“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

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Questions and Challenges

I have blogged on here before about the influence that the Quaker publication Advices and Queries has had on my life. But I'd like to share a little more about why it challenges me so much.

I met my F/friend Yola almost thirty years ago, on Platform 1 at Northampton station. At the time, we were both commuting to London, and happened to catch the same trains every day. It was she who introduced me to a tiny (filofax page sized) booklet called Advices and Queries, The forty-two advices and queries cover just twelve pages.

Yet I cannot think of many other books that have had a more fundamental effect on the way I think and on how I live my life. Alfred Hall's Beliefs of a Unitarian, perhaps, but few others. I keep a copy in my handbag, and am currently on my third one, having literally read the first two to pieces.

You may wonder how such a slim volume could have such an influence on anyone. It is a good illustration of how quality is so much more important than quantity. Each advice or query is written in the simplest terms. Each is a profound challenge to me, personally. Each calls me to be the best Sue Woolley I can be, and to live my life in as authentic a way as possible. Let me share some luminous sentences that have made me think deeply about what I believe, and, more importantly, about how I live my everyday life:

5. Take time to learn about other people's experiences of the Light ... As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained?

7. Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us ... Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?

17. Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God, and each must find the way to be true to it.

27. Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opporunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak.

32. Bring into God's light those emotions, attitudes, and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace.

37/38. Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? ... If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it?

41. Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle, freely chosen, is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford.

Such short, simple sentences. Such huge, complex challenges. Each time it's not just a declaration of belief, it's a challenge to do something about this in your own life. This is what I find so powerful about Advices and Queries. And why they have become, in a very real way, my personal 42 commandments. Living up to them may take the rest of my life.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Three Sides of Lent

This year there has been quite a flurry of interest among Unitarian friends about Lent, and what they are planning to "do" for it. Which has made me look at this Christian season more closely. On the one hand, there is the self-denying, penitential aspect, which (interestingly) many secular folk have also latched on to. Even my avowedly-atheist son knows that you are supposed to give up something for Lent. And on the other hand, there is the life-affirming, positive aspect of using the period of Lent to intentionally establish a new spiritual practice, which I rather like. And in between these, there is the idea of giving up something as a positive practice, rather than as a penitential one.

So let's look at these three approaches to Lent, and perhaps pick one that appeals to us, and resolve to do something about it, now, here, in 2015.

First of all, giving something up as a penitential, self-denying practice. I had toyed with the idea of giving up chocolate for Lent, really as a way of losing weight, when I read a post from Unvirtuous Abbey "For those who think that the season of Lent is The Biggest Loser - Jesus Edition, we pray." And winced. I cannot enter into the "proper" Christian self-denying head space, so I think it would be disrespectful of me to give up something for Lent just because.

And anyhow, I don't really want to.

However, there is another aspect to giving something up, which may be more appealing to Unitarians, because it could be done for what we might consider to be "the right motives." That is, to decide to give something up for Lent for a positive reason. For example, if you have played with the idea of giving up meat and becoming vegetarian, you might swear off meat for the period of Lent as a dry-run at making a beneficial change to your lifestyle. But this will only work if you had thought about it before, rather than doing it just for the sake of it.

The approach to Lent that really speaks to my condition is that of adopting a positive spiritual practice. They say that it takes twenty repetitions of a particular action / renunciation to form a new habit, so the forty days of Lent should be ample time to form a fairly solid new spiritual practice. Last year a friend started a Facebook page, Photography as a Spiritual Practice, which he and other folk who joined him have maintained ever since, with a different theme each week.

In my case, I have decided to really get to grips with centering prayer, a spiritual practice which I have started innumerable times, but not managed to stick to for more than about a week, before the excuses started. In a way, it is the simplest spiritual practice of all, as it consists of sitting in silence, waiting on God. Just that. Just sitting. Just. Sitting.

But let me tell you, it is the hardest thing in the world. At least for me, because I find it so hard to still my mind. To let go. To just be. Yet so many people whose opinions I respect have talked about the benefits to be derived from this practice, that I am giving it one more try, during this Lenten season. I started yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, and intend to sit for 25 minutes every morning until Good Friday. By which time, I hope, I will be starting to get some benefit from it.

May your Lent be beneficial to your spirit, however you choose to mark it.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Don't Forget To Love Yourself

Recently, I have been re-reading books that have meant something to me, on my spiritual / religious journey. And one of these is Mister God, This Is Anna, which I first read over 30 years ago. It is another slim book - only 190 pages - beautifully illustrated by Papas, which adds to its enchantment. Set in the East End of London in the 1930s, it tells the story of a remarkable child called Anna, who sees the world differently, and who has an intimate and wonderful relationship with Mister God. It is told from the viewpoint of Fynn, who finds the five-year-old Anna homeless on the streets, and brings her home to join the family. For the three and a half years before her premature death, she revolutionises his thinking about God and human beings in relation to God, and about the world we live in.

One of my favourite passages records a conversation with the local vicar, who must have found her hard to cope with:

"'Do you believe in God?' 'Yes.'
'Do you know what God is?' 'Yes.'
'What is God then?' 'He's God!'
'Do you go to church?' 'No.'
'Why not?' 'Because I know it all!'
'What do you know?' 'I know to love Mister God and to love people and cats and dogs and spiders and flowers and trees' and the catalogue went on, 'with all of me.'

There's nothing much you can do in the face of that kind of accusation, for that's what it amounted to. Anna had bypassed all the non-essentials and distilled centuries of learning into one sentence - 'And God said love me, love them, and love it, and don't forget to love yourself.'"

This week the shops are full of red and pink - Valentine's cards, Valentine's chocolates, Valentine's drink, Valentine's perfume, Valentine's cuddly toys. It is the one time of the year when love, particularly romantic love, is almost deified, and the many people who are not in a romantic relationship, or who have just lost somebody near and dear to them, are made to feel lacking, and sad, and out of it. Like Christmas, there is only one media message, and if your particular circumstances don't fit, it can be a very painful time.

So this week, I'm going to try to take on board the last bit of Anna's advice "Don't forget to love yourself." We are all human, we are all children of God, we are all worthy of love. And we all need to learn to love and accept our whole selves, not just the bits we allow other people to see.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Flying Free

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach was something of a cult book when I was a student. Most of the people I knew had a copy on their bookshelves, and it is not difficult to understand why. It is the story of one seagull who believed that there was more to life than following the fishing boats and fighting over scraps. Jonathan's great love is flying, and his one goal in life is to become the best flyer he can be.

Predictably, because his behaviour is different, and odd, and seagulls, like people, distrust those who are different and odd, he is Outcast from the Flock. He is sad about this, but it doesn't stop him working towards becoming the best Jonathan Livingstone Seagull he can be.

And this is the great enchantment of the book. I didn't really "get" it when I first read it, because I was still very much in the first half of life, trying to fit in, trying to make a place for myself in society. It has taken me most of the years since then to understand that there is more to living than this. True happiness comes when you strive to become the best person you can be, regardless of what anybody else thinks. It is living with integrity that matters.

And this is the message that Jonathan learns, from the Elder Gull, and from other enlightened gulls. And then he realises that even that is not enough; he needs to share what he knows with the Flock back home - the Flock that rejected him and spurned him. Because the freedom and joy of flight changed his experience of life from that of humdrum existence to that of joyful swooping and diving and pushing to the limits. And this needed sharing.

Which is what I'm just starting to understand. The joys, the insights, that I have learned on my own spiritual journey as a Unitarian and as a human being mustn't be kept to myself - they have to be shared with others, in the hope that they might inspire somebody else to start their own journey. Which is why I became a minister.

So I owe Jonathan Livingstone Seagull a lot, even if it took me a while to get the message.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Clarity of Distance

Yesterday, I went to Wild, a new-ish film starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. It is based on the latter's memoir, which tells how, following the death of her beloved mother and the breakdown of her marriage, she decided to just walk away from her everyday life and hike the Pacific Crest Trail, up through California and Oregon to Canada.

The Pacific Crest Trail
It was beautifully shot and very well put together.  The scenery was spectacular, and I'd like to bet that Reese Witherspoon will win awards for her acting. It reminded me a little of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love although rather more raw. And I can remember thinking "That's the way to do it - to get away from it all, and walk it all out." I'm sure that distancing herself from the life she was entirely unable to deal with helped her to gain some clarity, and to think things through. And to bring back some balance into her life. Nature's rather good at giving us another perspective.

But of course most of us never get the chance to just walk out of our everyday lives, and move into a completely different situation. And those same everyday lives are made increasingly complicated by the demands of modern technology, and by today's social media. A few days ago, I came across a fascinating article by neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, which argues just this: that the constant switching of the attention from one thing to another - between e-mails, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and whatever else bleeps to alert us - is damaging our efficiency, and making it hard for us to concentrate on just one thing when we are working, or to let go and properly relax when we're not.

I know myself that if I'm working on an address or a blogpost or an essay, and the phone goes, or an e-mail alert pops up, it takes some willpower not to switch my attention away from what I'm doing. But I'm beginning to realise how insidious this constant barrage of alerts can be. So I'm starting to let the ansaphone pick up phone calls and to ignore e-mail alerts, until I come to a natural break in what I'm doing. Facebook is the other great seducer, of course, the great time-waster, at least for me. I understand that you can get software which blocks social media programs for particular periods, to help you stay focussed for longer chunks of time.

It's about being entirely present, in a very uncomplicated way. About concentrating on one thing at a time, and giving our whole selves to it, and then going on to the next thing, and giving our whole selves to that. I know that this sounds hopelessly idealistic, but we can at least try. Because it is in the present moment, and only in the present, that the numinous lives.

I guess we have to do what we can, where we are, with what we've been given. And just do our best to be there, and to notice the moments going by.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Trying to Make Sense Of It All

Recent events, such as the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, which was orchestrated by Al Qaeda, and the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria, have made me feel a profound need to try to make sense of it all.

The thing that started me thinking was my perception of the widely different reactions of the Western media to these events. We were swamped with coverage of the Charlie Hebdo story when it broke on 7th January, and the subsequent Je Suis Charlie campaign. It was only too easy to be swept up in the media storm, and I too shared some cartoons on Facebook on the Je Suis Charlie theme. Freedom of belief? Freedom of speech? Of course they're important! As are the untimely deaths of seventeen people.

A few short days later, while the media were still obsessing over every tiny detail of the Charlie Hebdo story and its aftermath, more than two thousand people were massacred in the North East of Nigeria, in and around the city of Baga. They were murdered by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly, who could not flee in time. It made the news alright, but the sense of outrage just wasn't there.

And I was shocked. So what I want to muse about today are the issues of how far freedom of speech should be paramount, and how dualistic our Western world vision is. You may not agree with me, and that itself is a cherished freedom, not available to all.

Let's start with Charlie Hebdo. It is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. According to Wikipaedia, it is "Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, [and] describes itself as strongly anti-racist and left wing, publishing articles on the extreme right, religion (Catholicism, Islam, Judaism), politics, culture, etc." A bit like our own Private Eye, in fact.

There is no doubt that satire is a useful political and sociological tool, pointing out injustices and hypocrisies in our societies. The question is: where should the line be drawn, between what is 'fair game' for the satirist's pen, and what is vicious and harmful and inciting hatred? For example, I personally found the comedian Dave Allen to be very funny, but he regularly received death threats from the IRA for his sketches mocking the Roman Catholic Church. And I find most political cartoons funny, although I think that some sometimes cross that line. I think that very few people would find cartoons about certain subjects, such as the Holocaust, or slavery, funny. My other point is that, particularly since 9/11, Muslims have been in danger of becoming the West's go-to scapegoats, as the Jews were in 1930s Germany. 

Just saying.

Each of us has a duty to think this stuff through, and to decide where our own line should be drawn. I also believe that while freedom of speech is very important, respecting others' beliefs is also very important. Think of the Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not like done unto you. I wonder how being satirical and disrespectful about the dearly-held beliefs of others fits into this. And whether, ultimately, the world is a better place because of satire? OK, it has an important role in highlighting injustices. But I believe we need to be careful that we aren't making judgements from a position of Western non-understanding and privilege. There are at least two sides to most issues, and it is very easy only to see one, because that is the only one portrayed in the Western media.

Which brings me on to the second issue which is troubling me - the privileged viewpoint of the Western media. It is only too easy to take it for granted that the view of the white, Christian, straight majority is the right one. But it ain't necessarily so. The satirical stories and cartoons printed in magazines such as Charlie Hebdo and Private Eye can be very amusing if you are a member of the privileged class / race / gender. Perhaps not so much otherwise. It's worth thinking about.

In the few days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, there were fifteen attacks on Muslim communities all around France. And after the death of Private Lee Rigby in this country, innocent Muslims were attacked, just for being Muslim. And I think the comparative lack of reaction to the more than 2000 deaths of innocent women, elders and children in Nigeria is another symptom - "after all, that's just what happens in Africa." It's "over there" and hence not our problem.

But we are all human beings. We were all made in God's image. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, or even Unitarian. I totally condemn the murders in France. I totally condemn the murders in Nigeria. I totally condemn every killing of one human being by another. And I totally condemn the evil people who have chosen to turn their backs on God, and to preach hatred and put weapons into the hands of young men who know no better, or no different. 

We each only have one precious life, which we should be allowed to live, in peace.

In trying to make sense of it all, I have to reluctantly conclude that I cannot support absolute freedom of speech in all circumstances, especially if its purpose is solely to mock and satirise the dearly-held beliefs of others. Respect for others is also important. I have to prioritise the values of the Charter for Compassion, which asks us to walk a mile in the other person's shoes, before commenting on their actions. And to avoid deliberately causing pain to another, at all costs.

I do not condone unnecessary deaths, but neither to I condone stirring up hatred and intolerance, through the publication of articles or cartoons, on the one hand, or through indoctrination and radicalisation, on the other. We are all unique, precious, sons and daughters of God, and we need to respect that of God in each other. And I believe what I was taught as a child, that two wrongs do not make a right, and that revenge killings and attacks just make matters worse.

In the words of Gandhi: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." Amen

Friday, 9 January 2015

Don't Take It For Granted

For the last 48 hours, I have been in some considerable pain. I had been prescribed some painkillers for an on-going problem with my arm, and my poor tummy didn't like them. I had a bad reaction to them, which started on Wednesday morning, and only subsided on Thursday evening.

But it's left me feeling tired and listless and disinclined to do anything. But I know that I must, so I'm trying to summon up some mojo from somewhere.

But the last couple of days, and how grim I've felt during them, have made me appreciate anew two things:

1. my wonderful body, which usually holds up marvellously, doing all the complex tasks that a body does, and lets me get on with my life. I am grateful for her.

2. it has made me understand (just a little) how tough it must be to have a serious, on-going medical condition, and to live with pain, and all that pain brings, every day of your life. I have friends who manage this with such spirit and resilience and courage. I am lost in respect and admiration for them.

Because I do realise how very blessed I am, to have nothing seriously wrong with me - just the aches and pains of age. And I can still hope that Something Can Be Done, whereas some people I know just have to live with their conditions, day in and day out, forever and ever.

And that is grim. Huge respect to you all. If there is anything I can to to make your life a little easier, just call.