“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

Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Visit That Wasn't

Months ago, I and my fellow Midlands ministers decided to spend a day at Coventry Cathedral as our July "meeting". We settled on 18th July, and duly met at 10.30 am at The Great Meeting House Unitarian Church in Coventry, to park our cars, and walk to the Cathedral.

But when we got there, the area outside was full of young people and their parents, the former in caps and gowns, and the latter in their "Sunday best". Yes, we had chosen the day when young graduands of Coventry University were becoming graduates. And the ceremony was in the Cathedral. Oh. I had checked the website a few weeks earlier, and no mention of this event.

So we adjourned to the Herbert Museum & Art Gallery for coffee, and to have a discussion about what to do instead. To my surprise, five of the seven of us, including my husband, decided they'd like to go to Coventry Transport Museum, which left my friend and I free to book-shop to our heart's content.

We spent more than an hour in the Cathedral bookshop, which had many wonderful second-hand theological and spiritual books at very reasonable prices, and came away loaded down with books.

When we joined back up with the rest of the party, it was clear that a good time had been had by all. It was not the day we had planned, but we had refused to let this spoil things, but had happily decided to make the best of it, and enjoy the day anyway. There were no recriminations, and no heart-burning, just a willingness to make alternative plans, and have a good day. We will visit the Cathedral another time.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Practice Makes Better

Some readers who know me may know that I have recently gone back to learning to play the piano, after a gap of ten years. I'm loving re-connecting with music again, and am enjoying playing. I have a wonderful teacher (the same one as last time) who knows me well, and encourages as well as stretches me. It is good.

We've decided that I'm going to do a 'Performance Assessment' this coming November, to get me back into practice for doing my Grade 5 next year. The idea is that you play three pieces for the examiner, who comments on your playing, but doesn't give a mark. It's to get inhibited adults feeling easier about playing 'in public'.

meme posted on Facebook by ABRSM Greece

Choosing the first two pieces was fairly easy - a Bach Prelude, and the third movement from Georg Benda's Sonata in G, which was a Grade 4 piece a few years ago. But the third one has been a problem. I badly wanted to play something by Ludovico Einaudi, my favourite composer. We tried a couple of pieces - Primavera and Stella del Mattino. But I seem to have some sort of block, so far as Einaudi is concerned. I think the problem is, I listen to his music on CD often in my car, and so I know what it's *supposed* to sound like, and get so frustrated because there's no way I could ever sound like that.

Which is fair enough, because if I could, I should be a full-time concert pianist, instead of a Unitarian minister. But it has made me feel discouraged, because practice has not made perfect, nor anywhere close to it.

It occurred to me today that a better maxim to follow might be "Practice makes better." Most people struggle to do anything perfectly, no matter how hard or how often they practice, but all of us can do things better than we do at the moment, if we practice doing them often enough.

So I am going to stop beating myself up for not being as good as Einaudi, and resolve instead to do the best that *I* can, through regular practice.

This is not only applicable to playing music. It's true of anything we undertake in this life. We can only do the best that we can, where we are, with the talents we have.

As Richard Rohr wrote in today's Daily Meditation: "The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better."

And that is enough.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

How do you hold your belief bag?

Unitarians welcome diversity of beliefs and the togetherness of the approach to matters of religious belief and spirituality. There is a high level of tolerance of other beliefs, but more than that: a whole-hearted acceptance of them as some of the many factors that enrich and inform our spiritual journey. Our faith has developed into one based on the primacy of individual conscience. We believe that a shared approach to matters of religious belief and spirituality is more important than a statement of shared beliefs, recognising that the spiritual journey is unique to each person.

Which is why I found a reading by Gary Kowalski, which I found on the UUA Worship Web, so fascinating. For him, and I think for most Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, the important thing is not what you believe, but how you hold those beliefs – your attitude to them, and to the beliefs of others.This is part of what it said:

 What makes us different is the way that we Unitarians carry our beliefs—because there are different ways of holding your belief bag.
For example, some people …clutch [their bag] close and make sure the top is tightly sealed, because they don’t want their beliefs exposed to any new ideas that could threaten what’s inside. They’ve got their world wrapped up in a nice, tidy package. And because their bag is all closed up, we call these people closed-minded.
On the other hand, some people … don’t pay much attention at all to what goes into their bag. One idea is a good as another, and if other folks believe it, or if they read it on the internet, or heard it on talk radio, then it must be true. Because they carry their bag in such a sloppy manner, we call these people sloppy thinkers.
And then there are people who carry their bags … like a club they use to hit other people. … they use their bag like a weapon, and attack other people’s beliefs with it.
But none of those is the Unitarian way. Instead, we carry our bags like this: we carry them with the top open, so that new ideas and experiences can get inside, and old beliefs can be tossed aside if needed.
We carry our bags in front of us, so that we can see and examine what goes in, to be sure it makes sense and fits with other things we know. And also so that we can see what our neighbours think, and share our thoughts with others. Above all, we never use our beliefs to beat up or bully other people.”
I would guess that few Unitarians could be accused of being closed-minded. But sometimes, just sometimes, we may be guilty of carrying our belief bags carelessly, taking on beliefs without examining them carefully, without submitting them to our reason or conscience. Or sometimes, just sometimes, we may be guilty of using our beliefs as weapons to attack others, forgetting to respect the beliefs of others, and hold their beliefs in a spirit of freedom and tolerance.
The important thing is to hold our belief bags open, as Gary Kowalski suggests, so that we remain open to new ideas and experiences, and discard old ones, which no longer speak to us. I have often said that Unitarian belief is a process of continuous and continuing revelation. We don’t just have a one-off conversion experience, sign up to a particular set of beliefs, and then rest on those for the rest of our lives. Being a Unitarian is like being a Quaker – we have to be “open to new Light, from whatever source it may come.”

We also need to carry our bags in front of us, as he suggests, so that we examine any new beliefs critically, before taking them on, and adding them to our bags. Finally, I love the idea that we carry our bags open, and in front of us, “so that we can see what our neighbours think, and share our thoughts with others.” That is surely the essence of being Unitarian – sharing the wisdom we have found on our faith journeys, and being open to being influenced by the beliefs and wisdom of others.

This has certainly been true in my case. When I came to Unitarianism at the age of 18, it was in reaction to certain tenets of Christianity, which I could not believe – such as Jesus being the unique Son of God, born to a virgin; the idea of original sin, that we are all born with fatal flaws; and also the doctrine of the atonement – that Jesus’s death on the cross two thousand years ago was the only thing that could put me back into right relationship with God the Father. I reacted strongly against these beliefs, which meant that for many years, I was what might be called an ‘ABC Unitarian’ – anything but Christianity. My mind was closed to the wisdom of that religion.

But in the last decade or so, I have let go of my death-hold on my beliefs bag, and started to hold it wide open. I have met, and read books by, many Christians, and have found that Christianity is far more diverse than I had believed, and that many Christians hold beliefs that are important to me, that I have now added to my own beliefs bag. That God is Love, and that Love is at the centre of everything. That Jesus’s teaching centred on love and compassion for others. That the Spirit of the divine is active in our lives, if only we are wide awake enough to sense it.

So let us be sure to hold our belief bags open, so that new beliefs may be added if they speak to our condition, to use the Quaker phrase. Let us hold them in front of us, so that unexamined beliefs don’t slip in un-noticed. And may we share our beliefs with others – who knows which word you speak about your beliefs could be the one word of truth for someone else, with the possibility of transforming their lives?

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Dawn Chorus

For the last couple of weeks, now that the weather is warmer, I have been sleeping with my window open. And have been woken early every morning by the glorious singing known as 'the dawn chorus' - every bird in the neighbourhood singing their hearts out.

I wondered why this might be, so asked Google. There was a fascinating article on the website wired.com by Mary Bates, which explains this phenomenon. She writes:

"You may have noticed a cacophony of birdsong in the wee hours of the morning ... it can start as early as 4.00 am and last several hours. Birds can sing at any time of day, but during the dawn chorus their songs are often louder, livelier, and more frequent. It's mostly made up of male birds, attempting to attract mates and warn other males away from their territories.

But why choose the hours around sunrise to sing? There are a number of theories, and they're not necessarily mutually exclusive.

One idea is that in the early morning, light levels are too dim for birds to do much foraging. Since light levels don't affect social interactions as much, it's a great opportunity to sing, instead.

Another idea is that early morning singing signals to other birds about the strength and vitality of the singer. Singing is an essential part of bird life, but it's costly in terms of time and energy. Singing loud and proud first thing in the morning tells everyone within hearing distance that you were strong and healthy enough to survive the night. This is attractive to potential mates, and lets your competitors know you're still around and in charge of your territory. ...

Although dawn songs don't carry farther, they are clearer and more consistent, and this could be even more important. Individual males have their own signature songs, with slight variations that identify them to their neighbours. If you're a male trying to attract a mate or defend your territory, it's more important to let your fellow birds know that it's you singing, than it is to be heard over a long distance. Singing in the morning leads to a more consistent signal and makes it more likely that other birds will be able to identify the singer correctly."

So now we know! Whatever the reason, it is a wonderful way to wake up - to a sky filled with dawn's early light, and that glorious singing. I am grateful.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sharing our Scriptures

Yesterday, I spent a wonderful day at Holland House, a Christian retreat centre in Worcestershire, with the Worcestershire Inter Faith Forum. Representatives from various faiths - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i and myself as a Unitarian - were invited to engage with their own scriptures, and to share them with each other and the audience. This included explaining what scripture meant to us as people of faith, how our sacred texts (as physical objects) are handled, and then sharing and reflecting on a piece from our own scriptures about welcoming the stranger.

It was such a rich day. I found it particularly moving to hear how much (despite our differences) everyone was on the same page, especially about welcoming the stranger. And it was very special to hear part of the Book of Genesis being read in Hebrew, a passage from the New Testament in Greek, the Qur'an in Arabic, and a Buddhist Pure Land chant.

But of course Unitarians do not have a single sacred text of their own. So I had some explaining to do. I said:

"This is a difficult question for a Unitarian to answer, because we do not officially 'have' a sacred text which is unique to us. Unitarianism grew out of Christianity, and before World War II, most worship services would include a reading from the Christian or Hebrew Bibles. Some of our congregations, who regard themselves as Free Christians, still do this. But in the last 50 years or so, the majority of Unitarians have moved to a more pluralist viewpoint, espousing freedom of religious belief, based on individual reason and conscience. So I can only answer as an individual Unitarian, with my own particular beliefs and viewpoint, rather than on behalf of the denomination as a whole.

These days, Unitarian worship leaders are able to create our own "living scripture" of readings that speak to our condition and that of our hearers. There might still be a reading from the Bible, but equally, there might be a poem by Rumi or Hafiz or Mary Oliver or Rainer Maria Rilke, or a chapter from the Tao Te Ching, one of the Quaker Advices and Queries, or a passage from the work of a contemporary theologian or spiritual leader, such as Richard Rohr, Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, or Marcus Borg, to name but a few. Or of course by other Unitarians, past and present. To quote one of our ministers, Stephen Lingwood:

'We can pay attention to a cloud of witnesses from many different countries around the world and many different times in history. We can delve deep into the traditions of our spiritual ancestors and listen to their voices. In doing so, we can create a 'living scripture': a loose, dynamic collection of texts which brings together essential insights from the past and present of our movement.'

But if the question means 'To what scripture do you turn in times of trouble?' the answer will be similarly diverse. In my own case, I will turn to the Psalms, from the Hebrew Bible, and also the poetry of John O'Donohue. For advice, I turn to Quaker Advices and Queries, which I always carry with me."

It was a rich time of listening and sharing, and I felt very blessed to be a part of it.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

Yesterday I was supposed to be travelling over to Evesham for a meeting, and then going on to spend the evening with my parents. Then I got an e-mail from the person I was supposed to be meeting, asking whether I thought it was wise to travel, in view of the threatened snow. I phoned them up, we had a conversation, and I decided it would be safer to meet on Skype. Which we did, and it was good.

But it meant that I then had to phone my parents and let them know I wouldn't be coming - my mother had expressed concerns about the weather earlier in the week, so the news was half-expected. But I feel really sad that I didn't see them.

And then, the threat didn't materialise - there was a little snow, but not much - "just enough to cover a Hobbit's toes" as Tolkien once wrote. I could easily have made the journey.

Which has reminded me of the quote by Susan Jeffers "Feel the fear, and do it anyway." I should have followed my gut feeling, and taken the risk. If worst had come to worst, I would have had to stay the night in Worcestershire - hardly a penance.

The things we fear very often fail to materialise. It is much better to live in the present, and to live life to the fullest. I love the quote by Helen Keller: "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."  Yesterday, I forgot that advice, to my regret.

In this case, my fear only spoiled my fun - I didn't get to see my parents. But fear can do dreadful things. When people are afraid, they often lash out in defensive anger. Fear of the unknown very often leads to hatred. Bertrand Russell says: "Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." And Gandhi wrote: "The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear."

Brene Brown has written an important book, 'Braving the Wilderness', which is partly about engaging with strangers with civility and respect, rather than fearing them, because they are unknown. She writes:

"One of the biggest drivers of the sorting that's happening today is the proliferation of the belief that 'you're either with us or you're against us.' It's an emotional line that we hear everyone, from politicians to movie heroes and villains, invoke on a regular basis. ... It's a move to force people to take sides." She goes on to write: "The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our bunkers of certainty ... The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate [because] answers that have the force of emotion behind them but are not based in fact rarely provide strategic and effective solutions to nuanced problems."

In other words, if we are afraid of something, our fear is often based on lack of knowledge, or by false either/or dichotomies. Our job, as thinking human beings, is to look past the either/or position, and engage with whatever the issue / people concerned. Which means we have to overcome our fear of the unknown, open up our vulnerability, and be brave. Which is hard, but so worthwhile.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Building A Beloved Community

At the Midland Unitarian Association's Spring Training Day last Saturday, Rev Ant Howe led an inspirational session about how to build good relationships with the wider community. He asked some searching questions, which every Unitarian (or any other) congregation needs to answer.

The first one was: "Who are we here for?" and he answered it by saying that the purpose of any religious community is not just to serve its members, but also the wider community in which it is situated. He suggested that the purpose of a religious community is to bless the community in which it lives, by the things it offers. It's about building small links with the people beyond our doors. He acknowledged that this can be difficult, if you only have small numbers, and everyone is tired. But also that it can get exciting, if the congregation does something new for "others".

Many of the suggestions were ones which most congregations (or at least those who have their own building) could offer:

  • a collection for the homeless, or for refugees - opening the church / meeting house to collect clothes and sleeping bags. Offering refreshments and leaflets about Unitarianism.
  • collecting for the local food bank - similar principles.
  • an annual collection of Easter Eggs (and I would also suggest, selection boxes at Christmas) for local children, and distributing them to the local hospital and children's homes.
  • a weekly coffee morning, for people who might otherwise not get out, and speak to others.
  • a monthly knit and natter group.
The key is to look around, identify local needs which aren't being met, and then ask the question: "Can our congregation meet them?" 

The point being, that if you meet a need, you're giving worth and dignity to people, and you become known as a loving community. He said: "A church exists for the benefit of its non-members, to be the salt of the earth, not to impress the salt."

He then divided us up into small groups, and set us to answering the following questions:
  • What does your congregation currently do to minister with the wider community?
  • How are the values of your congregation lived out in practical ways which benefit the community?
  • Is your congregation a part of its local community, or quite separate from it?
  • What ways would you like to get your congregation more involved in the wider community?
And most importantly ...
  • What projects are you interested in?
    • What is the first step?
    • How are you going to do it?
    • When are you going to do it by?
By the end of the session, all those present had decided on one project they'd like to try, and planned the first step towards executing it.

I wonder what a different world it would be, if all religious communities did the same?