Monday 30 October 2023

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But it Didn’t Kill the Dog, it Gave it Life

A few months ago I read the curious story of Bobi, the oldest recorded living dog. He was a purebred Rafiro do Alentejo, a breed of Portuguese farm dog. Sadly Bobi died this week aged 31 years and 165 days. They say that there are 7 dog years for every human year. So, if Bobi were human that would have made him about 220 years old.

According to BBC News“Bobi lived his whole life with the Costa family in the village of Conqueiros, near Portugal's west coast, after being born with three siblings in an outbuilding. Leonel Costa, who was eight years old at the time, said his parents had too many animals and had to put the puppies down, but Bobi escaped. Mr Costa and his brothers kept the dog's existence a secret from their parents until he was eventually discovered and became part of the family, who fed him the same food they eat…Mr Costa said..that Bobi had enjoyed a relatively trouble-free life and thought the secret to his longevity was the "calm, peaceful environment" he lived in…Bobi was not the only dog owned by the Mr Costa to live a long life. Bobi's mother lived to the age of 18 while another of the family's dogs died at the age of 22.”

Now as you know I have become a bit of a dog enthusiast. I am curious about every dog I ever meet. One of my favourite games is to attempt to work out the mix of some of the dogs I meet on the street and or in the park. It seems to be my favourite topic of conversation at the moment and I am usually right. I have got very good at it.

Oh curiouser and curiouser…One thing else I am curious about is what empassions others, what fires them up.

I have found myself in some quite animated conversations recently. Not least last Sunday following the service. I have never known coffee time to be more animated and the conversation has continued since. This has animated me even more. I have loved hearing the perspective of others. This is another curiosity of mine, to hear and understand where others are coming from. How they interact with life and their own personal spiritual beliefs and explorations.

I was talking about this with Janine on Monday morning. As I stated last weeks I am enjoying these conversations as it is helping me reflect on my own ministerial journey, another curiosity in itself. I am also very interested in Janine, where she is coming from and wondering where she will end up. I am very curious about this.

Now one of my other curiosities is what makes others tick, what they are curious about themselves. I was recently talking with a friend who told me when he was growing up he use to feel frustrated that people were not as curious about things as he was. I listened to him and what I realised was that this was not entirely true. My friend is very scientifically minded and he was and is very curious about how things work etc. I think what he didn’t realise is that it wasn’t that people aren’t curious it is just that their curiosities are in other areas of life. Now I can sometimes feel as baffled as my friend as to the things that hold the interest of others. It is wrong to suggest that they lack curiosity though, it’s just that they are fascinated by different things. Human diversity operates on a multitude of levels. This is another fascinating curiosity by the way.

Watching Molly is a curiosity and it is fascinating to see what she is curious about. I kind of think that curiosity in many ways is the whole energy of life. How we are curious, what sparks our curiosity. Maybe curiosity is the very essence of the Divine spark within us. Curiosity is perhaps the holiest of acts. We should practice Holy Curiosity. Barbara Bartocci, in “Grace on the Go” said: “What a wonderful combination of words! Holy curiosity. Our ability to wonder, to inquire, to welcome what is new, and to keep our minds open to truth when and where we find it — surely this is one of the most miraculous qualities that human beings possess. Maintain an open mind today. Ask questions. Acknowledge truth when you find it. Pray to be led by holy curiosity.”

To me curiosity is a characteristic of the Divine spark within us, it is an antidote to cynicism. Curiosity is a risk, as it makes us vulnerable and open. Yes, to disappointment at times, but also to wonder and spontaneous delight. Curiosity gives us the courage to discover almost unimaginable aspects of ourselves and others. It is a doorway to beginning to live those questions of life. Curiosity is our most natural state. It is something innate within us, we should never dampen it down in others. It matters not what it is either, we are all different, thus our curiosity is bound to be so. Sadly, too often this happens. Sometimes we do this to ourselves as we feel we have gained all that we need to know, we lose the natural curiosity of a child and or puppy. They say that curiosity killed the cat. This maybe true, but I reckon that it probably saved the dog, it certainly brought it to life. Maybe it is the secret to a long life, to maintain and keep on developing curiosity.

I have been thinking about my friend and his apparent frustration at what he saw as the lack of curiosity in others. What he failed to see was that people are curious about different things. He wanted to know how things work. People like me are interested in how things work, but not inanimate things. My fascination is people. I have always been curious about such things. I know others who are similar who are always inquiring after others. They are the people who when they ask how you are, really want to know. They want to accompany people. In many ways this is one aspect of ministry, pastoral ministry at least. It brings to mind Jesus and the two men on “The Road to Emmaus from (Luke chapter 24v 17) and his question: 'What are you discussing together as you walk along?'

I have always been fascinated by people’s conversations. The way they interact with others and the questions they ask about life, all life, all aspects of life. The ordinary the everyday. I am no different to dogs, to Molly, I am always sniffing things out, just in a different kind of way. This is my curiosity, my Holy curiosity. Is there anything more holy than being attentive to life, to this life, to real life. As Henri Nouwen observed, 'The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now.' The spiritual life must be a curious life. It is Holy curiosity.

Now it may surprise you to hear that it was Albert Einstein who coined the phrase “Holy Curiosity”. We have a poster stating the following quote from him in the small schoolroom:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Now it seems to me that “Holy Curiosity ought to be central to the spiritual life. Sadly this has not always been the case; sadly the impulse to shut down curiosity has been at the core of religious belief. That said it is not only to be found in religion, it is there in philosophy, story and myth. An example is those old fairy stories we were taught as a child, or old sayings like “curiosity killed the cat”. Just think of what happened to the curious in fairy tales, things didn’t turn out well at all. Snow White opens the door to an old woman who’s really a murderous queen in disguise, and pays for this mistake with her life, she eats the poisoned apple. Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and Sleeping Beauty all narrowly escape this same fate. Strangely we are taught from an early age of the dangers of curiosity. It is there in the second book of Genesis. Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but curiosity gets the better of them and they are cast out of paradise. Isn’t this the story of Snow White.

Each Sunday in worship though we enter into curiosity into search, seeking something more, a deeper understanding and experience. This means exploring the darker aspects at times, as we did last Sunday, in response so many seemed so engaged, how this delighted me. This to me is the essence of the Unitarian tradition. We are a religion for the curious. It is there right at the beginning of our history in the midst of the reformation,a response in so many ways to a restrictive form of Calvinistic Protestantism that quashed curiosity. John Calvin himself said that the most direct path to finding God is not to “attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed.” I shudder to think what he would have thought about last Sunday’s worship and the conversations that followed. Ours is a religion for the curious, for those who want to explore. The God I know comes to life through curiosity. This si living spiritually alive.

So, while curiosity may have killed the cat, it gave life to the dog. So, I say lets all we like that old Portuguese farm dog Bobi and live long and wonderful lives. Let’s keep our senses open and live by “Holy Curiosity”. For surely this is the answer to the question of life, how then shall I live.

Let’s live by “Holy Curiosity”

I’m going to end with that question, in the form of a wonderful poem by the wonderfully curious Mary Oliver, who loved dogs and their wonderful curiosity.

“When Death Comes”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 23 October 2023

Love is the Only Response: Deliver Us To and Not From the Suffering in the World

Working alongside Janine (a student minister working with the congregations I serve), discussing her time studying at Luther King House, has got me reflecting on my time as a student minister there. Particularly the challenges of being a Unitarian studying alongside fellow students from traditional Christian denominations. I know myself it took time to adjust and to find myself and my own understanding of my faith within this context. This is not easy, and it is not the only environment that you have find yourself during this challenging time; it is not easy, but it is vital to ministry formation dare I say. I think one the most challenging aspect of time in college is the assumed starting points in theological discussion and understanding.

I have been thinking a lot about ministry these last few weeks.

I recently attended Rev Penny Johnson’s funeral. It was a beautiful service, prepared by Penny herself. Her husband Ken and minister Rev Jeff Gould of course adapted and added to it, especially in some elements of the personal tribute to Penny’s life and ministry. Penny exemplified ministry, Unitarian ministry through her love and service. I have some wonderful personal memories of Penny. She was especially helpful to me in my formative years in the job.

I found myself chatting with Geoff Levermore, before the service. He always asks very probing questions, too probing at times I would say. One question he asked was where I would place myself on the Unitarian spectrum. I asked him what he meant by that? He explained asking if I found myself tending towards Liberal Christianity, something more human centred or a more earth centred, more naturalist spirituality. I said I don’t really think about ministry that way. I could see he didn’t feel satisfied with my answer and so I said that I identify as a Universalist really. He said a Deist and I said no I identify more as a Panentheist, or at least if I have to put a label on my beliefs. It seems he had not heard of Panentheism. The truth is though that I am not too precious about such things, as I know my primary role is to serve. Rev Penny Johnson being a wonderful example of this. She saw her role and certainly the worship she created as being related to the world in which she lived and helping others to live in this world. She never wore a clerical collar and did not see herself as separate from those she served. She saw her role as being with people in their struggle, a perspective I share with her.

That said if I have to put a label on it I say I am a Universalist. As a Universalist I believe there is truth in so many traditions. I am yet to find the whole truth in any.My place is not in the spectrum, it kind of is the spectrum. I also believe in a God of love that is present in all life and yet is greater than all life. This is panentheistic, or at least how I see it. This brings with it a great responsibility, for my faith to be real it has to be lived out in this world. This can be challenging at times. As a friend once said in response to my Universalism, “The thing I worry about is how much input a God of love is having, in that so many are hurt, killed.” This point seems particularly pertinent at this time, especially as we witness the horrors taking place in Israel and Palestine. So many innocent lives brutally killed. It is heartbreaking to witness such horror and barbarity and how this is spreading to other parts of world. The sorry spectacle of our inhumanity to one another. Not that this is a new story it has been going on throughout human history. Now some say this is evidence of the evils of religion. Some of us may have sympathy with this view. That said if I look at most of the evils of the second half of the 20th century and many today they were and are inflicted by secular states too. Think of China and North Korea today, or Cambodia and the Soviet Union in the past. To me most of such violence and dare I say evil is due to failing to recognise the sacredness of one another. Of failing to see the other as neighbour, the secular and the religious as just as culpable of this. When will we see the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other?

So, it is a pertinent question to ask about a God of love. If we look at the world, at the suffering within the world, it is reasonable to ask in what sense a God of love could be involved in all of this? Of course the response of many is that none at all, for there is no God. Or others will say that God is not all loving. Others may say well it’s all a mystery and we cannot understand how God’s love operates. Then still others will suggest that we look at the helpers and that this love manifests in their actions. Do any of this answers seem adequate to you? It is certainly something to ponder.

Now suffering and a God of Love is a question that has troubled theologians, philosophers and plain ordinary people for centuries. The question has been asked and continues to be asked as to what causes suffering and can it be overcome? Now in some quarters it has been suggested that the root cause of suffering is “evil”. Which has led to the question that if evil exists then how can God be all powerful, ever present and all loving? In theological circles this has become known as “The Theodicy Dilemma”

“The Theodicy Dilemma” may be summed up by the following question about God asked by the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume:

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil.”

This question encapsulates the whole Theodicy debate.

In the twentieth century Czeslaw Milosz wrote the following poem “Theodicy”

“Theodicy” by Czeslaw Milosz

No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
Desire will not save the morality of God.
If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,
Which would find its explanation only by assuming
The existence of an archetypal Paradise
And a pre-human downfall so grave
That the world of matter received its shape from diabolic power.

Even more hard hitting, I would suggest, than Hume’s questions. This from Milosz a Nobel Prize winning Poet who was a Polish Catholic, who spent much of his life wrestling with his own faith.

I remember exploring “Theodicy”, in depth, while training for the ministry. Something I have been thinking of again as I have been sharing with Janine. I probably spent more time on the piece I wrote on the subject than any other, which showed in my final marks. I struggled and I wrestled, as so many have no doubt done. Looking back I can see how important it was for me to do so. By the way I have been struggling with it again these last few weeks. The struggle has been so important as I have learnt, in my time as a minister, that a large part of the work is to be with others in their suffering, often senseless suffering by the way. It is of course suffering that brought me into ministry in the first place.

Whilst training I remember wrestling for hours, in the library and walking in the park, with the theodicy question, I continue to do so by the way. I found my own unsettled faith in it and as a result a greater purpose has emerged. If I have learned anything from suffering, it is that I cannot take away the suffering of anyone else, but I can be with them in it. I have learned that in so doing the God of my limited understanding comes into being once more.

My understanding did not fit neatly within any of the traditional orthodox Christian views I explored during my training. I did not see it as a consequence or our fallen nature, an absence of good which causes us to choose evil, following Augustine or Calvin, or that suffering was a part of some kind of Divine plan. I had some sympathy with the views of Aquinas that somehow we lose our way. I find the idea that suffering has to take place in order for life to discover what is good very troubling. I cannot see how someone finding good at the expense of the suffering of others a good thing. I am with Dorothy Soelle and her view that “No Heaven can Rectify an Auschwitz”. The ends can never justify the means, if the means bring such suffering to so many. If God is present, then God is there in the suffering and our response to the suffering, something Eli Weisel explored in his seminal work “The Night”. The God of my understanding comes alive in my response to suffering.

So yes, I believe in a God of love, but not one who controls life. God in life but not controlling life. The God I believe has to come alive through our being. It may not be an adequate answer, but it is one I experience through my fragile human being. I respond to the idea of a God of Love, as my experiences and observations of life suggest this. I also experience this love coming to life as I am with those who suffer and do all I can to be with them in their pain, but I cannot prove that beyond doubt.

My growing sense of Universalism and Panentheism helps me to live faithfully, in love, in a world in which there is so much beauty but also heartbreaking suffering, some natural but an awful lot caused by our inhumanity. I accept that no matter how lovingly I and others live, that horrific, dare I say evil, things will happen both personally and universally. So where is the God of love? Well it comes alive in the response to this suffering. It is the God of love, that allows one to come through even the most horrific situations, with a response grown from a sacred reverence for life itself. This is the God of Love that I worship, that is beyond my understanding.

I have come to believe that it is our holy duty to respond to the suffering of others, to stand in solidarity with them and act in holy compassion and never to declare the other as somehow less than human.

In my prayers I ask this Universal Love to help me feel a deep connection to all life and to bring some healing to the world in which I live and the world beyond my being.

It is, I believe, our holy duty to begin to bring healing to our world, to wipe the tears that flow from our humanity and to repair the tears in the fabric of the world, to bring compassion and love to those in fear, to bind up the broken and bring wholeness to those who feel separated from the love in life. This is the call of love from the God of my limited understanding.

It is a call that asks my senses to be opened to the world and instead of being delivered from evil, it is call from an ever-loving God to be delivered to the suffering in this world.

I’m sorry if it does not answer why a God of love would allow suffering. I am sorry if that is not good enough. I am sorry. I cannot sincerely offer any more. I cannot give an opiate that relieves us of pain. I can only offer a loving response to that pain.

All I can offer is a loving purpose that comes to life in this beautiful and at times suffering world.

Before offering a closing blessing I am going to share with a wonderful poem the recently deceased great poets Louise Gluck “Celestial Music”, it seems pertinent to me at this time. I first came across in Mark Bellitini’s wonderful book on grief “Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Colours of Grief”

"Celestial Music" Louise Gluck

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,
she thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth, she's unusually competent.
Brave, too, able to face unpleasantness.
We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I'm always moved by weakness, by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality.
But timid, also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
according to nature. For my sake, she intervened,
brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down across the road.
My friend says I shut my eyes to god, that nothing else explains
my aversion to reality. She says I'm like the child who buries her head in the pillow
so as not to see, the child who tells herself
that light causes sadness–
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
to wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person–
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We're walking
on the same road, except it's winter now;
she's telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height–
Then I'm afraid for her; I see her
caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth–
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
from time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It's this moment we're both trying to explain, the fact
that we're at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn't move.
She's always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
capable of life apart from her.
We're very quiet. It's peaceful sitting here, not speaking, the composition
fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering–
it's this stillness that we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

Louise Gluck, Poems 1962-2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"