It’s A Process

Last Sunday we sang Cwm Rhondda.  That great Welsh hymn tune.  One often sung with great gusto by male voice choirs.  But it’s the first two lines of the words that struck me this time: “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land.”

When I think of pilgrims and pilgrimages I first think of the great mix of people in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Each with a story to tell.  Other people will have fond memories of a personal pilgrimage, say to Iona, Santiago de Compostela, or the Holy Land.

Pilgrimages are journeys with a purpose, to a place we view to be sacred.  Yes, there is a destination, but the travel is equally important.  Indeed it could turn out to be more important.  We may discover more on the journey – about our relationship to ourselves, to others and to God – than at our destination.  Pilgrimage is a process.

We sometimes talk about Lent as a forty day journey.  We could treat it as a pilgrimage towards Easter.  Choosing the stories we read and listen to and the activities we take part in.  Devising our own route and allowing the insights to come. 

Chris Dawson

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Keeping Lent

Yes Lent is a time of repentance, a time when we acknowledge our sinfulness and ask forgiveness for our sins.  It’s also traditionally a time when we “give up” something.  When we deny ourselves a pleasure – and take it up again when Lent has passed.

But how much do we want to focus on denial and on being “a miserable sinner”?  How useful is it?  After all we confess our sins every week and are re-assured that we are absolved of them.  Repentance – literally “re-thinking” – is about letting go and renewing ourselves.

The word Lent also refers to the lengthening of the days and, by implication, to Spring.  To changes in the light, to a time of growth and renewal.  So could we think of “observing” Lent rather than “keeping” it?  Making it a time to stand back a little.  To observe, to notice ourselves, our behaviours and our relationships.  To re-think and renew ourselves.

Growth, renewal and change  are challenging.  They raise questions and sometimes these questions don’t have easy answers.  As we proceed through Lent, could we be content just to let these questions arise and to be with them?  Answers often come from the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected ways.

“The first challenge of Lent is to open ourselves to life.”  Laurence Freeman, OSB.

Chris Dawson

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Reacting and Responding

It’s hard to know how I would respond if a member of my family were murdered.  I say “respond” because I’m sure that my initial “reaction” would be one of shock and disbelief that this had happened, followed by grief and anger and “if only…”

Last week the family of a murder victim were upset and angry.  The person who killed their daughter had pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.     Suffering from mental illness, he was committed to a secure hospital for a sentence of more than twenty years.  They didn’t think that this was punishment enough, that justice had been done.

At least one person on the panel of Radio 4’s The Moral Maze discussing this dilemma, was of the same opinion.  For him – a professing Christian – punishment and justice came before any mitigating circumstances. 

But will my pain be relieved by the punishment of another – my loss restored?  It’s not easy to follow Jesus’ teaching to move from “an eye for an eye” to compassion and forgiveness. 

Back in 2019 we performed A Mass for Peace and Reconciliation.  Alongside it we had an exhibition from the Forgiveness Project.  Each day this past week on Radio 4, Marina Cantacuzino, founder of the Forgiveness Project, has been introducing Forgiveness Stories from the Front Line.  They are worth catching up with on BBC Sounds.

Chris Dawson

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Being Committed

“I have a lot of commitments this week”, is a phrase we use when we are facing a busy week.   It says, “I am really busy, so I have little time for anything else.  My time is taken up with things I have committed to.”  But is it about “busyness” or “commitment”?

I found myself thinking about the nature of “commitment”, and what I am committed to and why, when I read an extract from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.  It’s in his powerful, challenging, rhetorical style.  This is what he said:

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King tried to love somebody.  I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry…I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness…I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

Chris Dawson

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Loving kindness for Ourselves

I like the concept of “lovingkindness” – yes it’s joined up like that in the Authorised Version of the Bible.  I think of it as compassion in action. Compassion arising from empathy, that ability to see and feel the world from another’s perspective, to identify with another’s suffering.

Compassion takes us a step beyond identifying with another’s suffering, because merely identifying with that suffering can leave us feeling anxious and helpless. Showing compassion involves a commitment to act, to do something to relieve that suffering, to support and to be alongside.

Christopher Germer, who with Kristin Neff, has done much to explore and spread the practice of compassion, describes compassion as:”When love meets suffering and stays loving, then we have compassion.”

This can definitely be a challenge, particularly if that suffering is at a distance from us and on a massive scale – Gaza, Ukraine, …  So where do we begin?

I think we can begin with ourselves, with self-compassion.  With practising lovingkindness on ourselves.  Everyone gains when we take care of ourselves.  After all, we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves.  So where better to start?

Chris Dawson

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Be A Little Kinder

“It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’”

So said the author Aldous Huxley.  He sounds a little apologetic.  I don’t think he need be.  When he refers to “the human problem” I guess he’s thinking about how we relate to one another.  I suggest that kindness is more than a good start.

Kindness comes from attention, attention to another.  A smile of welcome, a simple word, a note, a touch of a hand, a gesture of generosity.  All of these actions show kindness and  attention.  And attention is love.

Love and kindness come together frequently in the Psalms.  What is referred to in the RSV as “steadfast love” is called “lovingkindness” in the Authorised Version. The Psalmist refers to God’s “lovingkindness” more than a dozen times.  Jeremiah, Hosea and Isaiah too. 

“…Thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes.” (Psalm 26:3). “How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God”.  (Psalm 36:7).  “I am the Lord which exercises lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness.” (Jeremiah 9:24)

So, we could say that, through simple acts of kindness we are not only connecting with each other, but with the source of all kindness. 

Chris Dawson

c“It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’”

So said the author Aldous Huxley.  He sounds a little apologetic.  I don’t think he need be.  When he refers to “the human problem” I guess he’s thinking about how we relate to one another.  I suggest that kindness is more than a good start.

Kindness comes from attention, attention to another.  A smile of welcome, a simple word, a note, a touch of a hand, a gesture of generosity.  All of these actions show kindness and  attention.  And attention is love.

Love and kindness come together frequently in the Psalms.  What is referred to in the RSV as “steadfast love” is called “lovingkindness” in the Authorised Version. The Psalmist refers to God’s “lovingkindness” more than a dozen times.  Jeremiah, Hosea and Isaiah too. 

“…Thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes.” (Psalm 26:3). “How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God”.  (Psalm 36:7).  “I am the Lord which exercises lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness.” (Jeremiah 9:24)

So, we could say that, through simple acts of kindness we are not only connecting with each other, but with the source of all kindness. 

Chris Dawson

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Myths and Legends

Christmas and New Year are often a time of recollection, reflection, and a bit of nostalgia. Family stories re-told round the dinner table, or by the fire.  Re-lived in the telling.  Stories with a meaning for those involved.  Family myths subtly changing, but with a core that connects.

We receive Christmas cards, open them, glance at the picture and see who they are from.  Each card will generate some reaction – a thought, a memory, a smile perhaps.  Even a mild panic if we have forgotten to send them one. 

This year I have looked more closely at the scenes depicted on the cards we have received.  Like the family stories, they too are mythical, often presenting an idealised, even nostalgic, Christmas.  A warmly lit church, choir boys outside in procession through the snow, carrying lit candles.  A vintage post van bringing greetings in the snow.

Even the Nativity scenes are idealised.  One might even say sanitised.  The Holy Family posed in a brightly lit stable with the animals strategically placed.  The Shepherds,though rough and ready outsiders in their society, beautifully dressed.  Not to mention the Magi in their finery, in spite of their arduous travels.

We live by stories and important stories stay around and become myths.  Stories with powerful messages about ourselves and our relationships.  And at Christmas, those myths contain central messages about our relationship to God.

Chris Dawson

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Keeping Christmas

How will you your Christmas keep?

With a family of four in two rooms.  No space, no privacy, no room to breathe.  Or in a tent in the derelict doorway of the once upon a time John Lewis store. Or in a doorway without a tent, on cardboard, wrapped in blankets with your dog for company.

In a prison cell with a hole in the window where a drug carrying drone crashed through.  No seat on the toilet and a broken flush.  A bucket of water instead.  Banged up for twenty three hours out of twenty four.  Surviving on two meals a day. 

Struggling to put food on the table, counting the pennies and turning off the heat, with the wet and cold outside.  Damp and mould on the walls.  Unsafe.  Landlord knocking on the door, threatening to evict.

Discriminated against for disability, colour, gender identity or ethnicity.  Or as a refugee,   tortured for daring to speak out.  Leaving family, fleeing country.  Knowing no-one in a foreign land.  Isolated.  Just hoping………

“How will you your Christmas keep?

Feasting, fasting, or asleep?”

Eleanor Farjeon

Chris Dawson

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Building Bridges

We had a Congregational chapel in our village, but in all my 25 years living there I never saw inside it.  We were C. of E.  In my teenage years I had a Quaker girlfriend.  There was never a word of disapproval, but I always felt I was coming close to a line. 

Chatting up the Greci girls would have been a step too far.  They were the only Roman Catholic family in the village and went to a convent boarding school.  Their father had been an Italian prisoner of war and he had stayed and married a local girl.

As students in a fiercely Catholic country in the 1960s, we were used to the annual sermon by Archbishop McQuaid.  In it he condemned Dublin University as a Protestant abomination founded by Queen Elizabeth 1st and forbade any young Catholics tempted to attend it, from do so.

In August of this year the Parliament of the World Religions, first convened in 1893, was called in Chicago.  Over seven thousand participants attended, representing more than two hundred faith traditions in ninety-five countries.  So many people from diverse backgrounds coming together, exploring, sharing, praying and responding to the Call to Action on the final Day.

On Saturday morning I shall be joining the Churches Together carol singing on Davenport Green.  This week I could go a step further and join our Jewish brethren in celebrating Hanukkah.

Chris Dawson

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Beyond Words

Words can be enlightening.  They can also limit our deeper understanding.  It’s natural for us to explain, to solve, to work things out through words.  But this keeps us in our head and in the realm of ideas and some things are beyond the realm of ideas.

As John says in his first Epistle, no-one has ever seen God.  But plenty of people feel that they have encountered God.  And that takes us into the realm of experience.  Experiences change us and affect our actions and our relationships. 

The most profound experiences come when we are paying attention – to ourselves, to another, to the world around us.  It is then that we may get glimpses of peace as an experience, wholeness as an experience, God as an experience.  These glimpses may be brief, but they are there because, at some level, we have let go the urge to analyse and explain and just to be.

Words and ideas are very attractive, because they help us to keep a grip on ourselves and the world.  We can explore what is right and wrong, we can explain how things work, we can express ourselves.  Perhaps, above all, it is through them that we maintain our separateness and our individuality.  But as the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi puts it:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.”

Chris Dawson

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