Sunday 28 April 2013

Amazing Grace How Sweet The Sound

“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound...”

I was recently asked to lead the singing of the classic "Amazing Grace" at a friend’s wedding. It was an incredible experience. What a gift! It is the first time I have done so at a wedding. I have sung it in the past to end spiritual gatherings I have a part of. I also sang it at my grandma’s funeral and I was asked to sing it at the side of Ethan’s grave. God only knows how I found the strength that day. That was pure grace, as his short life was perhaps the ultimate grace; the greatest free gift of my life.

I took a few days off last week. I spent quite a bit of it with family. On the morning before I set off over to Yorkshire I was awoken very early, at the crack of dawn, by the most beautiful singing. It seemed to be a new song that I’ve not heard before and I wasn’t sure exactly where it was coming from. I discovered the answer on my return a few days later. As I was getting out of my car I once again heard this same song and began to look around to find out exactly where it was coming from. I eventually looked upwards and found the vocalist, perched on the roof of my cottage. It was a magnificent blackbird. I paid homage to him and even sang back at him. As I did he seemed to change his tune ever so slightly. At which point I bowed as his was the superior tune and went inside. He carried on singing, as he keeps on singing.

I digress. That morning I took my usual route on the M62 and as I drove up the Pennines and past the White Rose sign and towards Stott Hall Farm I began to think of grace of the free gifts that have been given me in my life; life itself being one of them. “Amazing Grace” was on my mind too and the times I have sung it. I was, as I often am on this journey, filling with tears. Not with sadness, but with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life, for the gift of life and the gift of love despite all the troubles in our world. Over the next couple of days I enjoyed the gift of family and loved ones as I simply listened to them and remembered and reconnected.

Amazing Grace is a classic hymn that has grown in popularity over the years. Some of the words can be challenging. That said it is one of those pieces that can send a shiver down my spine. The hymn itself may well be a grace.

It has been described as a classic.  David Tracy claimed that classics are "those texts, events, images, persons, rituals and symbols which are assumed to disclose permanent possibilities of meaning and truth”. Amazing Grace certainly fulfills this requirement. It has been doing so for over two hundred years. It is quoted in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" It was adapted by Cherokee Native Americans during their forced migration, known as the trail of tears. It became and remains a favourite amongst the civil rights movement.

Amazing Grace is usually sung to the hymn tune "New Britain". It has been recorded by a rich diversity of artists including Rev J.M Gates, Judy Collins, The Royal Scottish Dragoon guards, Aretha Franklin, Kylie Minogue and Joan Baez. It was even played by Mr. Scott at Mr. Spock's funeral in the film Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It has surfaced and resurfaced in a variety of forms, both religious and secular and across the generations and there seems little doubt that it will continue to do so.

But what exactly is “Grace”? Well the word itself has both secular and religious connotations. We can be given a period of grace with regard to payment of goods procured. We can be in someone else “good grace”, meaning we are in someone’s good books, we have gained their favour. We might compliment a person by saying they are graceful in the way they hold themselves or gracious in the way they act with others. In music a composer may add “grace notes”. These are added extras that are not essential but may add an artistic flourish to the piece.

At the recent ministers conference the ministerial fellowship’s president suddenly asked me to offer a grace. I was flummoxed at the time but somehow found something to utter. Many people offer a “grace” before mealtime. Something I am unfamiliar with, but am becoming more use to it. It is certainly something that is part of my duty as a minister. Bizarrely it is something I had no experience of until I became a Unitarian. A grace at mealtime is basically a prayer of thanks giving for the food we are about to eat and the company we are about to share in. By saying the grace before the mealtime we are of course acknowledging the sacredness of breaking bread together, the sacredness of life and of course the sacredness of one another.

Now of course classically speaking the “Grace of God” is a freely given gift of spirit that is unearned and undeserved; something that comes to us, from beyond ourselves. You can’t touch it, but you can know it. You could say that grace is a favour or perhaps a fortune that comes to us unbidden. It does not come because we have done anything to deserve it or not deserve it, it just comes. The part we can play is in recognizing it when it comes and making the most of what it offers. Life itself is probably the ultimate of graces. Think about it we did absolutely nothing to deserve the gift of life itself, in all its joy and suffering. 

As is my way I had a look at the etymology of Grace. It is related to thankfulness, certainly in the Latin languages. Think of the Spanish “gracias”, the Italian “grazie and Latin “gratia”. Both grace and gratitude are clearly linked. One step beyond is the Latin word “gratus” which means pleasing and from which words like gratifying and gratuity are formed. On the other side of the coin comes the phrase “persona non grata” which means an unwelcome person. Likewise a person who has fallen from grace may be known as a disgrace. These though are often deserved states, they are the result of actions, therefore they do seem somewhat removed from the original meaning of grace.

Does any of this help us? Does any of this tell us what Grace actually is? No not really. Why? You may well ask. Well because Grace is an experience. It is something that you have either known and therefore recognised or you haven’t.

So what is Grace?

Paul Tillich in “Shaking the Foundations” stated that

 "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed."

"Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness.” This speaks to me of my experiences although it’s usually my ears that attune to it more than my eyes, it often speaks to me in birds and song…”a melody of love”. It first came to me at my darkest hour a few years ago and it has kept on coming to me ever since. It stirs something inside of me that enables me to connect to life, to live with purpose and meaning and to know love. That moment changed me forever. You can’t really describe Grace, only the impact it has upon you.

It is the impact that Grace has had upon me that I was thinking of during that drive through the Pennines. Of that first little bird that spoke to me and then flew away and of all the other times they have spoken to me and continue to speak to me. They truly are a Grace that saves and inspires and keeps on moving me forward. 

“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound”

Grace is all around us. Life itself is the ultimate Grace; the ultimate free gift. Let’s give thanks for it.

I continue to be amazed by "Grace" it is the sweetest of sounds...

Friday 26 April 2013

A Second Anniversary Waltz

To mark the second anniversary of this blog I thought I'd post some words that have inspired me these last twelve months. I hope that touch your soul, the way they have touched mine.

The first is a short tale on the difficulty of silence...

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out. The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out” The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?” The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?” The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

Here are some words by my hero Forrest Church on the courage to be who we are...

"No one needs to try to be unique. Nevertheless, being who we are remains a daily challenge. The three things required – self-acceptance, integrity, and the courage to be – don’t happen on their own.

Self-acceptance demands that we aspire to be, not disdain , who we are; it rejects disguise, knowing that it is neither helpful or necessary. Integrity is oneness – being in harmony with ourselves and neighbour. The courage to be is nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental affirmation of our own uniqueness conditioned by the limits imposed by life and death. Practiced together, self acceptance, integrity, and the courage to be lead to human freedom. In contrast, fear disguises reality, trades in duplicity, and rejects human limitations, thereby making freedom impossible..."

"The courage to be" Forrest Church

I've been thinking of these words by Wordsworth all year. My favourite "spot of time" occurs on the M62 as I travel back to Yorkshire it starts to happen as I pass the White Rose symbol and ascend towards "Stott Hall Farm" 

“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”
 William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book XI, ls 258-278)

And here are some words on the importance of listening...

In “Forgotten Art of Deep Listening” Kay Lindahl asks us to:

“Think of the difference it would make if each of us felt really listened to when we spoke. Imagine the time it would save to be heard the first time around, instead of having to repeat ourselves over and over again. Envision a conversation in which each person is listened to with respect, even those whose views are different from ours. This is all possible in conversations of the heart, when we practice the sacred art of listening. It takes intention and commitment. We need to slow down to expand our awareness of the possibilities of deep listening. The simple act of listening to each other can transform all of our relationships. Indeed, it can transform the world, as we practice being the change we wish to see in the world.”

I recently came across the following story in Bill Darlison’s wonderful book “The Shortest Distance: 101 Stories from the World’s Spiritual Traditions”

It is simply called “Dandelions”...

A certain man took great pride in his new lawn. He mowed it regularly, watered it daily, and sprayed it with all kinds of substances to make it grow thicker and look greener. One day he woke up to find his precious lawn covered in dandelions! What could he do? He dashed into the shed, took out his lawnmower, and gave the grass a thorough mowing, cutting off the heads of all the dandelions in the process. “That should do it,” he thought, feeling very pleased with himself.

Gazing out of his window the next morning he discovered that the dandelions were back! Down he went to his garden, but this time, instead of mowing the lawn, he pulled out each dandelion by the roots. Surely that would be the end of it.

But he was wrong. In a few days, dandelions were there once again; their little golden heads were completely ruining his beautiful green lawn. He hurried off to the local garden centre and told one of the assistants about his problem. “What you need is some weed killer,” said the young man. “Take this”, he said, handing him a bottle.” It is the most powerful weed killer we have. Mix it with water, spray it on your lawn, and tomorrow all your dandelions will be gone.”

The man did as instructed and sure enough, the next day there were no dandelions in his lawn. Success!

But his joy was short lived. Within a week the dandelions were back. He returned to the garden centre. “What can I do about those wretched dandelions now? he asked the assistant. “I’ve tried mowing them, pulling them up by the roots, destroying them with weed killer, but they still keep coming back. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Yes,” replied the assistant. “I suggest you learn to love them!”

I first heard the following by colleague Rev Margaret Kirk at our General Assembly Anniversary service a few years ago...

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” by Rev Margaret Kirk

We see barriers erected between people of different lands,
We see sheets of steel and towers of concrete called Protection.
We see boundaries policed,
watch men, women and children running from hunger and persecution,
looking for a gap in the wall………

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…………

We see walls of fear –
Fear of the young, fear of the stranger,
Fear of sexuality that is different, fear of the educated, fear of the poor,
Fear of the Muslim, fear of the Jew –
Fear upon fear, endless and perpetuating,
And we offer our silent prayer that solid walls of fear will crumble to dust.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…………

We hear the language of separation,
The jingoistic chant, the racial slur,
words of indifference and dismissal,
words arranged for the purpose of exclusion,
words that sting and taunt,
words that lie.
Let us find words that ring with love and truthfulness,
that reach out through the emptiness of separation.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…………

We see the deluded barriers of the mind protecting self,
We see relationships stripped of affection
as one person becomes closed to another.
We see people trapped in misunderstanding,
old hurts re-ignited,
bricks placed higher on the wall,
goodwill and trust suspended.
and we ask for boundaries that are not impenetrable,
through which light can shine and distance be dissolved.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall………….

And when we need these boundaries for our own well being,
Let us know them for what they are,
Use them wisely and kindly,
Recognising our own vulnerability and that of others –
So each of us can find the space for retreat and succour,
find that peace that passes all understanding
and be renewed with strength and love
for the task of living life joyfully in communion with all others.
The following is by that famous author many of us truly take time to pause...

There is a story told of a workaholic businessman who decided to take an African Safari. He plotted a course and determined a time-table. He hired workers from a local village to carry the various containers and cases. On the first morning, the entire party roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the second morning, they roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the third day, the same. On the fourth morning, the local tribesmen refused to move. The man gestured irately and fumed at the translator to get them going. “They will not move,” the translator relayed.
“Why not?” the man bellowed, thinking of all the time wasted and dollars spent. “Because,” the translator said, “they are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

Extract taken from Letters to my Son by Kent Nerburn
"I can measure my life by the moments when art transformed me—standing in front of Michelangelo’s Duomo pieta, listening to Dylan Thomas read his poetry, hearing Bach’s cello suites for the first time.

But not only there.

Sitting at a table in a smoky club listening to Muddy Waters and Little Walter talk back and forth to each other through their instruments; listening to a tiny Japanese girl play a violin sonata at a youth symphony concert; standing in a clapboard gift shop on the edge of Hudson Bay staring at a crudely carved Inuit image of a bear turning into a man.

It can happen anywhere, anytime. You do not have to be in some setting hallowed by greatness, or in the presence of an artist honored around the world. Art can work its magic any time you are in the presence of a work created by someone who has gone inside the act of creation to become what they are creating. When this takes place time stands still and if our hearts are open to the experience, our spirits soar and then our imaginations fly unfettered.

You need these moments if you are ever to have a life that is more than the sum of the daily moments of humdrum affairs.

If you can create these moments—if you are a painter or a poet or a musician or an actor—you carry within you a prize of great worth. If you cannot create them, you must learn to love one of the arts in a way that allows the power of another’s creation to come alive within you.

Once you love an art enough that you can be taken up in it, you are able to experience an echo of the great creative act that mysteriously has given life to us all.

It may be the closest any of us can get to God."

And here is a little more from Forrest Church...

“In every field of human inquiry, ignorance increases as knowledge grows. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” He wasn’t indulging in false modesty. He was pointing out that others, knowing far less, had no idea how ignorant they were. Socrate’s ignorance, the knowledge of how much remained for him to learn, expanded in direct proportion to his learning. Of both belief and knowledge, the same is true for us. When reflecting on several years of contemplation on the origins of the cosmos, one cosmologist sighed, “It’s not only queerer than we imagined; it’s queerer than can be imagined.”

“Whether informed by religion or by science, our minds cannot unwrap life’s mystery. This is why, in offering evidence to corroborate religious truth, true believers may more honestly be accused of being too rational than too irrational. They are not alone. We all use our minds to figure out things that can’t be deciphered by anything as small as our minds. On the one hand, the attempt is a noble one. Trying to decode life’s mystery is what makes us human.

Balancing these two apparent contradictions. I base my own theology on contrasting principles: openness and humility. No ceiling limits the expansion of the human heart. Yet, humility teaches that when death visits, we will have attained only a flickering notion of what life and death are all about. The light we discover will be framed by darkness. But, when we ponder the nature of our shared mortality, meaning may begin to emerge. Not unlike when we leave a warm, brightly lit room, go outdoors, and contemplate a dark winter sky: one by one the stars come out.” 

Forrest Church

The following by May Sarton touch me deep in my soul. While our loved ones may no longer be physically with us, they reside with us permanently. There spirits live on in our souls, touching us and speaking through us...

All Souls by May Sarton

Did someone say that there would be an end,
An end, Oh, an end, to love and mourning?
Such voices speak when sleep and waking blend,
The cold bleak voices of the early morning
When all the birds are dumb in dark November -
Remember and forget, forget, remember.
After the false night, warm true voices, wake!
Voice of the dead that touches the cold living,
Through the pale sunlight once more gravely speak,
Tell me again, while the last leaves are falling:
"Dear child, what has been once so interwoven
Cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven."
Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
Are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited -
Only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.
Dark into light, light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven,
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel now new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us and blend
Our complex love, our mourning without end. 

Another great hero of mine is Viktor Frankl. This is short extract from his essay on "Tragic Optimism" found towards the end of "Man's Search For Meaning"...

 “By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself--be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

And finally another piece form that famous author anonymous. It talk of that most precious gift, time...

Imagine if you had a bank that credited your account each morning with £86,000 that carried over no balance from day to day...Allowed you to keep no cash in your account, and every evening cancelled whatever part of the amount you failed to use during the day, what would you do? Draw out every pound every day, of course, and use it to your advantage! Well, you have such a bank, and its name is TIME! Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it rules off as lost whatever of this you failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balances, it allows no overdrafts. Each day it opens a new account with you. If you fail to use the day's deposits, the loss is yours. There is no going back. There is no drawing against tomorrow.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Troubles With God

I’m always receiving interesting gifts, from all sorts of people. Some are left on my doorstep, some come through the post and still others through the various aspects of the internet. I was sent the following last year, it is by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

"Atheists One and All

I’m now stuck at O’Hare. New airport; new conversation.

“Do you believe in God?” The fellow asking me this is a Christian minister who overheard me say that I teach religion and Bible at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It depends what you mean by “God.,” I said. “If, for example, you mean a God who has a son, no I don’t believe in God.”
“Then you are an atheist, since there is no God other than God and that means the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “Do you believe in Krishna?”
“The Hindu God?”
“No, the Lord God of the universe, the one true God as described in the Bhagavad Gita.”
“Of course not.”
“Then you, too, are an atheist.”
It never pays to be clever. What I thought was a clear and compelling argument against theological hubris was in fact an invitation to a battle of the gods.
“I’m talking about the God of the Bible,” he said.
“Why is your God more true than someone else’s?
“Because it is the God of the Bible.”
“Why is your Bible better than mine or better than the Gita?”
“Because it is the Word of God.”
“Your God is true because your Bible says he’s true, and your Bible is true because your God says its true.”
“And you don’t see this as circular reasoning?”
“It is simply the truth.”
And that is why I am always wary of truth."

I have similar conversations myself, from time to time; I generally enjoy them, but sometimes I do not. Why don’t I sometimes enjoy them you may well ask? Well because they do not go anywhere. It is very difficult to engage in conversations with people whose minds are snapped shut. It’s that old hubris thing again, people seem so certain about things these days. What troubles me about fundamentalists whether of religion or atheism is that they seem to want to reduce God. When they talk of God they talk of something almost human or something a bit more than human. They seem to reduce life down to some kind of mathematical equation that can either be proven or disproven. The God that people talk about believing or not believing in seems so much less than God, I find most of the conversations a little bit crazy to be honest. It ties people up in knots and leads to arguments often over minutae. I am less interested in what people believe or do not believe than in what they experience in and through their lives. Belief and disbelief, as we understand it today, seems so very limiting.

It has not always been this way. The problem it would appear is that we have allowed belief, or disbelief to overcome practise, we have forgotten what religion is actually about. In “The Case for God” Karen Armstrong explains that until the modern period the major traditions were primarily concerned with practise and not doctrine. As she stated “Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.” Religion it seems was essentially about how a person lived. It could not be understood by reading about it, it could only be experienced by living by it.

Questions about faith and belief have changed over time, even the words themselves do not mean what they once did. Faith has its etymological roots in the Greek work “pistis”, meaning trust, commitment, loyalty or engagement. This was translated into the Latin “fides” meaning loyalty and “credo” which meant, I give my heart. The authors of the King James Bible translated this into “belief”, which came from the English word “bileven”, which meant to prize, to value, to hold dear. Faith in God meant a trust a loyal commitment, an active living way of being, not belief or disbelief as we understand it today. This though had changed by the modern period when belief began to be understood as a rational proposition to be argued over.

Karen Armstrong argues that the “reason why so many of us in the west find the concept of God so troublesome today” is because we have forgotten how little we know. You cannot prove or disprove God within anything as limited and or limiting as the human mind, any God you could either prove or disprove would somehow be less than God. The ineffable is experienced or not in life itself, or at least this has been my experience.

The problem is reductionism, we have reduced God to something we think we can prove or disprove; we have fallen into the trap of intellectual hubris; we have forgotten how little we really know; we have fallen for the trap of trying to prove or disprove what God is or is not.

I recently came across the following by by Robert Walsh "The Unproven God"

"There’s an Oxford philosophy professor who says he has determined by sheer logic and mathematics that God probably exists. While Richard Swinburne says he is not 100% sure about this, he claims to have demonstrated through probability theory and complex mathematical formulas that God’s existence is more likely to be true than not.

The God he is trying to prove is a familiar one, and in some respects reassuring. This God is a person, and “he” loves beauty, goodness, freedom, order, morality, and human beings. Haven’t we always hoped that God would turn out to be like the good side of us, only more powerful?

It seems bold of me to say this about a professor at Oxford, but I’m willing to state with confidence that Dr Swinburne’s calculations are pure hokum, complete bolderdash. He thinks God is a problem to be solved. He doesn’t get it that God is a mystery, and is always and forever beyond every mortal attempt to figure God out and settle God once and for all.

God cannot be proven nor disproved. If you can prove it, then it’s not God; it’s something less than God.

Live in the world. Experience its joys and its pain. Try to find the path through it that is right for you. Listen carefully to the voices around you, the voices within you, and the voices from the past. You may come to know that there is a mystery animating the Creation and you. A creating sustaining, transforming mystery. Or you may not. If you do, you may choose to give it a name; you may call it God. Or you may not. But don’t waste any of your precious time trying to prove it."

God for me is not some distant creator beyond life itself. God for me is a loving presence that permeates all of life, it points me onwards, drawing me out of myself to some place beyond the limits of my thinking and understanding. God enables me to do what I never dreamed was possible. That said I know I can't really explain what it is I experience. All i know is that by reaching beyond myself I connect to some kind of presence that enables me to live in a way I could not before. 

I wonder what God means to you? Maybe God means nothing to you? Perhaps you do know what God means to you? Maybe you do not care?

Dag Hammearskjold the Nobel Peace Prize winning former General Secretary of the United Nations once said “I don’t know who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer “Yes” to someone or something. And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that , therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal”

I can personally relate strongly to this. It may sound a little mysterious to some people, but I feel what he is saying. I feel it because I have known the same experience. A life that suddenly had meaning and direction, when previously it meant nothing. That said I can’t really make sense of it, but I know I’m not alone in experiencing it. Human beings have been wrestling with this since the beginning of human history.

In “Letter’s to a young poet” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote

“I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing, live your way into the answer.”

To me this is what it’s about, to seek and struggle and to live the questions themselves. We need to do more than just ask the questions. You have to live the questions themselves you have to experience them and then somewhere in that struggle an answer may well be revealed, or maybe not. Either way I am convinced that by doing so we will live purposeful lives for the good of all.

The key to the religious life for me is that it is about putting something other than our own self centred wants and needs at the core of our lives. The most dissatisfying and dissatisfied lives are the ones that are merely for the good of themselves. If you want to experience the love that is God you can do so in that space that is created when you give to another from your heart and you receive from another from their heart. For me that’s all I need to know about theology, that God once again comes to life when we give ourselves to another and they give back to us in return.

Somewhere in that space is God, but don’t waste your time trying to prove it or disprove it with your mind, just put self giving love into practise and I guarantee you that power will change your life.

Thursday 4 April 2013

It's not easy being Unitarian, but it's worth it.

To be a Unitarian is both a blessing and a curse. By the way I'm not just talking about denominational politics here. No what I mean by this is that to be a Unitarian religiously is not easy. To believe in and follow the Unitarian religious ethos is not the easier softer option. Far from it!

As Burdette Backus said "We sometimes hear it said by some of our own members that you can believe whatever you please. Actually we are confronted with a paradox; we are not free to believe what we please, we are free to believe what we must."

Yes we do believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves and that each individual’s life experience and their reflections upon these experiences must form their own understanding of their own truth. Our communities accept people as they are warts and all and beauty spots too. That said to truly call yourself a Unitarian is not just to believe whatever you like. We as individuals must stand by what we believe. Reason and rationality are as much cornerstones of our tradition as are freedom and tolerance.

So where does this leave us with regard to ethical issues? That impact on all of us and the society in which we live. How do we as individuals and religious communities come to conclusions about these things? After all we do not have Creeds, or Bishops. No one has authority over anyone else in our communities. Not even ministers. As a minister I am granted the freedom of the pulpit, I create worship as my conscience dictates  but if the congregations I serve find my ministry unpalatable they have the freedom to reject it.

The Unitarian tradition is non-creedal, we do not have statements of belief that congregational members must adhere to. We come from a variety of religious beliefs and doubts. Some have rejected the whole concept of religion in a traditional sense . I am happy to use the word religious, others prefer spiritual and they are free to do so. For me to live religiously does not mean the same as conforming and following the rules of a specific belief system, instead it’s about living in community with others who may see the world differently and it’s also about how I live out my spirituality.

Unitarians reach our conclusions by searching our own lives and our own individual spiritual insights and we discuss what we have unearthed in open dialogue. We learn form one another and we experience together. To me this is true religion, free religion.  One does not have to think alike to love alike, as our heritage has proven.

It is not easy being a Unitarian, but then who ever claimed that life was meant to be that way. That said it can be incredibly rewarding because to me it's the only way I've found that can reveal what I would describe as acceptable truth.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Won't Get Fooled Again: Oh Really?

Last Monday was April Fool’s Day, I think it may be my favourite day of the year. Why you may well ask? Well because we all fall for them, no matter how clever we may think we are; we all get suckered into believing the nonsense from time to time, no matter how clever or rational we may think we are. I love April Fools Day because it brings us down to right size, to our fully human level, it reminds us that we are not as clever as we may think we are, it keeps us humble, it reminds us that we are fully human.

My favourite one this year was not actually an April Fool by design and actually occurred before the official date, in fact it was launched just a few days before Easter (I'm sure that someone will argue that it wasn't one as it did not occur on the official date, well who cares? It certainly worked like one). It was a meme about Ishtar, a Babylonian fertility God who the poster claimed Easter was named after. Now this went viral within a few days and was all over the internet. I received several postings myself and those of an anti-religious bent really went to town on it. Stephen Fry and his followers spread it all over twitter. Some 70,000 facebook followers of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science shared it with anyone in their circles. People just went crazy over it and seemed to use it as a launching pad to attack Christianity, during its most important week of the year. The meme itself read:

“This is Ishtar”, pronounced “Easter”: Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?). After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

(I wonder if anyone reading this blog fell for this one) 

The fact is that very little of this is true. While very few people doubt that Easter is a blend of both pagan and Christian traditions it has absolutely nothing to do with this Assyrian and Babylonian goddess. There have been several rebuttles of this over the last few days, showing that just a little bit of research into the subject would have revealed the utter nonsense that was being claimed. It was eventually removed from The Dawkins Foundation site and others too. I do hope that in the future Stephen Fry brings this up on his excellent quiz show OI, it would be a wonderful act of humilty on his part if he did.

This is a link to my favourite critique. I take issue with a couple of points, but it is more or less accurate, the writer certainly did not disable her rational faculties while writing it.

Now what really made me think about all this was the frenzy of excitement that it brought about in so many people who seemingly cast aside all reason and sense just to attack a religion and those who follow it in its many guises. Some of the comments I read were so hate filled it was disturbing, especially from people who claim reason and understanding, there was no sign of any of it. As a couple of friends of mine who are themselves atheists have said they were appalled by it, adding further that they really dislike the kind of anti-religious zealotry espoused by Professor Dawkins and his brand of atheism.

Now while all this was going on Lord Carey, the former Arch Bishop of Canterbury was also all over the news claiming that Christians were being marginalised in this country. He has been roundly criticised for this in many quarters. Certainly it seems difficult for a man who has a seat in the House of Lord, just because of his former position, to claim that he is a marginalised member of society. That said there does appear to be an increase in anti-religious feeling both in this country and around the world. It has impacted my own Unitarian tradition too, we who claim to be a free religion. Only a few weeks ago the Wayside pulpit at Altrincham was defaced. It had originally read “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist”, nothing offensive in that you would think. This had been covered up another poster that read instead “Religion Is A Lie: Now Stop Worrying And Go Enjoy Your Life”. No doubt this was inspired by the British Humanist Association Campaign, fronted by professor Dawkins, of a couple of years ago. If you remember the campaign placed posters on buses up and down the country reading “There’s Probably No God: Now Stop Worrying And Go Enjoy Your Life”. Now I’m all for people stopping worrying and enjoying their lives and people are entitled to put whatever posters they like on buses. That said I’m not sure it’s ok to deface others open and loving messages or to maliciously and aggressively attack them in other ways. This is especially so when you haven’t even got your facts straight and your unreasoning prejudice just leads to hatred. How can anyone justify that?

Anyway back to the original subject...

What I really love about April Fools Day is that it saves us from our greatest danger “Hubris”

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for over stretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas, played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Hubris of course manifests itself in many forms. The one place it appears where you’d think it ought not to is in religion. Yet it’s probably more obvious there than in any other area of life. Those who believe they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for themselves is, but what it is for everyone else do appear to be suffering from the worst form of hubris. My response to such thinking is usually “Come off it who do you think you are?” By trying to convert a person to your way of believing seems like the worst kind of Hubris to me. Although of course if I’m honest I’ve suffered from it myself from time to time. I could be accused of it now, while writing this blog. I do hope that when I am critical of other people's beliefs I do so in a loving way and I do not lose my rational faculties. I'm sure I fail from time to time, but then I am far from perfect. What do I know?
Sceptics also fall into the trap of hubris too. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is deeply disrespectful. It certainly does not honour or respect their humanity. No one can ever truly know what is to have walked in another’s shoes and to have lived their lives. To be smug about one’s personal so called rationalism seems like the worst kind of arrogance to me. The question I’d like to ask is why we need to spend our time proving what someone else genuinely believes as wrong or false or immature, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum? That said, once again, I have to hold up my hand and admit that it’s not something I’m immune from. As I heard someone say many years ago “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong” 
I need to remember that one more often. “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong.”

Sadly so many of us spend our time attempting to do so...We do not "have" to, but so often we do.

Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves. Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.
Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility!
Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own;  which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

Hubris for me can be the most inhibiting and potentially dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other hand helps us to see the truth about ourselves “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in. The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.
We all know so little and we can all easily be hoodwinked into believing almost anything, no matter how clever and rational we think we are. As the Ishtar meme seemed to prove as it went viral last week. So many people who claimed to live by reason and science loved it as it allowed them to pour scorn on those folk they believed were irrational and stupid, well in the end it is they who ended up with egg on their faces and looked both irrational and hate filled.

Oh well it can happen to us all. I think that’s why I love April Fool’s Day so much, because it reminds me we aren’t as clever as we think we are, we are still fully human and truth be told we know so very little about most things. By the way that’s a good thing, because it leaves us open to experiences way beyond our imaginations.

I’m going to end this little chip of a blog with some words from my old favourite. Good old Forrest Church, words on humility and openness...oh and then a fantastic clip of a fabulous song...

“In every field of human inquiry, ignorance increases as knowledge grows. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” He wasn’t indulging in false modesty. He was pointing out that others, knowing far less, had no idea how ignorant they were. Socrate’s ignorance, the knowledge of how much remained for him to learn, expanded in direct proportion to his learning. Of both belief and knowledge, the same is true for us. When reflecting on several years of contemplation on the origins of the cosmos, one cosmologist sighed, “It’s not only queerer than we imagined; it’s queerer than can be imagined.”

“Whether informed by religion or by science, our minds cannot unwrap life’s mystery. This is why, in offering evidence to corroborate religious truth, true believers may more honestly be accused of being too rational than too irrational. They are not alone. We all use our minds to figure out things that can’t be deciphered by anything as small as our minds. On the one hand, the attempt is a noble one. Trying to decode life’s mystery is what makes us human.”

“Balancing these two apparent contradictions. I base my own theology on contrasting principles: openness and humility. No ceiling limits the expansion of the human heart. Yet, humility teaches that when death visits, we will have attained only a flickering notion of what life and death are all about. The light we discover will be framed by darkness. But, when we ponder the nature of our shared mortality, meaning may begin to emerge. Not unlike when we leave a warm, brightly lit room, go outdoors, and contemplate a dark winter sky: one by one the stars come out.”