the year we got married.
3. the copper chalice, made for me by a member of Northampton Unitarians, and given to me when I started my ministry training.
4. a journal, to symbolise the importance of writing in my life (the accompanying pen is the "and a bit".
5. The Lord of the Rings, my all-time favourite book, to symbolise my love of reading.
6. my fitbit, to show the joy that exercise brings to my life.
7. my iPhone, which stands for all the IT wizardry which help me to communicate with the outside world.
8. my prayer beads, made at Summer School in 2009, which are central to my spiritual life.

It was surprisingly difficult to narrow my list down to the eight objects. Had I been allowed nine, my precious cat would have made it in there too, but I haven't got a decent photo of her in hard copy.

I would love to see other people's take on this ...

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Walking Away the Cares of the Week

This week has been a tough one, as some weeks are. So I was glad that it was coming to an end. And delighted to be able to see it out in style, as I welcomed people in to the first Walk Away the Cares of the Week at our meeting house, using our brand new (to us) labyrinth mat. It is based on the labyrinth at Troyes Cathedral, and was made by my friend, and painted by her daughter. And it is sixteen feet square.

Setting up took a while, but was greatly helped by my friend who had so kindly passed the mat on to the congregation (memo to self: it is much more intelligent to light the 24 tealights first, THEN strategically place them around the perimeter, not the other way round). But it was done on time, the atmospheric music was on the CD player, and the first people arrived to walk the labyrinth,

Peacefully, Mindfully.

The trick of walking a labyrinth mindfully is to focus on making each step, rolling from your heel onto your toe, gently lifting your foot, and placing it carefully down in front of you. As I walked, peacefully, mindfully, I felt my body begin to unclench and relax, and my mind began to quieten. Twenty minutes later, when I walked out again, I felt like a new person.

There is something about this kind of purposeful walking meditation that is very powerful, very soothing. I feel so very blessed that it is going to be something I am now able to do regularly.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Sharing a Blessing

Yesterday was the 'Saturday Intensive' on my spiritual direction course. And intensive it was: we were together from 10 am until 6.30 pm, followed by a shared dinner. The title of the day was 'Befriending Your Shadow' and it was a fascinating journey. Of course it was all confidential to the group, but one exercise we did towards the end of the day was really beautiful, and so I am sharing the process of it with you.

There are twelve of us on the course, and this exercise really has to be done with an even number. Six of us sat in a circle, the other six standing behind. Each standing person was asked to think silently of what they would want the most important person in their childhood to say to them, and then to go round the seated circle, whispering it into the right ear of each seated person. Then we swapped, and the seated people did the same to the other six.

To receive the six benedictions was incredibly powerful - I was in tears by the end, and I was not the only one.. And then to share my own blessing with those six friends "My precious child, I love you just the way you are" was also so very special. It left us all with deep feelings of thankfulness and connection.

In the words of Marianne Wilkinson, "If I choose to bless another person, I will always end up feeling more blessed." I have found this to be so true, and feel so very blessed.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Passing of an Era

This week, two public figures whom I have adored since I was a teenager have died, both of cancer, both aged 69. Of course I'm talking about David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

There have been some beautiful tributes posted on Facebook and elsewhere Like so many others, David Bowie got me through my teenage years (Hunky Dory was the second album I ever bought, and I have loved him ever since). His music spoke to my soul, and still does. It is an abiding regret that I never managed to see him live. My life has been richer through his music. And Alan Rickman's acting has given me much quiet pleasure, particularly as the ambiguous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films. I find his voice mesmerising, and love just listening to him speak. His timing is so immaculate.

And now they are both gone, down into the silence of death. But we who are left behind are so lucky, because their work is still here to be enjoyed and savoured. I feel so sorry for their families and friends, who knew these two wonderful people in the flesh, and whose grief I cannot presume to share. May they find peace.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Seeking the Quiet Centre

This afternoon on Facebook, my friend Hay Quaker posted one of my favourite Advices from the  Quaker Advices and Queries: 

"Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God's guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God."

I love this a/Advice on so many levels. Especially perhaps the last sentence: "Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God."

So many spiritual teachers I admire talk of the importance of stillness and contemplation as the surest way to connect with the divine. They talk of just noticing thoughts as they arise, and letting them go, and returning to the silence. But I find it difficult to get into the silence at all. Letting go, surrender, these things are so very hard for me. I feel like Anne Lamott, who writes in her wonderful book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers: "People ... might say jovially, 'Let go and let God'. Believe me, if I could, I would, and in the meantime I feel like stabbing you in the forehead." The first time I read that, I laughed out loud in rueful recognition.

And I try, I really do. Which I guess is half the problem. Every morning for nearly the past year, I have sat for 20 minutes, and tried to "find a way into silence". But as I said to my friend, most of the time "my washing machine mind goes round and round", and stillness, tranquillity elude me.

So I asked him whether, as a seasoned Quaker, he had any tips about finding a way into the silence. This was his response:

"The only tip I can give to using a silence is to imagine a big empty table with a white cloth in front of you, and just wait for things to be laid upon it. (PS do not put the table cloth in the mental washing machine!)

How do you find the quiet centre?