Saturday, 7 February 2015

Looking for like hearted people

In Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide" Forrest Church wrote

"Universalism is an exacting gospel. Taken seriously, no theology is more challenging-morally, spiritually, or intellectually: to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another's eyes; to respect and even embrace otherness, rather than merely to tolerate or, even worse, dismiss it. None of this comes naturally to us. We are weaned on the rational presumption that if two people disagree, only one can be right. This works better in mathematics than it does in theology; Universalism reminds us of that. Yet even to approximate the Universalist ideal remains devilishly difficult in actual practice. Given the natural human tendency toward division, Universalists run the constant temptation to backslide in their faith. One can lapse and become a bad or lazy Universalist as effortlessly as others become ice-cream social Presbyterians or nominal Catholics."

It got me thinking about my own ministry...Do I backslide in my own faith?

I recently spent a weekend away with a group of what some might call “like minded” friends at Great Hucklow. I almost didn’t go as I was recovering from gastric flu and I certainly wasn’t my usual vibrant self. I must have been bad as I couldn’t stomach the marvellous cooked breakfast on offer there.

Over the weekend we explored prayer and meditation and ways in which we might enhance our personal spiritual lives. It was based around the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." It was wonderful to engage with different people, from all kinds of back grounds and differing spiritual beliefs. People who when they spoke of God, or a power greater than themselves, did not necessarily mean exactly the same thing. I didn’t do as much talking as I normally would at such events and spent most of the weekend just loving the company of these people and listening. Of course I did chime in from time to time, but mainly I listened.

Now one phrase I kept on hearing over the first evening was “Oh it’s so lovely to be with like-minded people”. I heard it from several people. I remember as I listened I thought I’m not sure that we are like-minded, we certainly don’t think about things in exactly the same way. I then thought I am not sure I would want to spend my time with like-minded people, people who thought just like me. They would drive me mad and no doubt bore me to death.

And then it dawned on me. While we may not be like-minded people we are certainly like-hearted. We may not think in the same way, but I suspect that we feel in the same way and we certainly seem to be searching for that same sense of connection and oneness. There was a true sense of unity in the group. We truly were there lovingly supporting and listening to one another, holding differing views about faith and God and spiritual practise but yet united in a common bond and search.

I think this is what I’ve been searching for all my life, not the horror of like-minded people, but the beauty of like hearted folk. It truly was heavenly and it lifted me out of myself and my worries about my physical well-being.

As I drove home in silence enjoying a beautiful winter scene a phrase entered my heart and rose up to my mind “You need not think alike to love alike”. It is a well-known phrase in Unitarian circles and it is certainly something that we aspire toward. Of course we all fall short of this ideal. It has been attributed to Francis David who is seen as the father of established Unitarianism and was the spiritual advisor to King John Sigismund of Transylvanin, the Unitarian king who pronounced an act of religious toleration the Edit of Torda in 1568.

Now while “We need not think alike to love alike” is a beautiful sentiment and certainly fits in with the principles of religious toleration, it would appear that there is no real evidence that Francis David ever actually uttered the words. There are arguments as to the original source some claim it was the non-Trinitarian martyr Michael Servetus where as others suggest it was more likely the father of Methodism JohnWesley, who asked in a sermon on “Catholic Spirit,” “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”

Now personally I do not think it matters who first uttered the words. What matters is the meaning behind them and what has grown and developed from them. What matters to me is the spiritual depth at the core of these simple words. “We need not think alike to love alike.” Or to put it another way we need not be like minded to be like hearted. To me this is essence of the free religious faith that I have chosen to belong to. We are none creedal we do not declare a statement of faith and yet we are held together by a sense of love and understanding.

We are more than just a pluralistic movement at our best we uphold those ideals of universalism that Forrest Church spoke at the beginning of this blog. That said these are not easy ideals to live up to. They used to say “Reason, Freedom and Tolerance” but as Rev Stephen Lingwood has said this is not enough. To quote him:

“Love” Stephen Lingwood from “The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present

Freedom, reason, tolerance and pluralism aren’t enough, not on their own. We need a message to give to people, good News to preach. What good News can Unitarians give to the world? Just this: Love. A Holy Love that transforms, that is powerful and prophetic and justice-seeking. This message has always been at the heart of our faith: from Francis David, who said “you need not think alike to love alike”, to the Universalists who knew that nothing will ever separate anyone from the love of God, even today when Unitarians work to support the rights of gay couples because we know that love is always a blessing, regardless of gender.

Of course this is an ideal and certainly not an easy one to live up to. We can rationally think, believe, in ways that uphold “Freedom, reason, tolerance and pluralism” but to truly love and radically accept someone who appears different can be much harder. This involves the heart and a fully exposed and open one at that. In some ways it requires a vulnerable heart and that aint easy. What if they hurt us?

My ministerial mantra is “Come as you, exactly as you are…but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition” This is an invitation to all, whether they’ve been here for ever or have just walked through the door. It is also an invitation to myself, because I know this aint easy. And just like everyone else I need to keep on leaving in a new condition.

One thing I love about the "Living the Questions" group I host is that increasingly over time people are coming as they, exploring with one another openly. They seem to be listening to one another too. Each time we meet this experience seems to grow. I witness true spiritual intimacy amongst this diverse group of people who are most certainly not like minded, but are increasingly like hearted. Each time we meet, we seem to leave in a slightly different condition, whatever subject we explore. People truly are coming as they, exactly as they are, wherever they are coming from.

It is hard to come as you truly are, to be who you truly are. Most folk fear that they will be rejected for being as they truly are, if they let others see the real them. No doubt it happens to every single one of us at one time or another. It is hard to say this is who I am, will you still love me and accept me anyway. Well actually maybe here in lays part of the problem. By saying this is who I am are we really showing who we are in a truly open sense. I actually think when we make such statements a barrier is already being formed without us even realising it. Surely it is better to show who we really are and this is about the heart more than the mind, this is about love rather than belief or disbelief, this is about deeds rather than creeds.

This brings to mind something I heard from a stand-up comedian many years ago. Now he never became famous and I used to see him wandering around the Fallowfield area of Manchester where I lived. He always looked like a bit of a loner, a little bit lost. He wasn’t even particularly funny, but something he said really stuck with me. Now it turns out he was gay and he talked about coming out to his mates about this and how he was full of fear initially but it went ok and they accepted him as he was, with just a bit of laddish humour. He then went on to talk about how he loved football, which was strange for a man originally from Hull. It’s a rugby town and Hull were not a big club then. Now I can’t tell the joke but the basic punchline was this he said it was much harder for him to come out to his hip cool, arty and gay friends and companions that he loved football and loved all that went with it than it was to come out to the football crowd that he was gay. He said these friends found it harder to accept his love of football, than for his football friends to accept him as a gay man.

As he told the tale I saw the sadness and the alienation in him, this sense that he didn’t quite belong. Every time I saw him wandering around, always alone I kind of sensed that feeling grow. Maybe I identified with him in some ways as for a lot of my life I felt this sense of alienation too. Maybe we all do, maybe everyone feels this sense that they don’t truly belong from time to time. Maybe it’s tough to come as we are, exactly as we are…maybe when we come we don’t expect to change either, maybe we think we will always leave in exactly the same condition.

My hope is that when people enter into the communities I serve that they feel that they can be who they are, exactly as they are. Warts and all and beauty spots too. I hope they find amongst us loving companionship and space to search and explore and open their hearts, minds and souls to something beyond the confines of themselves. I hope when they come, even if it is in despair, that when they leave they do so with a deeper sense of belonging and do not feel alone. I hope they find amongst us communities of like hearted, if not like-minded people.

For we may not think alike, but it is certainly our intention to love alike.

I am going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following...

“One Love” by Hope Johnson

We are one,

A diverse group

Of proudly kindred spirits

Here, not by coincidence –

But because we choose to journey – together.

We are active and proactive

We care, deeply

We live our love, as best we can.

We ARE one

Working, Eating, Laughing,

Playing, Singing, Storytelling, Sharing and Rejoicing.

Getting to know each other.

Taking risks

Opening up.

Questioning, Seeking, Searching…

Trying to understand…


Making Mistakes

Paying Attention…

Asking Questions


Living our Answers

Learning to love our neighbours

Learning to love ourselves.

Apologizing and forgiving with humility

Being forgiven, through Grace.

Creating the Beloved Community – Together We are ONE.

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