Sunday 18 August 2013

Get On Your Horse and Drink Your Milk

We might remember that 1972 film, The Cowboys, starring John Wayne in which there is supposed to be this famous line where he says or at least I was led to believe he said, "Get off your horse and drink your milk". Actually, I have checked and I'm not sure now that he ever said it. I once met some one who used to misquote the quote that probably never was by saying "Get back on you horse and drink your milk". The John Wayne film, The Cowboys features John Wayne as Wil Andersen, a cattleman who must get a herd of cattle to market in order to avoid financial disaster. Unable to find any men to help him he is forced to take on a group of schoolboys. Andersen becomes their teacher in the school of hard knocks but his methods work and the boys graduate and become real cowboys in the end. The story is enhanced by the eventual revelation that there is a gang of cattle thieves stalking them.

What I like about the film is that it's a film about growing up, growing up the hard way and facing the realities of life so I like the misquoted quote that never was, 'Get back on your horse and drink your milk.' When you get knocked down, get back up. Seeking strength through adversity can provide a way forward, and doing the things that are good for you, getting back in the saddle and drinking your milk, figuratively speaking is perhaps the best thing you can do after you've had a bit of a knock. As somebody once said, 'It's not how many times you've been knocked down that counts but how many times you get up.

I think that one of the two important skills most of us learn in life is how to swim and how to ride a bicycle. When we learn to do either of these things properly it becomes something that we never forget and when we have learned how to do it seems so natural after a while that it's hard to see why we couldn't do it in the first place. One of my most disastrous cycling adventures as a boy occurred when a friend of mine who thanks to a growth-spurt had grown much taller than me, let me try riding his adult sized bicycle. He had been given a big old post war bicycle, a big black heavy monster; it had three-speed Sturmey-Archer gears and a dynamo. Anyway, one Saturday afternoon he let me have a go on it. The received wisdom when learning to ride a bike is to keep your head up and look straight ahead. So off I went down a street which was in effect a gentle declining hill. At first everything was going well, but the bike was a too big for me it wasn't long before the descent degenerated into a wobble and then I ploughed into the back end of a parked car leaving a big dent on the boot. I picked up the bicycle and after handing it back to my friend ran away from the scene of the accident as fast as I could.

Later, I got my own bicycle and soon got the knack of cycling but like learning to swim it does require a bit of confidence. There's this silly joke about a man who goes to the naval recruiting office and as part of his interview is asked if he can swim. The man asks "Why, haven't you got any ships?" I too joined the navy and found learning to swim a lot harder than learning to ride a bike. I joined the navy and I couldn't swim. (Fortunately they had some ships at the time) They taught me sure enough. They had a course they called the 'backward swimmers' and I became a member of that elite club we had to turn up in the early evening and in the cold dark  mornings before breakfast and not only dressed in swimming trunks but in a boiler suit too, just to make it harder. You would be subject to having to jump in at the deep end, and having your hands hit with a pole if you tried to touch the side of the swimming pool. In the end of course, I came through it and passed what they called the naval swimming test. They taught only two things the breaststroke and how to tread water; the emphasis being on surviving and staying afloat rather than taking part in a swimming gala.

Once when I was at the backward swimmers class, we must have been going for a while then, because wearing our boiler suits we were taken up to the top diving board and told to jump in. Now there was one lad, a Scottish lad, he was a boxer and quite tough but he was frightened of jumping or diving into the water. I remember the PTI (Physical Training Instructor) encouraging him to jump but he wasn't having it. "But you're a boxer, said the PTI, you're not afraid to go into the ring and fight, what are you afraid of?" Shortly after that the boy was in the water he might have been pushed, I can't remember or he may have just jumped. I remember still being stood on the diving board looking down; he was in the water but neither at bottom of the pool or on the surface. Rather, he was suspended half way under the water rigid, not moving and obviously drowning. The PTI had to dive in to rescue him and to save his life. There is this saying that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Here was a dramatic illustration of this truth. The lad may have been drowning but it was really is own fear that was killing him.

In the gospel Matthew after the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand we are told that he then told his disciples to get into the boat and to go to the other side of the lake whilst he himself overlooked the dispersion of the crowds who had come hear him before he went up into the mountain to pray. The boat sailed on but the weather was against them and it was heavy going as we can read in Matthew: 'the boat was battered by waves' as it approached the other side in the early morning. At that point, the disciples were looking out of the boat and saw Jesus walking towards them on the lake. They as you can imagine, would be extremely frightened when they all saw this. This cannot be real, and Jesus is taken for a ghostly apparition until of he calls out to reassure them. "Take courage; don't be frightened it is I."  Then Peter calls out, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

There is this book that's titled, If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat. I must admit that I've not read this book, written by the Christian evangelist, John Ortberg but apparently it was the winner of the 2002 Christianity Today Book Award. The blurb tells us that, "You're one step away from the adventure of your deep life and that within us all lies the faith and longing that sent Peter walking across the wind swept-sea of Galilee towards Jesus." We are challenged to come out of our comfort zone onto the risky waters of faith and so it means that we must get out of the boat if we want to walk on those waters. I think the key to understanding this fantastic story is not about achieving the impossible feat of walking on water but rather it's a spiritual lesson, an illustration of the power of faith, and the dangers and consequences of allowing doubt and fear to dominate our lives. In modern parlance we often refer to someone of great talent or ability to be able to walk on water. We don't of course mean that that person can actually do it; we know that it's just a metaphor we might employ for emphasis. In the ancient world, as now the ability to walk on water would have been reserved for the pages of scriptural spiritual truth of myth rather than for the day to day world of reality. The world is truly a wonderful and miraculous place but we know that there are truly some things that just don't happen.

What happens in the walking on the water story is that when Peter notices the strong wind, the tempestuous conditions in which he is achieving this supernatural feat, he becomes frightened and sinks into the water and has to be rescued by Jesus. "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" says Jesus. Often we do have to doubt; doubt and faith we are told often go together. One way to understand this is to keep an open mind. For example if we consider the use of traffic lights we know that red means stop and green means go. But legally, red means stop, amber means stop, and green means go but only with the clause: if it's safe do so. Now to be able to drive safely each day we not only have to believe that the traffic lights are safe and reliable but we have to use our own observation and judgement. Although we might believe the traffic lights are working properly and even though the lights are green we have to have faith that it is safe to proceed.

Sometimes a nervous driver loses faith in both the lights and his or her judgement and does not proceed until forced to do so by other by now irate drivers who will be making their displeasure felt. Faith is not a dogmatic certainty, for there lies madness and disaster. No, faith guarantees nothing except the will and energy to overcome despondency and fear, to live our lives to the full, to get back on your horse and drink your milk to get up after being knocked down like those people in the words of Theodore Roosevelt 'who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly.'

Not all of us are destined to achieve great things by the standards of the world, few of us are but perhaps the greatest goal is to try to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in faith hope and charity, to follow the teachings of a man who knew the importance of faith, a great teacher who talked of  'faith to move mountains' He said, "For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” 

May your life be a journey of faith.

Monday 8 July 2013


There is something about the early morning that is qualitatively different from the rest of the day and I think that it is in the silence and the freshness of the day that we are perhaps at our most reflective, another day with all the possibilities that this unknown quantity can bring and an opportunity to plan, to decide perhaps what our options may be. Of course those options may be circumscribed by the necessities of the working day but in a way we still have choices even if its only in the way might approach our work what our attitude might be are we going to be the same as we were yesterday or are we going to move on to find new areas of personal challenge and so on.

The start of a day is like a fresh page in a book. It's a fresh page in an exercise book, blank page for us to write on, to write our lives on, every word every full stop, if we think about it is important, we can't go back and edit it because it's written in indelible ink. Sometimes, I will be pulled up short and reminded what I did or said weeks, months, and decades ago. Did I? Did I do that, did I really say that? I ask. Regrettably probably, I did. The good news is that although we can't change the past we can live in the present and write a new story and hopefully we can do the same, God willing in the future.

The good news is that we have the capacity to realise happiness in this life much more than we probably know or allow ourselves to do. A recent study of what make people happy was recently undertaken from across the whole of the United Kingdom where 1001 people were asked what happiness meant for them. They weren't asked to select factors from a series of tick box questions but rather to put their own answers to this question in their own words. Unsurprisingly the respondents listed components of happiness as falling in to six areas: relationships, contentment, security and money, health, transcendence and fulfillment  The two major things that emerged in this study was firstly that people, actually 73% of the people that responded, mentioned relationships as the only or one of their definitions of happiness. This finding is consistent with research that shows that supportive social connections are fundamental to feeling good. I think this absolutely true, we all need friends, and we all need to give and receive love if we are to live a healthy balanced life. Certainly, this is what the ethos of any church community must be about if we are to live up to the standards we proclaim. Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.'"

Secondly, and this was the component that seemed to have surprised much psychological opinion was that 56% of opinion emerging from this research was that contentment was put forward as a major factor. This was something that really upset the apple cart. Because apparently, positive psychologists have this thing they call a happiness formula or even a magic happiness formula that goes something like this pleasure plus engagement, plus meaning equals happiness. In other words if we engage in something pleasurable and find some meaning in it then we will achieve happiness. This kind of happiness to me seems like the kind of happiness that the advertising companies deal with, a sort of commodity happiness that can be bought and found in a product whether it's a new car or a foreign holiday. However, contentment is something really quite different and although we can equate happiness with contentment it can be useful to know the subtle differences.

Oscar Wild is once supposed to have said that the most insincere question is, "how are you?" and that it's the most crashing bore who proceeds to tell you. Not withstanding the wit of Oscar Wild, at the risk of being insincere; sometimes I ask people how they are; I will ask if they are happy. By that I don't mean are you happy because you have all the things that you want or you happy because you have just come into some money. Rather, I ask from a more general point of view, are you happy with your life? Are you contented in other words? Because I happen to think that contentment is the only really authentic happiness that there is and I think this contentment comes not from the world as we want it to be but from an acceptance of the world as it is. We are reminded of the words from Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

This contentment we are talking about is very clear it is about acceptance and courage, accepting the things that cannot be changed and having the courage to change the things that should be changed. Acceptance is about accepting ourselves and other people for who they are, acknowledging that there are things that simply won't be changed or can't be changed and having to live with it. Contentment can involve recognising the present moment and embracing it as the only reality. Perhaps you can call it The Power of Now where there are no 'what ifs' or 'if only' if only this had happened or if only that had happened or if and so on. In any given situation we are where we are and we must proceed from that. In the survey on happiness conducted by a national opinion poll they found that ordinary people were saying things like, "For me, happiness is about personal tranquility , "Happiness is going to sleep peaceful and waking up the next day," "Being at peace with the way things are going", "Happiness is when you are OK inside about where you are and who you are, "Happiness can be found in simply just taking the dog for a walk"

I suppose you could say that happiness or contentment is found in seeing things as they really are. Real happiness or contentment is not a soft option it's not about giving in or giving up, living a life of docile passivity or agreeing with what is fashionable to agree with or like some people who will agree with latest opinion until another one comes along. Real happiness is also about being true to yourself as Shakespeare would have it

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Tuesday 30 April 2013

Now Is the Time

Now is the time to experience the true joy of living. In the words of Jesus: "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now.

Again, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he said: "The first of all the commandments is, Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment."

To love God we have only to accept the moment, to embrace the circumstances of our own lives, and to be truly thankful for all that we have received. To live our lives to the full is the way. Instead we spend our lives half asleep, not being mindful, and not observing what is really happening, or not taking the time to enjoy the rich pageantry of events, and scenery that passes us by each day. We only need to acknowledge how transient life is. We only need to remember that the only thing of permanence is change itself and how important it is to enjoy the company of others, whoever they are, and to accept them for who they are now.
One of the lessons from Eckhart Tolle’s book ‘The Power of Now’ is that our distress and negativity arises from the rejection of ‘what is’ of what is actually happening or has happened to us or around us. When we settle on negative thought, we are robbed of our power to be serene, to move forward and to work for positive change. God is ‘what is’ or ‘isness’ and if we cannot embrace and surrender to ‘what is’ we experience pain and become divided against our own selves. This is why Jesus exhorts us to love God because love is surrender to the eternal now.

Intuitively we can sense the divine and our connectedness with God we know our lives are indeed short but we are also children of that same God and made up of the same energy, atoms and molecules, the same life force that pervades the universe. Time and Life are indeed precious gifts, we appear to have done nothing to deserve these gifts, the privilege of life on this earth and most of the time we take it all for granted. Sometimes when I am doing precisely that, taking it all for granted I think of Oscar Wilde’s words from his work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, these two verses speak of a man walking to his death at the gallows:

He walked amongst the Trial men
In a suit of shabby gray;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man with such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by. 

We can imagine the powerful imagery, the experience that inspired Oscar Wilde to write this poem, of a man coming to an untimely death through capital punishment, and the fear and that deep longing as he looks at the sky.

Wilde invites us to share that deep longing, to be there and to understand. Through empathy and hopefully, compassion we can get a feeling for the intensity of the moment for the man and for the suffering of others, that can be bring us to the ground of our own being where we can experience the love that binds us to God.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Power and Truth

One of the reasons that positive change, the power to do good, is often ignored is that change can revolutionise the way we live and the way we think. Change can alter the status quo; undermine power and privilege. People who hold power are generally always sensitive to the risk that changes can often bring. For example, when the mathematician, Nicholas Copernicus published his book in 1543, De Revolutionibus showing that the sun was the centre of the planetary system and not the planet Earth his book was banned by the Catholic Church. 16 years later, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for saying the same thing. Later, Galileo published his own views in support of the Copernican theory. The Inquisition responded by threatening him with torture, he recanted his views and was then placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Dr Joseph Bronoski in his famous book, The Ascent of Man, commented that, 'Galileo seems to have been strangely innocent about the world of politics and most innocent in thinking that he could outwit it because he was clever.' But the Roman Catholic Church was a church that held power, that believed 'faith should dominate' whereas Galileo believed that 'truth should persuade'. The Catholic Church was a totalitarian, ecclesiastical power and as we have seen, it would brook no opposition to its doctrine.

Today, we have our own political juggernauts and those who stand outside of the main parties or the political consensus are often ignored and marginalised. One who is not listened to or does not have access to the 'corridors of power' is often referred to as a 'voice in the wilderness' as though that voice or that person is of no consequence. But just because one person, or a minority holds a point of view or has an idea that is not supported by the majority it doesn't necessarily mean that that idea is wrong. Someone once said, 'If 50 million people think a foolish thing it is still a foolish thing'.

In the gospel of Mark, that lone voice of 'one crying in the wilderness' opens the story of Jesus' ministry.

Behold, I send my message before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness - prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight.

Here was John the Baptist at the River Jordan, bringing a message to those who were seeking a new beginning, baptising them with water but Jesus of Nazareth he said 'would baptise with the Holy Spirit.' The voice crying in the wilderness proclaimed not himself, but a new message that would turn the world upside down, where the first would be last and the last would be first. There is this story where the disciples of Jesus are all arguing and bickering amongst themselves, trying to outdo each other, scoring points, so to speak but Jesus gets them all to sit down and says to them, 'If you really want the place of honour, you must become a slave and serve others.' Later, he told them of the need to 'forgive what others have done to you' as an essential practice in the spiritual life.

But in his own life, the message he brought and the ideas he conveyed were rejected and rejected not least by the people who knew him in his own town of Nazareth. He said, 'Prophets are honoured by everyone except the people of their hometown and their relatives and their own family'. However, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, they also dismissed his teachings and in response to their disbelief, he quoted these words from Isaiah:

The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone of all.

You can imagine that it did not go down well. Prophets are often without honour in their hometown and amongst their closest family, because often the prophet brings an uncomfortable message that challenges power, self-interest and tradition. The words of a prophet can bring all sorts of consequences and insecurities the whole thing is problematic. Jesus said (in the gospel of John) 'and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free'. But as we know men are often more interested in the power of their own authority than being persuaded by the truth.

Monday 18 February 2013

Laugh with Buddha

In the Buddhist tradition, we have the Laughing Buddha or the Happy Buddha, known as Hotie in Japan and Put-Tai in China.  This Buddha is not the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but supposedly a fat, wandering Zen monk, who carried a bag over his shoulder that contained sweets for children.  The bag is also reputed to contain gold, or it can be said that the bag represents fulfillment wishes that can also be the blessings of the Buddha.  This Buddha is really a fusion of the Buddhist notions of enlightenment and practical Chinese aspirations for happiness through prosperity and plenty.  So we get the image of the fat laughing Buddha with the big belly. There is this proverb that says "laugh and grow fat" and on laughter, the American inspirational and self-help author Og Mandino wrote these words: 

"And so long as I can laugh, never will I be poor.  This then is one of nature's gifts and I will waste it no more.  Only with laughter and happiness can I truly become a success.  Only with laughter and happiness can I enjoy the fruits of my labour.  Were it not so, far better would it be to fail for happiness is the wine that sharpens the taste of the meal.  To enjoy success I must have happiness and laughter will be the maiden who serves me."

Laughter of course, is one of the great joys of life; those with a quick smile and a sense of humour are bound to enjoy life.  Like the Fat Buddha then, we can laugh and become enriched with the blessings that light heartedness can confer.  I once knew a man, Fred, who wanted one of those brass Fat/Laughing Buddha's as an ornament to put on top of his television.  He got his wish and there it was situated, pride of place on top of the set.  Then one night the brass Buddha which was quite substantial, fell onto Fred's head as he knelt down to adjust the telly.  It may not have amused Fred, but the Buddha certainly brought the gift of laughter to everyone who witnessed this unfortunate incident, and may I say it brought the gift of laughter to everyone who subsequently heard about it too. 

There is this laughter that in a way performs a role much more effectively than all the sermons and scriptural texts on humility can hope to do.  Laughter can bring us down to earth very quickly at those times when we might be taking ourselves a little bit too seriously or when we might be trying a little too hard to impress.  Like the unfortunate heckler at a comedy show, showing off, who was put down with these words: "Well it's a night out for him... and a night off for his family."

We see this coming down to earth in the story of the prodigal son, the story of a young man who dreams of great things and a better life, so much so that he takes his inheritance, because he thinks he knows what's best, and goes to live it up in a far off country.  But in the end, when the money is gone he comes up against reality, he finds himself friendless and in abject poverty.  The dreams and the showboating are over and he is forced to return to his roots, to the place where he is really known and loved. There he finds a true homecoming, a welcome that must be met with some acknowledgement and humility, an opportunity for learning, for repentance and for personal growth.  Reality sets in when that brass Buddha falls on your head.  When we face reality we wake up to an opportunity to show gratitude and to acknowledge the many blessings that we may be fortunate enough to have such as warmth, shelter, food, friends around us, and the people we love.

Friday 4 January 2013

The Bubblegum Time Machine

Somebody once said that, “Time exists to stop everything happening at once”. Taken from this point of view, time appears not as a torrential downpour or an unbridled explosion of events and history but something else.  Rather, it seems to say that time is very much a control mechanism that allows events to occur sequentially, one bit at time, a bit like the mechanism of a bubblegum machine, those bubble gum machines which as every child knows appears as a kaleidoscope of colour bursting with the promise of a flavoured, chewy-sweet pleasure. 

The bubble gum machine seems designed to suggest (subliminally) a mega-hit of not one piece of bubble gum but a thousand! forget the psychedelia of the 1960’s! The ecstasy would be almost unbearable. Of course, the bubble gum machine is regulated to drop only one ball of gum at a time, a bubblegum time machine regulating the events of our lives. The penny drops, the machine clicks with a turn and out drops another day.  We live each day as it comes: a red day, a blue day, a yellow day or even a black day. We experience life like this: a series of random events like the selected lottery balls that can make you an instant millionaire - or not. Perhaps the patterns of our lives might appear more coherent when viewed from further back, using the wide-angle lens, in the wide sweep of history but we cannot predict the future with any certainty.

Nor can we be clinical analysts knowing and observing through a plate glass screen.  As St Paul puts it, “we see through the mirror darkly”.  This is because we are part of the process that is unfolding, life and death coming into and going out of existence.  In that beautiful letter to the Corinthians there is a warning against the conceit of knowledge and of intellectual prowess, “If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains but I do not have love I am nothing.”  This is Paul at his poetic best, freely handing out the profoundest truth, the essential truth that no scientific discovery will ever exceed.  For God’s love is the truth that permeates the universe, a love that is beyond time itself.  As St Paul says, “Now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror: then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”.