“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, 23 June 2017

The Next Right Thing

It's a funny old thing, life. Every morning we get up, wash, eat breakfast, and then face the day ahead. But how often do we actually appreciate each day, moment by moment? And how do the choices we make, moment by moment, affect how our days go?

Wayne Muller, in his wonderful book A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough, asks: "What is the next right thing for us to do? Where in this moment, shall we choose to place our time and attention? Do we stay or move, speak or keep silent, attend to this person, that task, move in this or that direction?"

I don't know about you, but to me, this seems to be such a simple approach to life, much less stressful than being worried about a thousand possible alternatives. You just concentrate on the Next Right Thing - give that your time and attention, and then go on to the next one.

But I'm very conscious that "simple" does not mean the same thing as "easy". This moment by moment approach to our lives *is* elegantly beautiful in its simplicity, but it is by no means easy to do. Because it means that we have to be conscious, awake, moment by moment, so that we make our many small choices with awareness, rather than blindly, depending on how we are feeling at the time. Actively considering each choice, moment by moment, actually sounds quite like hard work.

But it is the most important work in the world.

Because if we look at our lives, really examine them, we can see that they *are* the result of all the choices we have made, in the past days and months and years. It is a gradual, moment by moment process, yet the results of it have shaped our lives. All of us are where we are now, today, because of our past choices. And where we end up, tomorrow and the next day, will depend on the choices we make today.

Samuel A. Trumbore wrote: "Each moment of wakefulness has so many gifts that offer energy and delight. Yet too often they seem unavailable, as the weight of our troubles press down on us ... Even in moments of great danger, the direction of attention is a choice. Fear can dominate the mind, binding it like a straitjacket. Or love can unbind it, and open it to resource and opportunity. ... Holding reality and possibility together is the holy, hope-filled work of humanity."

May we all choose love, may we all choose to follow the Next Right Thing.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Gift of Laughter

I have been feeling quite sad just lately. Two important parts of my life are coming to an end (which is right and good, but still makes me sad) and my prevailing mood has been one of gentle melancholy, which has made normal functioning feel like pushing a rock uphill. I've kept on keeping on, but it has been an effort.

So this evening, I took Terry Pratchett's wonderful book 'A Slip of the Keyboard' off the shelves. It is a posthumous collection of his non-fiction pieces, and is full of gems. I was reading it with quiet amusement, chuckling to myself occasionally - he writes so beautifully, on a wide variety of topics.

Then came a sentence which made me laugh so much that the tears were rolling down my cheeks: "That was because we realized that the Race for Space had been a mad bout of international willie-waving."

I am giggling again as I type - it is possibly the best description of international power politics that I have ever come across. It took several minutes for me to control my mirth sufficiently to explain to my bemused husband what was so funny.

But since then, I have felt so much better, so much lighter. Truly, a good laugh restores the soul. Thank God. And thank Terry.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Embracing Equality

I have been watching the new BBC3 series Queer Britain with fascination. I have many LGBT friends, who are just that - my friends - simply because I like them as unique individuals.

But the topics which each of the programmes have covered - faith, body image, homelessness, and ethnicity, have never been so clearly defined for me within the LGBT context. So I have learned much, and have new insights about what it means to be an LGBT person in the UK today.

Some of the stories have been heartbreaking - it seems that discrimination in all its nasty forms is alive and well, not only among heterosexuals, but also within the LGBT community. The issues of body image and race have great potency - one black lesbian woman commented sadly on the latest programme: "I feel like a triple minority - black, lesbian, and female."

And I thought: "Sh*t! She's right - I get that." Because as a straight, white woman, I am only too aware that I shelter behind two bastions of often unconscious privilege, but can understand from the inside what discrimination against women looks like. And can understand what having body image issues feels like, although I had not formerly appreciated their particular significance for many LGBT folk.

Ultimately this is all about judging people by how they identify themselves or how we identify them - by what they look like, how they dress, the colour of their skin, their age, and their sexual orientation. Whenever we judge people by what they *are*, rather than for their behaviour, we are guilty of being non-inclusive, on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, age, size and [dis]ability, to name the most common nasty behaviours. Which seem to be all to prevalent in UK society today, no matter what we look like or whom we are attracted to.

Why do we do this to ourselves, to each other? We are all human beings, each one unique, each one worthy of love and justice and respect, each one with unique gifts to offer. As my friend Yvonne remarked when I shared this post with her: "everyone is an unique combination of beauty and diversity, and we should celebrate that. And each form of oppression of that beauty and diversity is different, with its own distinct history which is different in different places, which is why we need feminism, and LGBT liberation, and Black liberation, and the disability rights campaign, ... rather than a single munged-together "human" campaign."

We need to be aware of ourselves and each other as "unique combinations of beauty and diversity" and to respect and appreciate the struggles that each of us goes through to be recognised as such.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Coming Together in Peace

When something dreadful, like the Manchester Arena bombing this week, happens, we have a choice about how we are going to respond. It's quite a simple choice, really, and it's made a quite a deep, often sub-conscious level. We can choose to respond with fear or hatred, or we can choose to respond with love.

Many followers of this blog will know that I am currently undertaking a survey of Unitarian beliefs and spirituality, which I will be writing up over the summer. Two of the questions are:

"What do you believe about the nature of evil?" and "What does the concept of sin mean to you?"

I believe that in the violent world in which we live, it is vital to think these things through, so that we can respond appropriately, when incidents like the Manchester bombing happen.

So let's think about the nature of evil. My own belief is that nobody is born evil. Who could believe that an innocent babe, fresh from the womb, is evil? Nevertheless, through a combination of factors, such as upbringing, poor environment, bad nutrition, mental instability, addiction, brain-washing, people are driven to do acts which we judge to be evil. Almost all my respondents so far are very clear that *no-one* is evil in the beginning, but that the capacity to do evil is within every human being, and must be kept in check, by each and every one of us. Evil comes from an absence of compassion, an inability to feel with the other. It is about the deliberate choice to do the wrong thing, not the right one. Which many people would define as sin.

But people are not evil. Only the acts they do are evil. It is important to hold on to that distinction. I have to wonder what lies the Manchester suicide bomber was told, that he would believe that blowing himself and other people up was the next right thing to do. I feel for his family, who are surely grieving for a beloved son, a beloved brother.

For me, the lies that the suicide bomber was surely told are the real sin, the real evil. Sin is a falling short of the standards we know are right, that we should be aspiring to. Many of my respondents defined the concept of sin as this falling short, as making the wrong choice, as separation from God, from good. Again, they were very clear that this is a learned thing - every respondent so far was totally against the idea of 'original sin' - that human beings are born flawed.

And we need to hold on to the other side of things too - the outpouring of love and compassion and support that we have seen in the last few days. On the night of the bombing, Twitter was filled with offers of support - of a room for the night, of food, drink, safe transport home, anything that people could think of. The emergency services did their usual splendid job, and taxi drivers of all religions and none turned off their meters, and showed up at Manchester Arena to offer a free ride home to anyone who needed it. Local hospitals have been flooded with offers to give blood.

The British Red Cross, in conjunction with the Manchester authorities, has now set up a 'We Love Manchester Emergency Fund', and money has been pouring in to support the families and friends of the victims. Because once this horrific story fades out of the news, which it surely will, these people are still going to be bereaved, still going to have to live with the consequences of that young man's evil deed. In less than a week, over £5.6 million pounds has been raised. My own small congregation at Banbury gave £50 yesterday. Every penny will be needed.

Tolkien, as ever, has it right. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo comments "I wish it need not have happened in my time" To which Gandalf responds: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." May we decide well, and respond with love.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Knowledge vs Wisdom

For many young people (and some not-so-young) May and June are the most stressful months of the year. It is the time of year when all their accumulated knowledge, gained by hard work in classroom or lecture theatre or library, is tested. And on the results of those exams, their entire futures often depend.

It seems so unfair that our academic year is structured to end in the Summer, although I understand why it does: in former times, children had to be available during the Summer months to help with the Harvest.

But it is so hard to have to be indoors, either revising, or in an exam, when outside the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and there are so many fun things they would rather be doing. I can remember sitting my O and A levels in a sweltering, airless gym, wishing I could be anywhere else.

Looking back across the many years since then, I wonder at how little of the knowledge and facts I crammed into my brain in those days has come in useful in later life (except in pub quizzes!). Admittedly, I am eternally grateful to Mr. Griffith-Jones, the English teacher who passed on his love of good literature, but otherwise, not much else has had any lasting meaning for me, or influence on me.

It makes me wonder whether we are teaching our children the right things in school. I think that perhaps there is too much emphasis on gaining knowledge, on the accumulation of facts, and not enough on learning the important lessons of life, through gaining wisdom.

Perhaps wisdom cannot be learned through study, but only through the experiences of our lives. Wisdom is more about being awake, about paying attention to what is going on around us. Wisdom is more a way of living in the world; of responding to it, following the best that we know. it is about working out what we believe is right and good and true, and then trying to live wholeheartedly, with all of ourselves, as Brene Brown would say.

There are many great teachers of wisdom around, if we could only learn to wake up and pay attention to them. We may learn wisdom by reading the words of wise men and women, or by listening to the worship leader in church or chapel on a Sunday; but I think that a surer route is through our own life experiences.

There is nothing to beat actually experiencing something to teach us the wisdom it holds. For example, a child can be told repeatedly that fire burns, but it is only when she sticks her finger in the candle flame that she learns.

The opportunities to gain wisdom are all around us - in the wonders of Creation, in our interactions with one another, and in the things we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

Let us resolve to be awake and pay attention.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Losing Track of Time

It has been a crazy busy few weeks - I've had several major events to prepare for, organise, and partly deliver, including the Spring Training Day on How Unitarians Do Communion, the District AGM, and, just last week, the 2017 Annual Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. During which I had two slots to look after, and two stalls to help mind. As well as keeping track of requests for and responses to my survey of Unitarian beliefs and spirituality, which was launched towards the end of March.

And these are just the highlights. There has been all the "normal" stuff to do as well - leaders no worship, pastoral care, spiritual direction training and sessions, putting newsletters together, and all the other stuff involved with ministry. Then there is the non-ministry stuff: domestic tasks and self-care, including going to the gym four times a week, and trying to find the time to do some creative writing and art.

I normally keep on top (or at least nearly so) of all this by means of a very detailed weekly To Do List, which is written on a Sunday evening for the week ahead. Each task, whether for work or not, is assigned to a particular day, and I tend to "front-load" the week by having Monday and Tuesday as my desk work days (unless something comes up, Wednesday (if I can manage it) as my rest day, leaving Thursday and Friday more flexible, for whatever comes up or is needed. Saturday and Sunday are generally work days. Then it all starts again.

I share all this by force of contrast to my current situation. It is earlyish on Tuesday morning, and I'm sitting up in bed in a Welsh barn with a notepad balanced on my knees, listening to my husband in the shower and to the farm sounds outside the window. I've no idea what we are going to do today, and quite honestly, I don't care, so long as we are together and enjoying ourselves.

Presently, I will get up, prepare for the day and eat some breakfast. Then we'll decide what we fancy doing, according to what the weather looks like, and how we feel.

My normal watch is very accurate, and I know to the second what time it is. Each working minute is meticulously recorded, so that I know I'm giving the District good value for the stipend they pay me. I am conscious of the time, almost all of the time.

But not this week. I have a special watch, which I only use on rest-days and holidays. It came from Belarus, and only has (by design) one hand. The dial show the twelve hours in their usual configuration, but the space between each number is divided into four, indicating quarter-hours,  then each of those (very small) spaces are further divided into three, indicating five minutes. In practice, when I've not got my glasses on, I can't really see the five-minute markers clearly, so I generally only know the time to the nearest 15 minutes, as in "it's somewhere between quarter-past and half-past".

It is surprising how liberating this is. I normally do a fair impression of the White Rabbit from 'Alice in Wonderland', rushing from one task to the next, always busy. But when I use my holiday watch, I am tacitly giving myself permission to lighten up, to follow my heart and gut, to do what I want, rather than what I ought.

"What is this world, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" Asks W.H. Davies. So I am standing and staring, losing all track of time, and nourishing my soul.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Creative Time

For most of my adult life, I have considered myself to be a "morning person" - somebody who gets their best work done between breakfast and lunch.

But in recent years, and particularly in recent months, I have found that while I do my best work-related work between breakfast and lunch, the creative part of my brain seems to be developing a strong preference for the middle of the night - usually between 2 and 3 a.m.

So I googled "When is the best time to write?" and came across a fascinating article by Cathy Presland, on the blog 'Author Unlimited'. The scientific opinion seems to be that the best time to write is first thing in the morning, before you've showered, had breakfast, anything, because it is when your willpower is at its strongest.

But the part of the article which interested me was the argument that "The area of the brain that is linked to creativity is most active during and immediately after sleep. As you wake up and get on with your day, then this creative condition leaves you and the analytical side of your brain kicks in."

It seems that it depends on how your brain works. Some people find writing late at night works best for them; others, like me, prefer to be creative early doors (or even in the middle of the night) and would rather edit and do research later on in the day.

I would be fascinated to hear how other creative writers divide their time - do you do your original writing in the morning, and edit / do research in the afternoon? Or do you write creatively late at night, and edit / do research the next morning?