Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Community: Men's service reflection

The following blogspot is a collection of material shared by the men of Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham, on Sunday 15th September 2013, during our annual "Mens Service".

The theme was "Community"

Opening Words

We gather to share

our faith

in the spirit of freedom,

our doubts

in the spirit of honesty.

We gather to focus

our love in prayer,

to send it to those

who suffer and grieve –

in our own community

and in the wider world.

We gather to strengthen

the good that is in us,

that the goodness may be

stronger on the earth.

We gather to worship.

Extract from: "Exploring Our Desire to Belong" by John O’Donohue taken from "Eternal Echoes"

The ideal of community is not the forcing together of separate individuals into the spurious unity of community. The great traditions tell us that community somehow already exists. When we come together in compassion and generosity, the hidden belonging begins to come alive between us. Consequently, a community which is driven by power, or too great a flurry of activity and talk, will never achieve much more than superficial belonging. The attempt to force community often drives away the more independent and creative people.

We do not build community as if it were some external and objective structure. We allow community to emerge. In order for community to emerge, we need time, vision and a certain rhythm of silence with each other. The invisible tissue which sustains real belonging is never spectacular; - It is quiet and unostentatious.

At its heart it is impossible to grasp what makes true community. We often hear the phrase "community spirit" and that recognises that community is not so much an invention or construction of its members, but a gift that emerges between them and embraces them.

Perhaps community is a constellation. Each one of us is a different light in the emerging collective brightness. A constellation of light, of course, has greater power of illumination than any single light would have on its own. We need to come together. When people come together because they care and are motivated by the ideals of compassion and creativity, true belonging emerges, communities cease to be inward looking and enrich our world.


Spirit of light, Spirit of life, hear our prayer… help us to see that we are

children of this earth, children of God, children of the universe. Help us to see that we are precious and that our world is a precious blessing ... still us, help us to be still and to know that we are loved.

If we come here feeling alone, help us to know we are not alone ... we are here among

friends, some we have known for many years, some we have known for only a short time and some we may never have met before ...

If we come here with guilt for what we have done, or failed to do, help us to see, we are not alone, that we are in the healthy company of others with the same guilt over our human shortcomings ...

.If we come here wishing our lives were more whole, more satisfying, perhaps even more

perfect; help us to see that the honesty of these wishes marks us out, as someone who belongs here….here we come to face the truth unafraid, even when we are afraid. Because we know, even when we do not want to know, that the truth can set us free. Perhaps not painlessly, but nevertheless the truth can set us free…

After all we do know ... we just need to remember, that we are children of the earth, children of God, children of the universe. We know that we are precious and the world needs our blessing.

Be still and know that you are loved.


"First Reflection"

The following reflection is by Aled Jones (Chapel Secretary)


“Time Flies”, what an over used cliché you would say, but since it is used so frequently there must some truth in it, I find it remarkable that it is now well over a decade since I retired from full time work. With the passing of time the details of my routine tasks are receding. However there is one aspect of the work I still recollect vividly, but it is rather a bleak recollection, but relevant to the theme of community.

One of my occasional duties was to attend Inquests at the local Coroner’s court as an expert witness, in Salford where I worked. One of the main functions of the coroner systems is to inquire into the circumstances of death in case of accidents and such like. Attendances at the court were always formal occasions but the events I refer to are particularly sombre and somewhat depressing.

The environment of courtroom where the hearings were held, was old fashioned and drab, the Court met in what had been the council Chamber in Pendleton in Central Salford, built I suspect at the beginning of the last century when Pendleton was an independent borough with a Mayor and its own local councillors and in its day it would have been a rather splendid chamber, but now rather drab past its best and in need of refurbishment.

The whole court proceeding was not enlivened by the character of this particular Coroner, whose full title was Her Majesty’s coroner for the Greater Manchester Area, Northwest region. He was one of those unfortunate individuals, a solicitor by training, who though able enough, was I considered totally unsuited to his job. He lacked dignity, had no aura of authority, he was diffident and sometime had difficulty in making up his mind ,who looked perpetually worried and unhappy could be petulant and angry and I suspect someone who lost a lot of sleep worrying about his cases

Nevertheless, when the court was in session, it was a lively enough scene with Police Officers or fire brigade officers, Ambulance crew, members of the public, all ready to give their evidence and lots of relative and friends of the deceased together with representatives of the local press.

However, sometime it would be totally different and this is the point of this account, I would turn up and the court room would be empty apart from the coroner, his officer perhaps a solitary policeman and me. These would be tragic cases where the deceased had died alone, perhaps a homeless person found in a deserted building, a recluse who was an alcoholic, sometimes a young drug addict and often there was a background history of mental health problems. These were indeed unfortunate people who had lived tragic lives, who had slipped through all the social service support networks that the state had tried to provide for such people in the inner city. But the most striking nature of these cases was they had become alienated from society, there were no relatives or friend, and there had been no community to help during life. Although these were depressing and rare cases, I still remember these events with great sadness and impressed me of the great importance of belonging to community.

So what do we mean by community and what makes them work?

I have been member of both religious and secular communities at different stages in my life. The greater part of my early life was spent in North London and then in a leafy suburb in Liverpool and in both places I experienced community life as a member of Welsh Chapels. At that time and I am referring to the 40’s and 50’s, there were significant Welsh speaking communities in both cities due to the migration from rural Wales to seek urban employment in the cities and a significant part of the migrant’s social life were centred on these chapels which provided both vibrant social and religious communities. There were shared cultural religious activities and much communal support and good pastoral care and these communities nurtured loyalty and much community spirit. They worked well because of the communal common goals.

After my retirement I was associated with community association near to where I live in Chorlton. As the sociologists would express it, I live near a social interface, in plain English my neighbourhood is adjacent to a fairly large overspill housing estate built by Manchester city council just before and after the second world war and at the time of building this was country side at the very edge of the city. At that time city planners thought that if they built small but good quality houses, the rest of the amenities to make a vibrant and cohesive community would just follow without any specific money and plans. Unfortunately this is not so. Fortunately there were many good and visionary people on the estate who saw the need for a cohesive community and one way of achieving this was forming a community association and providing a purpose build community centre.. The community leaders worked hard and with the help of the local member of parliament cajoled and, persuaded the central government and local authority to provide money for such a building, and it was built about 30 years ago and has been a successful amenity for the whole estate since then.

It is relevant to ask what makes any type of community work. In the reading by John O’donohe he takes a very spiritual view of what makes a true community and he said

“At its heart it is impossible to grasp what makes a true community, we often hear the phrase ‘community spirit” and recognise that community is not so much an invention or construction of its members , but a gift that emerges between them and embraces them.”

Yes, he claims that it is ”a gift that emerges between them and embraces them.”

This is what I would call the ethereal view of building communities. If that were true how easy life would be!! What little I know of building community life is, if there is a good clear vision of what is required, there is a good chance that the community will succeed, but vision and goals are not enough and it means that community members and especially leaders have to roll up their sleeves and pitch in with hard work if it really is going to be a successful community, religious or otherwise.

As I mentioned, I was a member of the management committee of this local community centre in Chorlton for the last ten years. But it entailed a lot of hard work to keep it afloat and make sure it met the needs of the community it served, especially in the last few years when it has been a period of economic stringency and this is always a difficult time for the voluntary sector. Due to cut backs it was always a struggle to raise the money for new projects and indeed keep the core activities afloat.

It is said of society in general, that nowadays people are reluctant to join social clubs; fraternal organisations, volunteer groups and faith communities as they once did and so Individuals are increasingly becoming more isolated and independent ,so, perhaps this is why people are turning to the social media such as facebook etc, and as a result perhaps it will become a difficult time for communities of all types

Next year, our chapel will celebrate its 200th anniversary, having provided a religious community in this town for that period. It has had good periods and it’s not so good periods. Its reason is to be a place of worship based on reason, freedom and tolerance, which is its vision, and because of that it will continue.

The following extract is titled "Community at Unity Church Milwaukee"

Living, as we do, in a world that is very impersonal, it is important to build a network that will support us as we move through passages of our lives. Life as we know it isn’t easy. Nor will it be easier in the future until we recognize we are all members of the same divine family. As for our personal happiness, there are strategies we can employ to alter and alleviate the difficulties we encounter in life. Many of these strategies are to be found at Unity Church and one we advocate strongly is to participate in our spiritual community here at Unity.

How do you define any community? We are all familiar with what is called a functional community, be it either a nuclear family or an extended family since these are already there for us and these are functional communities. But most communities nowadays are intentional communities. So when we speak of building community today we mean an intentional one and this is characterised by sharing one or more common visions and working together to build mutually fulfilling goals and completing these goals

People who belong to intentional communities and indeed the one at this church, stay committed to the community for a significant period of their lives and by so doing, contribute to the wellbeing of the other members.

However it is not always easy to build and sustain a successful community, religious or otherwise. Large individual egos, personal jealousies and rivalries and destructive competitiveness can be demoralising and these need to be overcome. However, the rewards of joining and participating are huge.

There is an old saying, “You only reach God by serving others”. This is also true for a caring religious community.

The following extract is titled "Community and Hospitality£ by Stephen Lingwood Minister at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton 

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”. (Hebrews 13:2)

Hospitality is one of the key practices handed to us Unitarians, by the Islamic ¬Judeao-Christian tradition.

One of the key ministries of our Unitarian communities should be the practice of hospitality. We are communities who welcome the weary traveller with open arms. And we welcome the whole person: mind, body and soul. We do not ask anyone to leave any part of themselves at the door. We welcome people with their doubts and beliefs, with their imperfections, whomever they love, wherever they are on their spiritual journey. The only qualification to our welcome is that those who are welcomed, should also welcome others, and should contribute towards the welcoming and loving ethos of the community.

This is our religious mission: to welcome the stranger. There are many ways we do this: by demonstrating a genuine and warm welcome to the visitor at Sunday worship; by making a cup of tea for the homeless man who drops in at an inconvenient moment; by creating community for those who would otherwise be very lonely: the elderly, or international students, or stay-at-home parents.

Such work creates religious community, and it is my belief that such religious communities save the world. Never doubt the power of this mission.

Second reflection

This final reflection was written and delivered by Phil Jackman the chapel's publicity officer

As part of my recent holiday to Morocco we spent a week in the Atlas Mountains.

I thought that a little of the stillness from the mountains would provide an excellent break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

However my time in the mountains was to teach me something far more poignant, about today’s subject of community.

The Atlas Mountains are home to the Berber people who carve out a living through a mixture of subsistence farming, tourism and the manufacture of beautiful woollen carpets.

Put in these terms a cynic may judge this way of life as primitive; many of the luxuries we take for granted are absent;

There is no local government as we would recognise it, limited electricity and fresh water. They don’t even have a police station.

However to judge the Berbers on these things alone would be to miss an important lesson.

For I have come to see that society and community are two separate entities.

All of the things the Berbers lack we have provided through an impersonal system of local government. Despite their developmental and societal shortcomings, the Berbers are more than compensated by the intricate bounds which bind them together.

As we walk down the windy irrigated mountain paths through their villages, children run up to greet us, shouting “bonjour” in excited voices through beaming smiles, and offering to high 5 us.

After growing up in a Mancunian suburb this experience is somewhat alien.

It is as if their mothers never told them not to talk to strangers, like mine did. In fact it seemed quite the opposite, as if they were actively encouraged to do it at every opportunity.

By the river which winds through the valley, women laugh and gossip as they wash their clothes in the icy flow, their livestock contentedly grazing close by.

In the village men stand in the square, laughing and talking among themselves.

Life takes a much slower pace here.

The life here is full of time, whereas we often find ourselves struggling to manufacture this elusive entity.

They revel in the limitlessness of their time, whilst we are too often bound by the constraints of our only too limited time.

I suppose the lesson I learnt is that, for me, it can be all too easy to hide behind our impersonal yet functional society, with our technological driven communications.

I learnt that community is not societal security, a reliable health system or even technological and material comfort.

What I am coming to realise is that community is as simple as greeting strangers with a smile and a hello.

Building relationships with our spiritual, geographical and physical neighbours; our fellow travellers in the ship of life.

It is perhaps not without irony that The Beatles asked “where all the lonely people come from”.

I share with them their confusion; babies are not born lonely, quite often exactly the opposite.

Due to this, people must become lonely.

I have learnt that the opposite of loneliness is the sense of belonging which is provided by community, whether it be religious, geographical, physical or through shared interest.

However I have also learned that for community to be successful it is as much about giving as it is taking.

If chaos theory suggests that the clip of a butterflies wings can cause an earthquake half way around the world, then surely a smile is enough to break a person out of the binding constraints of loneliness.

If only for a few seconds.

After my experience in the mountains, I am coming to see that community, at its most basic origin is about courage.

About having the courage to be open to strangers.

About having the courage to be present in others lives.

About having the courage to look life in the eye, smile and say hello, perhaps even ask how it is.

Who knows where that may lead… 

Closing word

As we leave this sanctuary

may the holy music linger in our ears.

May the poetry of the spoken word stay in our minds.

May our spirits remain uplifted

May our lives be blessed.

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