“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, 20 November 2015

Foundations of Faith

The other day, a Unitarian friend commented: "A religion or a faith (any faith, or any philosophy for that matter) that needs to be defended with aggression or arrogance is not a faith or religion that I recognise as true and it is not a 'strong' faith with a good foundation but a weak one that seeks to cover up its own shakiness."

In the light of recent terrorist activities around the globe, this really rang true with me. Although I would not describe the DAESH / ISIL terrorists as representing anything but their own extremist insecurities - they are certainly not representing Muslims. Practically every post I have seen on Facebook since the bombings in Paris and Beirut have sought to express the outrage that ordinary Muslims feel about these attacks, which are being perpetrated against everything they believe in.

But I think these words also have wisdom for my own Unitarian context. While Unitarians on different parts of the belief spectrum are not likely to descend to actual bodily violence against each other, there can be some pretty fierce altercations on Unitarian pages on Facebook.

Which I find very ironic, since, in the words of the founding father of Unitarianism in Transylvania, Francis David: "We need not think alike to love alike." Cliff Reed, Minister Emeritus at Ipswich, puts it this way;

" The Unitarians are a community of people who take their religion, or their spirituality, liberally. That is to say, we hold that all people have the right to believe what their own life-experience tells them is true; what the promptings of their own conscience tells them is right. We say that each person's spiritual or intuitive experience deserves respect; that everyone's deep reflection and reasoning on religious and ethical questions should be taken seriously.

Unitarians form a movement that tries to put these affirmations into practice. Our local religious communities offer a setting where people can worship, explore, and share faith together in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual respect."

A few years ago, I would have said that I agreed with Cliff's statement completely. But I now believe that while people have the right to *believe* what their life experience and conscience tells them to be true, it is *essential* that these ideas pass the Pagan test of "so long as they don't harm anyone else."

In other words, if anyone feels the need to defend their beliefs with aggression or arrogance, as my friend said, then perhaps they need to go back to the Golden Rule, and consider whether what they are writing or saying is likely to upset or offend others. This is not to say that people should not stand up for their beliefs, but that they should do so in a respectful manner.

We are all human beings - surely we can at least try to live together in peace?

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Plea for Peace and Compassion

There are certain things I believe, and believe passionately, that some, with their different views of the world, do not believe. And it is hard for me to see these cherished beliefs trampled into the dust by their insistence that their reality is the only true one.

I believe that peace is to be worked for, and witnessed for, and struggled for, and that war and violence and automatic retaliation should only be the very, very last resorts, not the automatic go-to solution. I believe that the governments of the Great Powers, mainly in the West, but also in Russia and China and Saudi Arabia, are so invested in the arms trade, and in violence and intolerance and hatred of the Other (whoever the Other might be) that there is little hope for peace.

Which makes the need to witness for the possibilities that peace and compassion bring ever more urgent, day by day.

I believe that Western privilege and widespread Western, white, male, Christian blindness *to* that privilege, are facts. We simply cannot appreciate what it is like to be persecuted or picked on daily, simply on account of our religious beliefs, the colour of our skin, our sexual orientation, or our disabilities. The only one I have some insight into, being a woman, is male privilege. And even that is denied by many, in 21st century Britain.

I believe that only when we make the empathic attempt to show compassion, by learning from what others say and write about how it feels to be Muslim, or black, or gay, or transgender, or in any other way Not Like Us, that we have any hope of moving past that bastion of privilege and meeting people where they are. As human beings, each a child of God, each with the same divine spark within, each with the same potential for good or evil.

While my Facebook feed turns red, white, and blue as friends rightly react with shock and sorrow to the killings in Paris, similar events in Beirut a few days ago barely made the inside pages of the broadsheets. And the Syrian refugees, who are fleeing from the violence of these same terrorists, are suffering misery and hunger, illness and hopelessness day by day in their over-crowded, insanitary camps, where Death and disease stalk hand-in-hand.

And I want to say that if you really care about people, give some money or some warm clothing to the organisations trying to stem that tide of human suffering. It is by such small acts of kindness towards our fellow human beings, that the world will turn, and times will change.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Greatest Remembrance of All

Part of a prayer by Unitarian minister Rev. Chris Goacher reads: "We gather in remembrance of those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom and safety of others, but also in shame at the wars we have failed to stop and the actions taken in our name ... Let us dedicate our selves to the greatest remembrance of all - that war should be no more."

These few words really sum up my feelings on Remembrance Sunday - that we should be grateful to, and remember with respect, those who sacrificed their lives that we might have peace; but also in sad reflection on the indifferent use we have made of it. it is a desperate irony that World War One was called 'The War To End All Wars', and yet, one hundred years on, humankind still seems unable to stop the fighting, the bloodshed, the cruelty, and wars continue to be fought the world over, for reasons of fear, and misunderstanding, the hunger for power, and the despising of the other.

So how can we dedicate ourselves to that "greatest remembrance of all - that war should be no more?" How can we, as individuals, and as spiritual and religious communities, witness for peace? How can we 'do our bit'? How can we make a difference?

I think we have to start where we are. It's all about compassion - trying to empathise with other people by imagining ourselves in their shoes. I am not naive enough to believe that we can "make it all better" by witnessing for peace and compassion. But we can at least try to be compassionate, where we are. For every other person we encounter is also a human being, a child of God, utterly worthy of being treated with justice, equity and respect.

Perhaps we can each make a resolution to reach out in friendship to our neighbours, to our friends, and even to casually-met strangers. Perhaps if we witness for peace in our own lives, this might have a knock-on effect, as the people we show compassion to, show compassion to others in their turn and so on.Who knows what we might be able to achieve, if we are brave enough to reach out in friendship, reach out in compassion, witness for peace?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Giving Thanks for Beauty

What a glorious morning for a walk. Blue sky and warm sunshine and a rainbow of wonderful Autumn colours - every shade of green, yellow, gold, copper, bronze, red and brown. I walked along the sunlit path into the forest and was reminded of a genius line by David Bowie, from Eight Line Poem "the sun that pins the branches to the sky."

Also that gorgeous part in The Lord of the Rings when Galadriel is singing about Lothlorien "I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew; I sang of wind, a wind there came, and in the branches blew." That wind was blowing the leaves from the trees into my path in a fine golden drizzle. When I got back, I noticed that one had lodged itself in my hair.

Through the hedge that lines the path I could see the yin and yang of ploughed and stubbled fields, dark brown and pale gold. The sails of the wind turbines a few miles away were turning lazily, and ahead of me, the path stretched into the distant forest, bathed in sunlight.

I stood awhile in silence, and thanked God for all this beauty, and for the privilege of being awake to witness it.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Reaching Out

Tomorrow, I am driving across to Cambridge, to meet seven people I've never met before, and one I've met once.We are all members of an online support network for women who no longer drink. I've been looking forward to meeting everyone for weeks, but now that it's upon me, I am feeling unaccountably nervous. Goodness knows why. Because on one level, I know these online friends much better, and on a deeper level, than many folk I know in the flesh. We support each other through thick and thin, and the network is a solid online community.

The arrangements for meeting up were getting a bit complicated. Which was making me feel a bit panicky. A whole platoon of "What if?" questions were springing up in my head, and I was on the edge of pulling out of the whole thing altogether, and having a quiet day at home.

Then I remembered something Brene Brown wrote about vulnerability, in her wonderful book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:

"When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them - people with whom we've cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story."

And I realised that these online friends of mine were such people. So I reached out and shared how panicky I was feeling, and asked to be met at the station. Straight away, two people got back to me, to let me know they would be there, waiting for me. So I will be going, after all.

Small kindnesses make big differences.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Holding It All Together

The last few weeks have been emotional for me, for both happy and sad reasons. There has been the joy of attending Summer School, which never fails to refresh my spirits and feed my soul, and  a peaceful week away in my beloved Peak District with my husband.

I have also been happy to know that my children-no-longer-children are embarking on new phases of their lives - my daughter is moving into a flat with her boyfriend as she starts her final year at University in Sheffield, and my son is spending an Erasmus year studying at the Charles University in Prague. I could not be prouder of them or happier for them. They have grown up into unique, strong, independent young people, and that is good.

But I am also suffering from empty nest syndrome - most of the time, I'm fine, but just occasionally, I miss one or the other or both of them like fury, and this boils over into tears. Daft, I know, but I cannot help it. And I am mourning the loss of my cousin, who died in June, and of a dear friend, who died at the beginning of the month. Both were in their fifties, both taken too young. Both much missed.

On Saturday, I spent the morning at a training day about leading a good funeral service - part of the Rites of Passage course I'm currently running in the District. It was wonderfully led by my friend and colleague, Ant Howe, and included a short memorial service, during which we could remember our own lost loved ones, while he held the space for us.

I went straight from there down the M40 to attend the joyous handfasting of a dear friend and her lovely OH. The main ceremony was conducted outside, according to the Wiccan tradition, and was followed by morris dancing and a delicious shared meal. It was a truly blessed occasion.

What I am in awe of is the capacity of human beings to hold all these emotions together at one time, and not actually burst! Over the last few weeks, my mood has swung between joy and sorrow, contentment and grief, often in the course of one day. It is so lovely (even if it is sometimes hard) to feel what I am feeling, and not to have numbed it with alcohol. I celebrated my second soberversary at the beginning of the month, which is a source of lasting contentment.

And so I am grateful, even for the hard bits, because I know I would not feel the pain of loss so keenly, if I did not love greatly.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Compassion, Not Judgement; Compassion, Not Fear

For the last few weeks, our television screens, newspapers, and Facebook feeds have been full of horrifying images of Syrian refugees, who have fled from the civil war which has been raging in their country for the last four years. Then one image, of a small three-year-old boy, lying dead, face down at the edge of the water on a Turkish beach, seems to have touched the hearts and minds of British people. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he and his five-year-old brother and his mother all lost their lives in their family's bid for asylum.

photo by Nilufer Demir / Reuters
As Somali poet Warsan Shire points out: "You have to understand, that no-one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. No-one burns their palms under trains, beneath carriages; no-one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper, unless the miles travelled mean something more than journey ... No-one leaves home unless [they know that] anywhere is safer than here."

These people are not economic migrants; they are refugees seeking asylum from the horrors they have experienced. All they want is a place of safety, where their houses will not be bombed, their young men kidnapped to fight for the regime, or members of their families killed. The charity Mercy Corps explains: "According to the UN, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. The youngest are confused and scared by their experiences, lacking the sense of safety and home they need. The older children are forced to grow up too fast, finding work and taking care of their family in desperate circumstances."

Not economic migrants, refugees.

The article on the Mercy Corps website makes for sobering reading. Four million Syrian refugees are currently in five host countries, including over 1.5 million in Turkey, over 1,150,000 in Lebanon, where one in five people are now Syrian refugees, nearly 625,000 in Jordan, where the figure is 1 in 13, and Iraq, and Egypt, who have also given hundreds of thousands of refugees shelter, at least at a very basic level. But their living conditions are far from adequate - people are living with no heat or running water, no proper sanitation, and are facing a very bleak future. At this rate, the United Nations predicts that there could be 4.27 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 - the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.

So the numbers seeking to come to Europe are a tiny fraction of those seeking safety. And I have just heard that Germany has agreed to take 800,000 of those. Many humanitarian organisations, including Mercy Corps, the Red Cross, Medecin Sans Frontieres, are partnering with the United Nations, using both private contributions and funding from the international community to actively address the needs of Syrians caught up in this terrible disaster. But so much more needs to be done.

Each one of these refugees is a person, a human being, not just a number, not just a nuisance. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the country's pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they are still in Syria, or have escaped across the borders.

So we need to show compassion, not judgement; compassion, not fear. Compassion is not about being safe; it is about putting ourselves at risk, about letting down the guards around ourselves. It is we who have to be the change we want to see in the world. We who have to take responsibility for our own actions - to become activists, where we are. Because every little makes a difference.