“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

Friday, 22 May 2015

Making A Difference

There is a wonderful old story about a young man, who was walking along the beach, when he noticed that thousands of starfish had been washed up by the tide. The tide was going out, and the starfish were stranded. There was no way that they could get back to the water, and he realised that within an hour or so, they would all be dead.

In the distance, he noticed an elderly woman, who was picking up the starfish from the beach, one by one, and throwing them back into the sea. The young man went up to her and asked: "What are you doing?" She replied: "The sun is up and the tide is going out, and I'm throwing these starfish back into the sea, so that they won't die."

"But why are you bothering?" he asked. "There are thousands of them, and what you are doing won't make any difference. And there will be thousands more on the next tide."

The old lady stooped, picked up another starfish, and hurled it back into the receding tide. Then she turned to the young man and grinned: "Made a difference to that one!"

I love this story so much, because it proves that no matter how old or tired or busy we are, we can still make a difference in the world. It makes me so cross when people say "Oh, I don't bother with recycling (or picking up litter or whatever small task we are called to do), because my individual effort won't make a difference." The point being, that if everybody thought like that, Nothing would get done!

At times like that, I remember the story of the old lady and the starfish, and make my small effort, knowing that it will make a difference, no matter how infinitesimal. I try to follow the advice of the Quaker missionary, Etienne de Grellet, who wrote: "I shall pass this way but one; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." Amen


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Overwhelmed By Words

A few years ago, I discovered how incredibly beautiful and moving religious poetry could be. I had already had intimations of this, from reading Kahlil Gibran as a student, but during Unitarian Summer School in 2010, I was introduced to the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic, and to that of Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, who wrote in the early 20th century.

They both absolutely blew me away. Only when reading the poetic prose of Gibran's The Prophet had I encountered anything like it. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of their words, which pointed to a new way of connecting with the divine, which had never occurred to me. Most of the religious poetry that I knew was by the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or the grand and serious stanzas of Milton's Paradise Lost. Some of it is beautiful, but oh so very orthodox.

We are very fortunate in the 21st century, to have gifted translators and editors, who are able to convert the Persian of Hafiz, and the German of Rilke, into wonderfully lyrical English, without losing the sense of the original. Daniel Ladinsky in the case of Hafiz, and Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy for Rilke. Their translations are masterpieces, and contribute hugely to the enjoyment and pleasure I have received from reading them.

Although both authors may be described as religious / spiritual poets, their poetry is not the same. Apart from in the erotic Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible, I had not come across the idea of God or the Divine (however you like to refer to Him/Her/It) as the Beloved, the object of the worshipper's love. It is a concept that is central in the poetry of both Hafiz and his fellow Persian mystic, Rumi, and I find it refreshing.

Hafiz's relationship with his God can only be described as intimate. His God is not some remote, cold, judgemental Being in Heaven, but a warm, loving, teasing Presence. The companionship of this Beloved God is a matter of joy and happiness - much of the poetry speaks of laughing and dancing and singing and playing music. Sometimes he is talking about his own relationship with god, and sometimes offering advice to the reader, in the guise of a guide, who can lead him or her to "the Beloved's tent." There is much gentle good advice in Hafiz's words. Reading his words has taught me that religious poetry does not have to be solemn and serious, and that loving yourself and others is the straightest way to God.

Rainer Maria Rilke is more overtly serious in his approach to God than Hafiz, but in my favourite book of his Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, there is the same intimacy, the same longing for union with the Divine, and the same belief that this is possible, for human beings, here and now. The edition I own has the German text on the left hand pages, and the English on the right, which is lovely for me. I have a little German, and having read the English first, can then turn to the original and savour it.

However, that is not the reason why I love this book so much. It is the warm connection between the poet and God which runs through all the poems - sometimes it is God speaking, sometimes the poet. But like Hafiz, there is a closeness, a familiarity with the Divine in Rilke's words, which is so delicious to read.  Rilke has a personal and close relationship with god. There is no feeling that God is Up There, or Over There, or Somewhere Else. God is Here and Now and Everywhere. it is a relationship based on love, rather than judgement. I find it exhilarating.

Since that time, I have learned that these two are not as alone and singular as I first thought. I have come to know and love the poetry of people such as John O'Donohue, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, and Denise Levertov. But I will always be grateful to that Summer School, for introducing me to such wonderful poetry, which feeds my soul.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Discerning the Spirit

I am currently doing a wonderful course at the London Centre for Spirituality, which is training me to become a spiritual director. It's not like an ordinary training course, more like my ministry training, in so far as it is as much about formation as it is about learning.

Our session this week was very deep and rich, concerning the role of the Spirit in spiritual direction. I believe that whether the Spirit works uniquely through human beings, or is present throughout the universe doesn't really matter. What I do believe is that the Spirit is an active divine presence who is with us always. So, I am warming to the idea that in any spiritual direction session, there are three present - the director, the directee, and the Spirit. And that it is the Spirit who really does the direction; the director's job is to hold the space, and to guide / accompany the directee to enable him/her to discern where the Spirit is at work in his/her life. It is also up to us as directors to discern where the Spirit is present / working during the session, and to hold the silence, or choose the words, that will enable this.

This is not head work. This is heart work. It is based on trust: trust between director and directee, and trust by both in the process, and in the Spirit. I have been a directee myself for three and a half years now, and know from experience what a rich process it can be. I feel so very privileged to be able to pay it forward.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Making Connections

This afternoon, I travelled up to Birmingham on the train to have dinner with some friends, who are leading a workshop for me tomorrow. Normally, I find train journeys fairly tedious, and bury myself in a book. But this one was different.

When I arrived on Platform 2 of Northampton station, there was an elderly couple (obviously grandparents) with a little boy (aged 2, as I later discovered). I thought they were waiting for the same train as me, and made a mental note to move along the platform when it arrived, as the young man was questionsome, to say the least. But I'm so glad I didn't. The grandmother was talking to him about the freight train that was going through, and I asked the grandfather if they were travelling to Birmingham, like me. He replied: "Oh no, we're here for two hours every week. He just loves the trains."

He went on to tell a lovely story about a kindly guard who let them travel to Long Buckby (the next station) and back for nothing, because he knew young J. would be so thrilled. And I felt so warm, just to be a part of this lovely story.

Next, on the train, I got talking to a couple of young women who got on at Rugby. One of them sounded similar to a friend of mine, so I took a risk, and asked if her family had come from Jamaica. At first she was a bit wary (was I being racist?) but when I explained that I wanted to pick her brains about Caribbean funeral traditions, she couldn't have been more helpful (or informative).

Finally, a young woman in a niqab, with just her eyes showing, was travelling with a young boy, who had a runny nose. So I fished in my handbag and passed over a tissue. And she thanked me, and gave me such a grateful look.

All this on one journey. I felt honoured to be a part of the human race.



Friday, 17 April 2015

Living With Imperfection

For much of my life, I have been a very judgemental person, summing up people and situations almost instantly. I admit it, I have very often been wrong. And one of the people I have been most wrong about (because most harsh and judgemental about) is myself.

I love the words of Francis de Sales: "When it comes to being gentle, start with yourself. Don't get upset with your imperfections ... It's a great mistake - because it leads nowhere - to get angry because you are angry, upset at being upset, disappointed because you are disappointed. ... You cannot correct a mistake by repeating it."

"It is a great mistake, because it leads nowhere. ... You cannot correct a mistake by repeating it." Oh.

The first time I read those words, a few months ago, I was working through a period of fierce self-hatred. There were issues in my life that I wasn't happy with - which have since, I am glad to say, been largely resolved - and I hated myself for how I was reacting to the situation.

So I read those words of Francis de Sales, and realised that all I was doing was to pile up anger on top of anger, upset on top of upset, and disappointment on top of disappointment, rather than trying to gently, rationally, explore how *not to* repeat my mistakes. And learning how, instead, to move on, and heal, and heal others.

I also came across a quote by the Buddha the other day, which illustrates this very nicely: "Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." Just roll that around in your mind for a moment, and consider the implications of it. It means that when we feel negative emotions and let them eat us up inside (because this is not only true of anger) it is WE who are suffering, not the person against whom they are directed.

So I am practicing accepting negative stuff as part of life, and trying to just move on, sailing down the river of Life like a serene swan, unflurried by the occasional ripple. It isn't easy, but golly, it's a lot more peaceful, and I feel a lot better inside myself.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Vulnerable to Change

Oh dear. I have just changed my e-mail address, because my old e-mail internet service provider has decided to stop supporting domestic e-mails in the near future. And because my new e-mail address is a gmail one, I'm having huge problems changing my access to this blog.

And it has made me realise how very reliant I have become on this technology, which I don't understand, and just expect to work.

Until it doesn't.

Even now, I don't know why or how it's suddenly decided to let me in. *sigh*

And just to frustrate me even more, it seems to be virtually impossible to contact Google help directly - you just get directed to a multiple-choice help forum, which is no darn help at all.

Now I have a headache, my head looks like Struwwelpeter's because I've been clutching it in despair, and my stomach is in a tight, frustrated knot.

There must be a better way. I wonder, no, I know, that I have taken this wonderful internet world of ours for granted for too long, being content to be a competent end-user, and leaving problem-solving to the professionals. This afternoon, I have realised how very vulnerable to any changes I am, because I don't understand how the system works.

It's not a nice feeling. But this blog is an important part of my ministry, and I am loathe to give it up. I know there will be a way round it eventually, and all will go back to normal.

I just worry that I, and all of us, are sticking our collective heads in the sand. Our whole society is reliant on systems and machines that we didn't make, that are run by who knows who, garnering who knows what information about us all along the way. What if we run out of fuel for power stations? Or if a major internet player, like Google, is hacked into and corrupted?

I don't have any answers, only questions. So I'm going to finish this, then log off, curl up in a corner of the sofa and read my new book. At least I can rely on that not to shut me out!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

A Vision for Our Future

This year's GA meetings were the usual rich mix of plenary meetings, fringe meetings and workshops, and wonderful worship. They are a time for catching up with old friends, for meeting new ones, and for gaining new insights into the way our denomination survives and thrives.

 Generally, (I have to confess) I find the Plenary (or business) meetings fairly tedious. As a minister and voting member of the Assembly, I attend them all, but listening to reports from various worthy Unitarian bodies is not my idea of fun or even interesting, most of the time. I know they are necessary, and vital parts of the General Assembly's work as a democratic body, and I don't see any other way of doing it, but, it's not generally riveting listening.

But this year, in the packs we had been given on arrival, was a 48-page document called A Vision for Our Future. There had been a Vision Day at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel back in September 2014, which I had attended, and which had produced some exciting ideas. Robert Ince, who is Convenor of the Executive Committee, presented this document to the Assembly, as part of the Executive Committee's Annual Report.

And it is really, really rich. The ideas of the Vision Day participants have been collated under three headings: "We want to be ....", "We must ....", and "To do this, we need to ....". They are included below. And then the EC has commissioned nineteen articles, by various Unitarian luminaries, both ministerial and lay, giving their "takes" on these ideas. Many of these have already been published, in either The Inquirer or The Unitarian. But seeing them altogether in one place really adds to their impact, in my opinion. Each one of them is inspirational. Together, they are a clarion call for action.

"We want to be ......
  • A faith that matters
  • A reflection of the world's complexity, bound together by our many different views
  • A spiritual feast for each person to bring and share ideas and experience
  • A promoter of social justice for all, listening and responding to the needs of others
  • There for everyone

We must ......
  • Tell the world we're here
  • Be understood by the public
  • Connect to people everywhere
  • Serve our communities
  • Develop personal leadership
  • Be religiously literate
  • Provide Ministry that enables ministry
  • Prepare for our children's future

To do this, we need to ......
  • Harness our energy
  • Use our resources to the full
  • Embrace new technology
  • Acknowledge contribution and success
  • Empower individuals
  • Make change happen"

In the introduction to the document, Robert Ince writes: "This vision, though created with a view to the Unitarian Movement nationally, applies just as easily to Districts and congregations. ... it can become a uniting factor in our search for a better future. We all hope that it will serve to inspire those many individuals who love our Movement so deeply to join together in serving by whatever means they are able."

Let us, in the District Associations and the congregations, resolve to not just read this document and nod our heads approvingly, and then do nothing. Let us Do Something about this. Read the articles, discuss them amongst ourselves, and then decide what we can do to make the ideas in them a reality.