“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

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Happy Birthday to Me - Being Sober Rocks!

Well, I did it! 15 months ago today, I stopped smoking. And one year ago tonight, I had my last glass of wine.

My Choose Life tattoo - done to celebrate six months sober
And now that I've got here, how do I feel? Pretty meh, actually, which is a shame, because it is a Fantastic Achievement. This time last year I was frightened about how much control drink had over me - it was a strong daily habit that took some courage and guts to break, and to keep on breaking. For a whole year, in the face of many opportunities and provocations to start again.  Not to mention downright encouragement from well-meaning but misguided idiots, who say things like "Just one wouldn't hurt" or "If you just have a drink today, you can go back to being sober tomorrow."

No, I can't, actually. It's exactly like giving up smoking - you either do or you don't. For me, there is no pleasant half-way-house of "the occasional glass at a weekend". I *know* myself well enough to know that if I once started again, it would soon be back up to between half and one bottle of red wine a night, just like the old days.

So I'm going to stick to my resolution, and remain AF, and maintain my self-respect. I've got through the crucial first year - First Christmas, First Holiday, First GA Meetings, First Summer School, the kids leaving home, and I've Done It. And that is something to be proud of, and to celebrate.

I guess the reason why I don't feel much like celebrating is two-fold:

1) the automatic way it occurs to me to celebrate in this drinking culture of ours is *still* by having a drink. Not Good. In the past year, these are the times I have found hardest - when there has been something to celebrate, and the automatic reaction of all concerned has been "Let's drink to that" (whatever it is). And I feel very left out and kill-joyish. Which I'm not. I'm just someone who has had to take a different path. I've also found I get pretty bored at social functions, when all around are getting slowly pissed, and loud and happy with it, and I'm just sitting there. Not so bad if I have access to my beloved Becks Blue AF lager, but dire otherwise.

2) Contrary to my expectations, I haven't lost any weight. Unlike friends who have travelled the same route as me, and lost shedloads of weight, my weight has remained the same. (I know fine well why - I replaced an addiction for red wine with an addiction for Cadbury's Dairy Milk). Not as dangerous, but not conducive to losing weight.

But I have NEVER regretted my decision to go AF, and am *exceedingly proud* to have made it through the first year, with a lot of help from fellow Soberistas. There is still the odd hard day, but they are few and far between, and I am never in any serious danger of caving in, and drinking again. 

And that is my life. I'm sober, likely to stay that way, and enjoying every day of it.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Exploring pleasures, treasures, hopes, and dreams

Last week I was at Summer School. This is an annual week of spiritual exploration and learning for Unitarians, held at the Nightingale Centre at Great Hucklow towards the end of August. In terms of spiritual growth, it is the most precious week of the year for me.


And when you arrive on the Saturday afternoon, you never know how the week is going to turn out. You just know that you will not leave as the same person you arrived. As part of our Sunday Service, Michael Dadson had us singing:

"Open up a Hucklow bubble, wide enough to hold the week.
Open a space like a smiling face, hold it with unsuspecting grace.
No-one knows what's coming - only when it's here!
Open up a Hucklow bubble, for the blessings of the week!"

And it *is* a bubble - a week out of your ordinary life, during which amazing things happen. The theme for this year was The Authentic Self, and we were led on a rich and satisfying exploration of who we really are, when you strip away all the roles, all the poses, all the superficial stuff. The theme talk speakers and engagement group leaders invited us to dig deep, and there was a dazzling variety of optional activities in the afternoons and evenings which supported the process. Among other things, I enjoyed learning to write Haiku, zen-doodling, mindful colouring, walking a labyrinth (probably the highlight), walking in the beautiful Derbyshire Peak District, and singing wonderful Unitarian hymns and songs.

And, also as usual, I have learned a lot about myself, and have also learned some things that I am able to bring home and incorporate into my life and my ministry. I have made some new friends, and grown closer to old ones. And I have made four commitments, which I hope to honour:

1. I commit to loving my whole self.
2. I commit to letting go of ineffective anger.
3. I commit to recognising the Spirit at work in my life and to writing about it.
4. I commit to being more serene and peaceful.

Summer School is one of very few places that I get the chance to do this sort of work, and it is very precious. I've said before and I'll say again: Hucklow at Summer School time reminds me of Rivendell, as Bilbo describes it in The Hobbit: it is "a perfect house", whether you like going deep, sharing joys and concerns and laughter, arty-crafty-creativity, new spiritual practices, walking in the beautiful Peak District, singing, storytelling, good company, playing games "or a pleasant mixture of them all." It is very, very special.




Friday, 15 August 2014

Finding Things In Common

It is fashionable in Unitarian circles to put the emphasis on our individuality as Unitarians. Each of us, we are told, is on his or her own unique spiritual and religious journey, following the dictates of his or her individual conscience. Even the title of my very favourite Unitarian book emphasises this individuality.


And that is good. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

BUT

Sometimes, just sometimes, when a stranger asks me the question "What do Unitarians believe?", it would be *so nice* not to have to use endless disclaimers, and to just boldly proclaim: "Unitarians believe x, y, and z."

No qualification, just statements. This is what Unitarians believe / stand for. Full Stop.

Which got me wondering - *are* there things which we can unite around? Stephen Lingwood, on his Reignite blog a few weeks ago (July 17th to be precise) , and later in The Inquirer, listed eleven theological commitments, about which he believes that Unitarians could agree. And I, for one, would agree with them, and with him.

I wonder whether we could start a conversation going, perhaps on Facebook, perhaps elsewhere, discussing all the propositions / beliefs / standards which Unitarians have in common, or at least are prepared to concede as valid viewpoints, even if they do not personally share them. We could even formulate our own 95 theses, as Matthew Fox did a few years ago.

Here are five to start us off:

1. The right of the individual to freedom of belief is sacrosanct, so long as that belief does not harm anyone.
2. Being alive is a process of continuous and continuing revelation, so the mind and heart should be open to new ideas.
3. Every individual has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves.
4. The best tools to do this are an inquiring mind and one's own reason and conscience.
5. It is the responsibility of Unitarian communities to provide and hold a sacred space in which religious and spiritual exploration can take place.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Hoping for Peace

This week has seen a number of significant and tragic anniversaries: 100 years ago on Monday, Britain declared war on Germany, and World War One started. 70 years ago on Monday, a Jewish family hiding in Amsterdam were betrayed, and Anne Frank and her family were sent to concentration camps. And 69 years ago on Wednesday and tomorrow, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


It is now generally accepted that World War One was a senseless waste of human life. But many folk would argue that World War Two was justified, on the grounds that Hitler had to be stopped. However, like most wars, this too soon got out of hand, and both sides bombed civilians indiscriminately, culminating in the unprecedented horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There may not have been a World War since 1945, but there has never been World Peace. And of course horror is being piled upon horror in Gaza, as I write this. And the rest of the Middle East is also unquiet, to say the very least. Not to mention Africa, and other parts of the world. As a human race, we seem to have learned nothing about living together in peace.

I believe that it is the responsibility of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead. Faith groups and others the world over are attempting to influence their government and fellow citizens to work towards a more peaceful happier world, in which war would no longer be necessary. We just all need to work together, and to keep at it, until humankind finally realises that peace is so much better than war, for everyone. There are so many ordinary people getting together, the world over, to work for peace and reconciliation. Let us hope that their voices are heard.

Most wars are allegedly fought to bring peace - a most ingenious paradox! We should remember the dead, but also pledge ourselves to make our world a better place - to end all wars, to relieve world debt, to feed the hungry, to find a cure for AIDS, to stop destroying our environment. It is still a beautiful planet, or it could be, if we could only learn to live together in peace.


Amen, Amen.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

And the Wheel of the Year Turns

Lughnasadh (the Pagan festival of First Harvest) is coming right on time this year - it is due to be celebrated next Friday. And this past week has seen the fields around my village change from golden fields of corn and barley and rapeseed to brown, ploughed-in fields of stubble. The weather has been perfect for Harvest, and the farmers' only complaint must be of the lack of hours in the day. They are starting early and finishing late, and the roads around the village are full of tractors and other agricultural vehicles which we hardly see for the rest of the year. It doesn't pay to be in a hurry!


I have always felt immensely privileged to live in the countryside, where I can still be in touch with the changing seasons of the year. Every year the same, and every year different. It evokes feelings of awe and gratitude, as I watch the first green shoots growing strong and high, flowering, and then ripening. Then the crops are harvested, and the countryside exhales, and settles down for its winter dormancy. Every year the same, and every year different.

And on the village allotments, the runner beans are ready, so are the courgettes, and the raspberries and the salad vegetables, and the maize is coming on nicely. There too, it looks like being a bumper harvest. All the back-breaking work of digging, weeding and anxiously tending has paid off. Every year the same, and every year different.

It is also coming up to the season of exam results, as GCSE, AS and A2 students wait to discover whether their hard work over the past year has paid off. Some students will be delighted with good results, others will be devastated by unexpected failures, and will have to scrabble around for Plan B. Every year the same, and every year different.

So I pray for a goodly crop of exam results this year, and some happy students ready to move on to the next phase in their young lives.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Passing the Buck

Three separate news items have caught my attention this week - all of which are varying aspects on taking responsibility for your actions.

image posted by Harshdeep Kaur
The first is the escalating situation in Palestine, as Hamas continue to attack Israel, and the Israelis continue to attack the Palestinians, and unarmed civilians die by the hundred, and the only winners are the international arms trade, including the United Kingdom. A few brave individuals are working for peace, and being vilified by both sides for their trouble. I have no answers to this - ultimately, the situation will continue to worsen, so long as neither side will sit down and listen to the other.

The second is the tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines plane, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. The Ukrainians and Russians are both playing the blame game, refusing to admit responsibility, and partially blaming the pilot for flying so close to an area deemed unsafe for civilian aircraft. The prospect of an open international air accident investigation is also being blocked. In the meantime, nearly 300 innocent civilians have lost their lives, and their families are in mourning.

The third, which I heard with some bemusement this morning, was that the widow of a lung cancer victim in the US had successfully sued a tobacco company for billions of dollars, for not warning her husband of the dangers of smoking. I have to admit that this one made me gasp in disbelief - I don't think the tobacco company was forcing her husband to smoke - he *chose* to smoke, and must surely be responsible for that choice. But I understand that they are appealing against the verdict.

Three different situations; three incidents of evading responsibility. I know it takes more courage to hold your hand up and say "It's a fair cop; it was my fault - I'm sorry." But until people start to do that, the world will continue to become a more violent, nastier place, and the innocent will continue to suffer. All we can do, as individuals, is to work for peace and justice, wherever we are.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Hatred or Forgiveness?

I really don't like the word "hate" and all that it stands for. Years ago, I would have said "I hate x or y or z", whether I was talking about black pepper or the latest government idiocy or nuclear weapons, but as the years have passed, I have become more and more wary of its insidious power, and try to avoid using it.

image: expeditionwellness.com
So when a friend posted the following on the UK Unitarians' Facebook page today, it really caught my attention: "A 4-word slogan appeared in my inbox today. The third word was HATE. Is it within our theology and values to hate anything, even really nasty things like genocide, governmental terrorism and bullying? At Golders Green we are trying to reach a consensus "Vision" statement about our purpose as a congregation, and the present draft includes "guided by conscience, kindness, and compassion". With those values, we could "oppose" or "resist" evil ... but "hate"?? What do people think and feel?"

My response was to say "Hate diminishes the one who hates. I agree that one should oppose and resist evil, but not hate." To my surprise, somebody else responded that they were "fine with 'hate' - for me it denotes a passion that the other words do not."

By coincidence, there has also been a lively thread over on the Unitarians Facebook page today, concerning a new anti-Zionist Facebook group. I was one of several friends who commented against it, saying that I "would not support a group based on hate, rather than compassion. My feeling is that the most important thing that Unitarians can do as an open, inclusive community is to try to live by the Golden Rule, and spread compassion from where we are." But in no time at all, the thread has become very heated, with some real verbal vitriol being spewed around. Proof, if any were needed, that the path of hatred is a negative one.

I believe that one of the major reasons for religious intolerance and religious strife (or at least for intolerance and strife in the *name* of religion) is fear of the unknown. The vast majority of people know very little about other religions, and it is part of human nature to fear the unknown (or the different). Ignorance breeds intolerance, which in turn breeds fear and hatred, which can easily turn into all-out violence. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous politicians who sit at particular points on the religious divide, see it as their job in life to foment intolerance and fear, so that they can whip up "their" people to commit acts of aggression and violence in the name of religion or a particular political path or whatever. The links between states and religions are very strong; the dividing line between tribalism and nationalism is a very thin one.

Karen Armstrong launched the Charter for Compassion in 2009, because she believed that there was a better way to conduct human affairs than violence, and that the practice of compassion is crucially important in the work of peace. Desmond and Mpho Tutu understand this too - I am currently reading their The Book of Forgiving, and have been struck by their belief that "The quality of human life on our planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another. Each time we help, and each time we harm, we have a dramatic impact on our world. Because we are human, some of our interactions will go wrong, and then we will hurt, or be hurt, or both. it is the nature of being human, and it is unavoidable. Forgiveness is the way we set those interactions right. It is the way we mend tears in the social fabric. It is the way we stop our human community from unravelling." Their Fourfold Path is shown in the image above.

By forgiving each other. Not by hatred. It's not an easy path, but I do believe it is the right one.