Saturday, 17 May 2014

Love and Service

Last Sunday afternoon I attended the memorial service of Rev Jane Barraclough at Cross Street chapel, Manchester. Jane was both a colleague and a personal friend of mine. Many things were said of Jane during the service but what stood out for me above everything else was one comment made by the chair of Portico library. She said "that Jane believed in God and believed in humanity" and that it was these two things that informed who she was as a minister and person. When I look at all that she was and how she ministered I can see the absolute truth in this. Now although I did not always come to the same conclusions as Jane, do any of us ever do this? My faith too rests on these two same things. I believe in God and I believe in humanity. I haven’t always, I have lost faith in both at times, for long periods of my life, if truth be told I often find today that when I begin to lose faith in either I begin to lose faith in the other.

When I look at Jane as a minister I see clearly that she lived by these two principles of faith, I wonder sometimes if I do…I wonder sometimes if I do…I wonder sometimes if my works, live up to my professed faith. Generally they do, my deeds profess my belief in a loving God and in this love being present in humanity, including little old me. That said from time to time that faith can waver.

Last Monday I attended the funeral service of Eila Forrester at King Edward Street Unitarian Chapel, Macclesfield. I had got to know Eila during my time as a student on placement there. We had many wonderful conversations in which she passed on much of her knowledge to me. I remember when I qualified back on 2010 Eila asked me “Now I hope you have remembered everything I have taught you” I remember I smiled at the time. I smiled during the service as this memory came back to me.

It was a beautifully moving service in which many people reflected on Eila’s life and the contribution she had made to the Unitarian tradition over her life time. Of all the things that were said what stood out for me was that she always emphasised the primacy of worship. That worship is and must always remain central to everything that Unitarians do. That without it we could not describe ourselves as religious denomination in any way or sense. As I sat there and listened to many people speak of this remarkable and loving small framed but big hearted, highly educated and thoughtful woman it helped me to once again see clearly what I believe faith is about.

Now please do not misunderstand Eila was not suggesting that we my chosen faith is merely about worship and not about the wider the world. Quite the opposite actually. I know that she believed that it is through worship and taking care of our individual as well as corporate spiritual needs that we are then better able to carry out this faith in this beautiful world of ours.

These thoughts brought me back to the anniversary service led by Rev David Usher at our denomination's annual general meetings. It was a beautiful and moving service that certainly spoke to my spirit. He spoke of many things but one aspect that really stood out for me was a reference he made to words written at the entrance of Richmond Unitarian Church. The plaque there reads “Dedicated to the worship of God and the service of man”. The point he was trying to make was that at times we have lost sight of this aspect of tradition in our wish to just say to people you can believe what you like without any commitment to wider humanity. David was not saying that we all have be theists, more that our faith ought to inform how we live in the world. That as a denomination we have a duty to the wider world. That our spirituality is not just about serving ourselves that it ought to show in our deeds. Or to put it another way "Faith without works is dead."

“Faith without works is dead” These words from the book of James chapter 2 vv 14-20 have for many years struck me powerfully. I wonder how many times I have professed belief or even disbelief in something, but my actions have shown otherwise; while today I profess a belief in God and humanity sometime my actions prove otherwise. I fall short every day.

This brings to mind a story that has stayed with me since childhood. As a small boy I had a fascination with tight rope walkers and other daredevils. I think this might stem from the fact that I was utterly useless at such things and would marvel at the ability of others. I loved Evel Knievel and remember clearly watching “Trapeze” starring Burt Lancaster and being entranced by it. Oh how I wish I could have been a daredevil, but my body always lacked the co-ordination and balance.

I also clearly remember a school assembly when I was only about 9 or 10, it was based around “faith and works”, it’s amazing how many of these stories have stayed with me more than 30 years later.

In it the teacher told the story of Charles Blondin who had been invited to travel all the way from his native France to the Niagra Falls and attempt to walk across on a tightrope. The tightrope stretched over a quarter of a mile. People came from all over North America to see this feat. It was no great obstacle to Blondin who walked across several times, each attempt was more daring than the last, as the ever growing crowd oohed and aarh’d. On one occasion he carried a sack of potatoes, on another he crossed on stilts, on another he rode a bicycle and on another crossed blindfolded. On one occasion he even carried a small stove and cooked an omelette when he arrived at the middle.

On one occasion, while pushing a wheelbarrow across, he stopped and addressed the cheering audience and asked them “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow”

To which the crowd enthusiastically yelled back “Yes! We believe in you Blondin, you are the greatest!”

To which Blondin replied “Okay, so who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?”

It seems that no one did, well no one except his manager, who he successfully carried across.

So it seems that despite what they claimed the crowd who had observed his many feats did not truly believe in Blondin, only his manager did. The crowd professed their belief, but he showed it with his actions.

Whatever it is that we claim to believe in, or not believe in for that matter it can only be proved by our actions.

What exactly is meant by works? Well I have sometimes heard it described as service. But what exactly is service? Well it can mean many things. I have come to believe that worship itself is a form of service. I do afterall call what I lead on a Sunday morning a service of worship. When people congregate together as a worshipping community they are doing so in service; service to themselves, to one another, to God and to humanity.

Worship is central to any spiritual community, but its purpose is to impact on the lives of those participating in it so that they can impact positively on the lives of those in the wider world. While we may not be able to change the whole world we can affect it in small and I believe positive ways. I strongly believe by being all that we can be in the world we do indeed change our world while not at the same time destroying it by imposing our wants and needs on it. By doing so we grow in spirit ourselves and we pave the way for others to do the same.

In classic Christian theology one sign that salvation had been attained was that it showed in your service to others. This I believe is the point that James was making.

What do our actions say about us? Do we show love for God and humanity in the way we live our lives?

Sometimes I fall short...

In Sanskrit the word for selfless service or work performed without thought of reward was “Seva” In ancient India it was believed that it aided an individual’s spiritual growth and at the same time contributed to the improvement of the whole community. Seva is the art of giving without expecting to receive individually, as all benefit from it. Seva is the art of blessed action.

Seva is about saying yes to life. It is about seeing how small acts can and do change our world and that this begins in our own hearts and minds, it is this that feeds our very actions. It is about recognising how we are all interconnected, all one. That what we do and do not do matters and affects all. By helping ourselves and or another all are aided and improved. Life has revealed to me that even a simple act of worship can affect our world in small ways, if it engaged in with openness and love.

Last Sunday and Monday I both worshipped and remembered as I listened to people speak of the lives of two Unitarians who lived their faith; their faith showed in their actions in their service for their wider human community. I feel that as a result my own faith has been enhanced, faith in God and faith in humanity. I see more clearly that this tradition I am a part of is a simple faith based on love and service and not just freedom to believe as our conscious dictates. That I am a part of a bound community held together by shared values. A community that is here to be of service to one another and to our wider world. and this service begins in time together, in sacred space and at our sacred times as we worship together.

These last few days have shown me more clearly the simplicity of my chosen faith, its about the Love of God and the service of humanity. I hope I can show this clearly in my deeds and that I can better live my belief in God and my belief in humanity.

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