This is a message addressed to a place which I have never visited and to the people living there, many of whom I have never met, but for whom I feel such affection and appreciation. These are people who are living a life of passionate service to others, and this is my love letter to them in thanks for that service. In acknowledging them as one shining example of benefit for all, I thereby acknowledge as well all the people all around the world who are living in the same way.
So, first to the title and the reason for this letter: “Ship-shape and Bristol fashion” is an old expression in Britain that almost no one uses anymore, which means “efficiently arranged, in good order.” It comes from the fact that the city of Bristol was once one of the busiest ports in England, but it is located on an estuary where the tidal range is ten meters. So, at high tide the ships are floating on ten meters of water, but at low tide many of the ships would end up touching the bottom of the harbor and could tip to one side. Everything on the ship needed to be properly secured; otherwise, it could tip over and break. Hence, the sailors needed to protect the cargo so that it would be “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.”
Another aspect of Bristol’s maritime history is that in the 1700s it was the leading port for slave ships going to Africa and then to America. Over a hundred-year period, as many as 2,000 ships left Bristol to transport almost a half million people into slavery. One of the many slave-ship captains in those days was a man named John Newton. He was originally pressed into involuntary service in the Royal Navy as a young man, and he was known to be one of the most disobedient, disrespectful and foul-mouthed sailors on any of the ships. He had frequent arguments with the officers, and he was actually imprisoned for a while for his bad conduct. Nevertheless, through his intelligence and sailing skill, over time he gained the respect of his superiors and was eventually promoted to the position of captain on some of the slave ships.
While he was on a ship sailing in the North Atlantic, a huge storm blew in and battered the ship so violently that everyone onboard was sure that they would sink and drown. Newton felt the fear and emotion so completely that in that moment he experienced a spiritual conversion. He gradually gave up his old ways and decided to begin a new life, and he would eventually write a hymn of redemption and liberation that is known all over the world—“Amazing Grace.”
So, now, how does all this tie together and what is this “love letter” really all about? I so enjoy looking at words in a new way and seeing a meaning that was not apparent before, and when I first heard this phrase “Bristol fashion,” an image came into my head and I understood that phrase is a manner vastly different from the one which it had originally.
I happen to have many friends in Bristol who are a part of a worldwide community of people who are devoted to serving all, and who exemplify a way of life that is a model for how people can live together happily. I feel sure that, based on this and other models of its kind, more and more communities around the world will emerge in which the culture of gratitude and service is pervasive. The more I thought about this incredible change in the world—that people can come together in harmony with one another with the intention of serving one another and serving all—the more I came to understand the phrase “Bristol fashion” in a new way.
This way of life, this Bristol fashion, has a lot to do with the recognition that John Newton had and why he was moved to write a song about amazing grace. His song is about finding a simple and sincere way of living that liberates through faith: “I once was lost but now am found; Was blind but now I see; Was grace that relieved my fears, that gave me a life of joy and peace…bright shining as the sun,” and so many other bountiful lines.
However, these would only be so many words if they were not actually realized in the lives of people. But, yes, these words are coming alive in people all over the world. This Bristol-fashion way of living has a lot to do with making a simple change in one’s life—a change in which one relies on one’s own inherent peace, harmony and clarity, rather than being ruled by all the wild promptings of thoughts and emotions. It is such a simple choice and a simple practice: over and over again, regardless of what arises, one rests in that place of peace. This directly and inevitably leads to freedom from the enslavement to a raging mind. When one makes that choice over and over again for short moments many times and then can come together with others who are also living that way, marvelous things can happen.
So, this little love letter to those people in Bristol and around the world who are living in the Bristol fashion is an act of gratitude on my part—gratitude for wonderful people who are dedicated to bringing joy and abundance into the lives of others. How empowering it is for me to write these words and feel such confidence in their coming into fruition—that there will in fact be the amazing grace of people living all over the world in the Bristol fashion.