Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Language of the Heart: A Pentecost Reflection

“Spirit of the Wind” by Richard S Gilbert

There is nothing more refreshing than the feel of a brisk wind on the face.
It helps if I am at the same time watching sunset over a lake – The sky peach, purple, red, gold, blue, white, and orange at the same time.
It helps if the same wind that refreshes my face and cleans the air also take me sailing across the narrow bounding main.
But the wind – what is there about the wind?
We cannot see it – only feel it – only observe what it does. It has power, unseen power, a power that re-invigorates.
That cools on a hot day, that fortells a change in the weather – outer or inner.
The wind reminds us that the most powerful things are hardly tangible.
There existence we doubt not.
Their power is not in question.
So it is with us.
So may it be with you.
I could not touch the wind, but it touched me, and that was all I needed.

A friend of mine, who has occasionally attended worship at one of the congregations I serve, recently told me that another friend had asked what it was like and what happened and what we believed. She said oh “They believe in everything” and then she said she tried to articulate what she meant by that and struggled. I remember thinking, well at least she did say you can believe anything that you want.

I have much sympathy with my friend’s struggle. I have identified as a Unitarian now for the best part of ten years, been a minister for getting on for five years and I still find it hard to articulate exactly what it means to be a Unitarian. In fact in some ways I find it harder today than I did say eight years ago. I often wonder if I am a very good Unitarian, whatever that means.

It got me asking myself what it means to me to be a Unitarian and why I found and continue to find a home amongst these free religionists. I have identified three things.

One is authority. We say that authority lays within the enlightened conscience of the individual, that we are not only free but encouraged to seek our own truth in matters of faith. That personal experience and reflection upon these experiences is our final authority that no one can tell us what we ought to believe. That does not mean that we can believe what we want, more what we must. We believe what our experiences teach us.

The second is respect and celebration of difference. Now some describe this as tolerance, but I don’t think that is enough. I’m not decrying tolerance, if only we human beings could be more tolerant of one another. That said I still hear judgement in the word tolerant. As if in claiming this word what people are saying is “I am tolerating you and your view, but I still think you are a crank.” I don’t see respect and celebration in this. If I accept that I have freedom to reach my own conclusions and believe that this is a wonderful thing, then to judge or merely tolerate another for the conclusions they reach is neither truly respecting or celebrating this approach. Also such judgement seems to lack humility.

This leads me to the third aspect, which I see as humility and the openness that this breeds. This stems from the idea that whatever conclusions I have reached today I have not sealed this truth. Again this is something to celebrate, the openness that true humility brings. That by rejoicing in the truth that others may reach I can myself experience a deeper revelation if I listen with an open mind, heart and soul. Truth is always subjective. I know myself that my view on faith and many things has shifted at times in my life. This is because my experiences have changed, as have my reflections upon them and my ability to listen to others experiences and their honest reflections upon them too.

These three “freedom, respect and humility” are key to my understanding of my chosen Unitarian faith. These three little words “freedom, respect & humility” just about sum up my understanding of my chosen free religious tradition.

I have been reflected on these three “freedom, respect and humility” as I have contemplated Pentecost and the recounting of these events in the book of Acts Ch 2 vv 1-13, which describes the events known as “Pentecost”, regarded as the birth of the Christian Church. Today is the feast day of Pentecost. Pentecost is not something that is universally celebrated, at least not these days, amongst many British Unitarian congregations. Some do still participate in what are known as "Whit Walks", but very few. This is not the case in Transylvania, which is really the birth place of denominational Unitarianism. For the Transylvanian Unitarians Pentecost may well be the most important day of their liturgical calendar, it is certainly up there with Easter. Perhaps our friends in Transylvania have remembered something important that we have somehow either forgotten or rejected. Perhaps we could learn something from them, for there is something very powerful in this "mythos".

So for the last few days I have been reflecting on Pentecost, especially in light of my own understanding of my chosen free religious tradition. As I have done so I have discovered something beautifully universal in it. The account describes the first time that the Spirit is revealed to more than just a select few of seemingly chosen people. According to the Gospel accounts Jesus gave the spirit to the twelve disciples on Passover night, the night before he died and yet fifty days later at the Jewish festival of Pentecost this same spirit is offered to all, as the Disciples, Galilean speakers began to speak in languages that all people can understand. Is this not Universalism? Now of course some present were amazed and moved by this and began to ask what it must mean, while others just sneered and thought they they had gone mad or were drunk saying "They are filled with new wine."

As I have reflected on the account in Acts 2 vv 1-13 conversations I have had with many people about their own personal transformative experiences have came to mind. Now the words they used to describe their experiences have been different and often less dramatic, that said the effect has been very similar. So many people have described to me moments in their lives when something has got a hold of them and changed them in positive ways. This in some way has helped me make sense of what is described as Pentecost, I no longer see it as a some fanciful tale, rather as mythos or metaphor for the universal life giving spirit, it has taken on a new meaning that actually makes sense to me. It brings to mind the hymn “Spirit of Life”, especially the line “Spirit of Life, come unto me…” In that hymn, so loved by Unitarians I hear this call to the spirit to come unto all of us and bring about transformation, freedom, vitality and creative life giving energy.

When I think of Spirit in this way I think of the God of my limited understanding, but ever expanding experience. I also suspect that this is the same for many Unitarians in Transylvania and why Pentecost is so vital to them. Cliff Reed captured this beautifully in his book “Unitarian what’s that?” in answer to the question “Do Unitarian believe in the Holy Spirit?” Here he claimed that,

“Unitarians do not see any differentiation between the Holy Spirit and God, and use the words more or less interchangeably. We conceive of the Spirit as the active divine presence in individuals and communities, as the divine breath that gives us life, as that ineffable factor that binds us together.

The Spirit, for many Unitarians, is the divine mystery moving among us and within us as we work and worship. Indeed, for many, God as loving, creative Spirit is the primary concept of the divine.”

That beautiful loving, guiding, creating power that is Greater than All and yet present in each, in everything. Some of course simply name this Love and others call it God.

People experience and understand the spiritual aspects of their lives in different ways and when they try to explain these experiences they often articulate them differently.They often use different words to describe the same thing. Or use the same words to talk about different things. The words themselves can often get in the way of describing the experiences that people all have. That said what else do we have to describe what often cannot be fully understood.

One of the great blessings of my job is that people, often complete strangers, tell me about experiences that they do not understand; often experiences that their rational minds don’t believe in and yet they have experienced them all the same. Experiences that have changed them for ever.

There seems to be two common themes to these experiences. One has been the transformative nature of them and the second that they have never dared tell another soul about them, for fear of ridicule. It truly is a humbling blessing that they feel that they can speak to me about them. They must see in me someone who will not think that they had become intoxicated by “new wine”.

I remember one such occasion last year when I went to buy a new laptop computer. I explained to the shop assistant that I needed something that was mobile and suitable for a lot of writing as I often like to write in coffee shops. During the conversation I revealed what I do for a living and as I did it took a completely different direction. He began to recount an experience that happened many years ago, that had totally transformed him and his experience of life. He made me smile as he insisted he wasn’t a religious man, as he couldn’t get along with dogma and the like but he experienced something that day that had transformed him and that he was now able to experience this in every aspect of his life. As he spoke I just smiled and listened and told him how many people have had similar experiences including myself and how the two characteristics he described were common - The fear of speaking about them and the transformative nature of them - I also told him that the “Religious Experience Research Centre of the University of Wales, Lampeter would be interested in his account. This is an archive of some 6,000 spiritual and psychic experiences that was begun by Sir Alister Hardy in 1969 at Manchester College Oxford, a Unitarian foundation. Hardy was both an eminent Unitarian and marine biologist. For years Hardy scientifically researched such phenomena. Research that continues to this day at Lampeter.

Now while there has been these two themes - the fear of speaking about them and the transformative nature of them - prevalent in many of the conversations I have had, I have also noticed many differences too. I suspect that this due primarily to each individuals religious backgrounds, which must influence the conclusions they have come too. What has struck me though has been the honesty and integrity in which what has been described has been recounted. I have never spoken to many of these people again and yet what they have said has been permanently etched on the soul of me. I have also noticed that each time I have listened to others and shared my own experiences something in me has opened up and I have felt that spirit once again. How many times have I smiled and been warmed and yet shivered at the same time? God only knows.

This to me is how the language of the heart operates, this is the transforming energy of the spirit coming alive in our tongues. That said I am sure I was only truly able to hear what was being said because I was myself listening with the ears of my heart. To truly hear what someone is saying we have to actually care for and respect them as a fellow human being and not dismiss any aspect of them, even that which might seem a little strange. Here I see clearly those three aspects I identified earlier as central to my chosen free religious faith in action, freedom to believe as our conscience dictates, respect and celebration of one another and our perspectives, and humility as well as the openness this breeds.

As a free religious community Unitarians may not always understand the language each of them speaks, for each comes from a variety of theological perspectives and life experiences. This I believe is something to be celebrated and when it is done so with humility I see it transforming those individuals present and the whole community.

This I believe is the heart of Pentecost. Just as those people, 2,000 years ago were transformed into something more so can everyone; everyone can be transformed by the language of the heart. It begins by learning to listen with the ears of our hearts and to speak with the tongues of our hearts. For it is the language of the heart that carries the voice of transformation. It can bring about transformation not only in all lives who are touched by it, but also the lives that they themselves touch, propelling each and every one into a new stage of development, with new energy, vision and purpose.

With this in heart and mind and in the spirit of freedom, respect and humility I believe that a new world can begin to be born. We can all begin to live with a new vision, new energy and new purpose. Let us not be held back by what we think we know. Let’s open all our senses to the spirit present in all life. Let our ears be opened to the language of the heart, spoken from every tongue and let us speak the language of the heart in our every interaction.

For the language of the heart, like Pentecost, is Universal it breaks down any and every barrier and touches and transform all who have ears to hear…

I'm going to end this little chip of a blog with these beautiful words by Kristen Harper

“Reformation: The Spirit of the Wind”

Some say the spirit of the wind is in the trees.
You can see it, they say, if you close your eyes and stand real still.
Some say that the same spirit lives in the hills forging mountains and plains.
I smelled it the other night. 
Lying in my bed, my window cracked it crept through the moonlight up under my blanket and wrapped its arms around me.
Entering my blood through my skin I felt alive with an age I had not yet reached.
Made me knew again in a form I’d never known.
I cried out in pain and joy mingled, fear and expectation.
Ecstasy it has been called, I call it reformation.
There was forgiveness in that spirit.
Compassion for my wounds, strength for my weaknesses.
It was no miracle, nor nirvana.
I just closed my eyes and saw the spirit.
The spirit in the wind.
The spirit in the trees.
The spirit that lives in me.

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