“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Silent Night, Holy Truce

Today I, and other ministers and worship leaders across the country, will be leading a Christmas service with a difference. I will be commemorating that special day in 1914, when ordinary soldiers at the Front "all the way from the North Sea to Switzerland" decided that their common humanity, their common Christianity, was more important than continuing to fight each other.

The Martin Luther King Peace Committee sent round a marvellous resource pack, entitled Silent Night, Holy Truce, from which I have obtained most of the material for the service. And I would like to share some words from this, and to reflect on them:

"Although the most famous, the Christmas truces weren't isolated incidents. They followed weeks of unofficial fraternisation by soldiers who discovered that, rather than being monsters, the other side were men like themselves, with a preference for staying alive rather than dying. Common humanity oftentimes broke through the propaganda images perpetrated by both sides. Throughout the entire war, many combatants managed, through the so-called 'live-and-let-live' system, to reduce discomfort and risk by complicated local truces and tacit understandings that enraged the high commands on both sides. Nonetheless, the truces are a key moment in the history of the period that reopened the possibility of a Europe based on peace and solidarity rather than imperial violence and nationalism.

We argue that the impromptu Christmas worship services held in no-man's land offer a glimpse of the church as it is meant to be, a new nation of peacemakers uniting former enemies in love and friendship as they celebrate the birth of Jesus."

And we Unitarians today can witness for peace too. Many individuals and congregations are members of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship, founded in the darkest days of the First World War. Members of the UPF "witness for peace and against the futility of war. Today our vision includes the ethos and values of the Charter for Compassion. The surest route to peace is through the compassion of human beings for each other, and for all living things. We support and encourage Unitarians in their witness for Peace and Compassion, locally, nationally, and internationally."

In this year of the centenary of the "war to end all wars", various countries around the world are in a state of bitter conflict with each other, or with themselves. The recent tragic massacre in Peshawar is just the most recent example of this. The efforts of everyone who believes in the possibility of world peace are needed, now more than ever. So that the sacrifice that the men in the Great War made, should not be altogether wasted.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Gift of Life

Yesterday I did something very simple, which I should have done years ago. It didn't cost anything, it hardly hurt at all, and it didn't take very long. But it could make a huge difference to somebody else.

Yes, I gave blood. I used to be a regular donor, back in the 1980s, but kept passing out after donating (I weighed considerably less in those days) so in the end they told me to stop going. Life went on, and I forgot all about it. Until a friend posted on Facebook that she had given blood, which gave me the nudge needed to go online and investigate.

I have to say, I was incredibly impressed by the professionalism of it all. I had to fill out a long form, and was then questioned about my answers. For example, we had been on holiday to Turkey in March, and they wanted to know which part I had visited, and which airport I had flown out of. I've also just been referred for possible minor surgery on my knee, so there were questions about that. I had to drink a pint of water before donating, and also have a finger-prick blood test, to see whether my iron levels were sufficiently high. Only when the staff were satisfied that I was fit to donate, was I led to a special reclining chair. The actual process took about eight or nine minutes, and I was given a bandage to roll around my hand to stimulate blood flow, and also told to clench and unclench my buttocks constantly (apparently this helps keep the blood pressure low). Between the bandage rolling and the buttock clenching, time passed fairly quickly. It was like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. Hilarious!

Then I was returned to the upright position very slowly and waved over to another part of the hall, where I was given a cold drink and told to help myself to any of a selection of high-carb snacks. When they were sure I was OK, and was feeling fine, I was allowed to leave. And was given a little leaflet Important Safety Information after you have given blood. The standard of care at every stage was impressive.

As I say, very professional. So I'm booked in again for the beginning of May - you're allowed to give blood every four months. I'm just glad to have done it, and only wish I hadn't waited so long. Donations drop over the Christmas / New Year season, which is sad, as it is one of the times of peak demand.

If you are fit and healthy, why not give it a try? The website is www.blood.co.uk  This is a case in which the advertising slogan "every little helps" really is true. Apparently, one donation could save three lives.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Letting Go

On this day, two short weeks before Christmas, many of us will be feeling stressed out and tired, as we rush around, trying to get everything "just right" for the season. But I'm going to try something else, just for once, and just let go.

It is very easy to spend our lives chasing after the next thing that needs doing, the next goal that presents itself to us, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As biological animals, we move forwards through time, and it is natural for us to look to the future. But I am afraid that this is often at the expense of appreciating what we have in the present. This is certainly true in my case. I always have a to-do list on the go, and have to consciously include a weekly half-day Sabbath on it, so that I can let go, and spend some time just being. If I miss that half-day, I am noticeably tenser, and more fratchety.

This is why I adore the words of the poem Camas Lilies by Unitarian Universalist minister Lynn Ungar, which I came across the other day: "What of your rushed and useful life? Imagine setting it all down - papers, plans, appointments, everything - leaving only a note: 'Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I'm through with blooming.'"

"Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I'm through with blooming." Such a fabulous reminder that actually there are other things than the current task, which are just as important, if our lives are to be rich and meaningful, rather than rushed and pressured.

I am slowly coming to recognise that many of the pressures in our lives (certainly many of the  pressures in my life) are self-inflicted. It is my distracted self who chases after material possessions, who needs to be in control, who perpetually worries about the next thing, who strives after perfection, and who finds it hard to let go of old regrets and grievances. I'm doing it all to myself.

I'm beginning to realise that the starting point for breaking out of all this pressure, for getting away from all this self-inflicted stress, is Just Letting Go. Relinquishing control, stepping out of the centre, sitting still, and letting nothing happen. It involves trust - trust that things will work out without my help, trust that God has got my back.

And it's a slow process. I'm sitting for half-an-hour every morning, trying (or not trying) to just be, and trusting that eventually I'll get something out of it. Trying to let go of the need to succeed. Just breathing, and listening to the silence.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

My Unexpected Friday

Over the last few months, an old friend and I have established a very pleasant routine. We meet at 10.30 am on the last Friday of the month for coffee and cake in town, and spend an enjoyable couple of hours exchanging news about our lives - the books we've read, how our respective jobs are going, and how our husbands and children-no-longer-children are doing. It is a very civilised custom.

So this Friday just gone (28th), I innocently drove into town, and was surprised to have to go all the way up to Level 4 of my normal car park, instead of finding a space further down. But I put it down to the imminence of Christmas - maybe people were trying to get their present shopping done before the rush.

I had read about Black Friday on Facebook, but had genuinely not appreciated the fact that the British retail industry and the media between them had persuaded the gullible British public to buy into this quintessentially American Day (we do not, after all, celebrate Thanksgiving).

So my friend and I enjoyed our usual coffee and chat, after which I wandered into M&S to spend a voucher I had recently been given by generous friends.

Which was when the penny finally dropped, and I realised that Black Friday had come to the UK. There was a very good sale in the Per Una section of M&S, and I picked up three items of clothing for the usual price of one, which was very satisfactory. And although it was quite busy, it was not manic.

It was not until I got home and logged onto Facebook that I realised what kind of collective insanity had apparently taken hold of a large section of the British population. Shocking scenes of people fighting over (and *with*) 42" TVs were being reported. It was like the Boxing Day sales had come early and madly.

You may think it hypocritical of me to comment, as I benefited from Black Friday myself. My defence is that it was purely accidental, and that I only spent the voucher I had been given, which I would have spent that day anyway.

The question I am left with is why?

Why have British retailers decided to import this American custom, at a time of year when a lot of people are buying stuff for Christmas anyway, at full price?

Why are British people so willing to be influenced by the media? Yes, I get that there were some very good bargains to be had, but fighting in the aisles? Over consumer goods?

It makes me sad that, as somebody remarked on Facebook, if you camp out for a social justice issue (remember Occupy a few years ago?) you are seen as a leftie drop-out, but if you buy into a media-induced retail frenzy, losing your veneer of civilisation along the way, that is perfectly acceptable.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Big Brother Is Alive and Well

The other evening, I was relaxing with my significant other, after a very busy weekend, idly leafing through the paper. When my attention was caught by a headline on the front of the Weekend section (we buy one paper on a Saturday, and it lasts us all week). It read: "Teenwatch: How to spy on your children."

The article, which I read with mounting horror, explained about new technology that parents can use, to "keep kids under surveillance 24/7", including software that can monitor their online lives, including monitoring and reading calls and texts and e-mails, looking at their browsing history online, hidden CCTV cameras around the house (even in the teenagers' bedrooms - ewww!), electronic wristbands that they have to wear when they are out of the house in the evening (like tagging prisoners) and an app called Ignore No More, which "disables their phones remotely if they do not answer me." There is even a device marketed by Teenwatch, which you attach to your teenager's car, and can monitor if he/she brakes sharply or swerves. (I've checked on Google, and these apps are Real!)

Oh. My. God. Even Orwell could not have dreamt this stuff up. What in God's name is going on? I shared some of the article with my husband, and he was as shocked and horrified as I am. I mean, what the blimmin' heck happened to respect for privacy? To trust? Do these parents *really* not realise that all they are doing is making their children hate them, and wish to deceive them? If we had ever tried any of this on our two (not that I would ever have dreamed of it) I am *sure* they would have left home / tried every way possible to get round the devices (for example, by buying a cheap pay-as-you-go mobile for use, and not sharing the number).

Or if the children are accepting this, because they too have bought into the lie that we live in a terrifying world in which nobody can be trusted, then that is even worse. I tremble for the future, if this is what it is going to look like ...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Poppies for Remembrance and for Resolution

Throughout the country on Sunday, and yesterday, people wore a poppy to mark Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day. It is one of the most potent symbols we have. I wore two poppies on both days - one red, and one white. And I would like to explain why. What colour poppy you wear, and indeed, whether you wear a poppy at all, seems to have become more and more politicised in recent years, which I find very sad.

 The red poppy is the more traditional one, sold by the Royal British Legion throughout the land. According to their current publicity, by buying and wearing a red poppy, the wearer is choosing to help bereaved families, wounded service men and women, younger veterans seeking employment and housing, and older veterans needing age-related care, to Live On.

And that is great, and I would support all those aims. I believe that we should honour the fallen, from all wars, and from all countries. In the words of Chris Goacher, "We gather in thankful remembrance of those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom and safety of others." But I believe that we also need to find a better answer to the question posed by Canon Dick Sheppard, in 1936: "Of what would they wish us to think? Not that they were heroes; not that there was any special virtue in the manner of their dying; not of the tragedy of youth snuffed out; not even that we loved them, and still remember. They would wish us to think of what they died for."

The dead of the First World War died in a "war to end all wars." And yet, twenty years later, precisely because of the way the politicians made the peace after 1918, Europe and the world were embroiled in war once again, and all the sacrifice came to naught.

I am a pacifist, but I do believe that part of the meaning of Remembrance Sunday is that we should also remember the men and women who are currently serving in the armed forces, the world over, and acknowledge the high price they pay to defend us. Many do not return, and of those who do, many bear the physical and mental scars of conflict for the rest of their lives. And so do their families. And that deserves my respect.

What I am not so happy about is the adoption of the symbol of the red poppy by far-right organisations such as Britain First, or about the cynical fashion in which the present government is using it to make themselves look good. Nor about the underlying nationalism that has come to be associated with it. Nor am I happy about folk being criticised for not wearing one - surely it should be a matter of conscience? After all, nobody is criticised for not wearing (for example) a pink ribbon to support breast cancer awareness, or a Pudsey Bear badge to support Children in Need, so why should the poppy be different?

The white poppy is a symbol of peace. White Poppies for Peace made their first appearance on Armistice Day in 1933. With the rising domestic and international tensions at the time, concern grew that the war to end all wars, in which so many had died, would now be followed by an even worse war. The white poppy was an expression of that concern, and became a symbol of our inability to settle conflicts without resorting to killing, but more importantly, a symbol of hope and commitment to work for a world where better, more peaceful answers could be found. The white poppy’s aim is to promote debate and rally support for resistance to war. And as Secretary of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship, I am proud to wear my white poppy.

Some Unitarians today also wear a purple poppy. These are sold by Animal Aid, who explain "Throughout history, animals have suffered and died as a result of human conflicts. Animals killed as a result of human conflict are not heroes but victims. They do not give their lives, their lives are taken." I honour this position too, and may well wear a purple poppy next year, alongside the red and white.

The point of all this is, it doesn't matter so much what colour poppy you wear. What matters is whether wearing one and remembering the fallen, makes you want to work for a better world, in which veterans are looked after and respected, and governments really try to work for peace, instead of reaching for war as an off-the-shelf solution to the latest international problem.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Belief and Faith

"Belief" and "faith" are two words that are much used in religious circles.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines belief as "trust or confidence (in); acceptance of any received theology; acceptance (of thing, fact, statement, etc.) as true or existing."

It defines faith as "1. reliance on or trust in; belief founded on authority. 2. (Theol.) belief in religious doctrines, esp. such as affects character and conduct, spiritual apprehension of divine truth apart from proof; system of religious belief."

So are they much of a muchness? Well, no, according to a fascinating book I've been reading this week, called Writing the Sacred Journey. The author, Elizabeth J. Andrew, points out that what you believe and how you orient your life (what you put your faith in) can be two very different things. She writes: "Belief can be an extension of faith, but it can also exist in our heads and our verbalised convictions, quite separate from the true alignment of our hearts."

To take an example from my own life, I believe that our planet is endangered because of our profligate use of, well, just about everything, but I do not always make the most eco-friendly choices when I'm shopping, perhaps because I'm in  a hurry, or it's less convenient, or the greener product is more expensive. In which case, my actions are contrary to my stated beliefs.

I think that this is an important distinction to make, and to be aware of, as for me, the whole point of our spiritual and religious journey is to move towards living as authentically as we can, in accordance with our most deeply held beliefs and values. Whenever we *say* that we believe something or believe in  something, but our actions are quite different, there is a dissonance between belief and faith, and we are not living authentically, as I believe that God / the Spirit wants us to.