“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

Saturday, 14 January 2017

And ... Breathe!

This morning I forced myself to do something I find incredibly stressful - I filled in my 2015/16 tax return.

I don't know why I find it so difficult - it should be simple enough, but every year it reduces me to a quivering jelly of stress, on the verge of meltdown.

I think that the reason is I'm terrified of doing it wrong. Finance and I do not mix - I'm good at keeping on top of my personal finances, and keep track of my income and expenditure by checking my bank statements every month, and keeping all receipts etc. But I could *never* be a Treasurer - the idea of having the responsibility for other people's money freaks me out big time. I take a look at a column of figures, and my brain switches off. Every. Single. Time. I take my hat off to the Treasurers of congregations, district associations and societies - they do a fabulous job.

I managed to get through the process this year by phoning a friend in the midst of my panic, who was reassuring. He told me to leave it for a few minutes, then go back to it. And it worked. I (and my brain) just needed a breathing space, a time away from the stress of it all.

It occurs to me that this advice is something I could take to heart more often. So I'm forming a new (a bit late) resolution for this coming year: "If you feel stressed out about something, physically separate yourself from it, find a quiet place, and just breathe."

Just breathe. Give yourself a break. Give your body, mind, and spirit a rest. Just breathe.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Gifts and Blessings

Unitarian Universalist Jay Abernathy wrote: "We are all blessings to this world. Our work of building bridges of connection by finding and naming and affirming those blessings we are is the work of nurturing our spirits and healing our world."

By long tradition, the three Wise Men or Magi brought their gifts to Jesus on the feast of Epiphany, which was last Friday. I wonder what gifts we can give to our loved ones, this chilly January? By "loved ones", I mean all the people with whom we are in relationship - our families, our friends, the people at work, and members of our beloved Unitarian communities.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have all exchanged many gifts with our loved ones - both material, in the form of Christmas presents, and shared Christmas meals and drinks; and non-material.

I, for example, received a new Great Course on reading Biblical Literature, which I'm finding fascinating, the DVD of Game of Thrones Season 6 (also fascinating, but rather more gory!), a beautiful Swarowski Christmas star to add to my collection, and some Amazon gift vouchers. As a result of which, I am a very happy bunny!

But the gifts that meant the most to me could not be bought. My daughter and her boyfriend came down for a few days, and my son was home too. On Christmas Day, after a gorgeous lunch booked to perfection by my beloved, a peaceful afternoon with the Great British Bake Off Christmas Special, we had cheese and biscuits for tea. Then the four of us (the kids and I, my beloved does not do board games) played some hilarious games of Cluedo. Then we all watched Independence Day: Resurgence.

Not a cross word was said, much laughter and hugging happened. I could not have been happier. The gifts of time and attention and love are priceless.

We can also bring gifts to the wider world - to the chance-met stranger, to the people in our town or village or city, to causes we care about. If you believe, as I do, that every human being has a spark of the divine in them, then we should try to respond to every person we meet  as though we are encountering a possible new friend. I wonder how different our world would be, if we tried to bear that in mind in the weeks and months ahead?

Jay Abernathy also wrote: "Each of us has at least one blessing - I believe each of us offers MANY blessings - to this world, in who we are. But sometimes, we and our world might have a difficult time affirming and seeing those blessings.

I invite you to look into yourself and discover again one of your blessings, one of your gifts to the world. Loving, peaceful, generous, compassionate - there are so many traits and blessings. What is yours?

Write that blessing on a piece of paper. Greet yourself in the mirror of your heart with that name.

Share that greeting with another person today."

May 2017 be the year that we discover our gifts, and manage to be a blessing to ourselves, and to the world around us.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Creed (December 2016)

I have been feeling quite reflective over the past few days, and decided to try to articulate my beliefs, as we come to the end of 2016:

I believe in an all-loving God, who is
   creator of all things,
   at the centre of all things,
   and also the flow in-between,
   which we name Spirit.

I believe that Jesus was the Son of God,
   as we are all sons and daughters of God,
But that God flowed in and through him
   in  a particular way,
so that he could share some important truths with humankind,
   as other prophets have, before and since.

I believe that every human being has the God-given right
   to seek truth and meaning in their lives,
And that the tools they must use to do this
are faith, reason, and conscience,
based on their own lived experiences.

I believe that faith must involve uncertainty and mystery,
   because this is where God lives.

I believe that every human being is loved by God,
   and is worthy of that love.
But I also believe that we are free to choose
   to turn our backs on Her,
   separate ourselves from the flow of Love,
   choosing independence over communion.

I believe that dark and dormancy
are as important as light and growth;
and that our lives move in cycles,
  or perhaps spirals.

I believe in the sovereign importance of compassion,
   in loving your neighbour as yourself,
   which means also loving yourself,
   as Jesus taught.

I believe that living authentically, wholeheartedly,
   being vulnerable and open to new light
   and new ideas,
is vital for spiritual growth.

I believe that words and actions both matter;
   words help us to comprehend our world,
   actions flow from that understanding.
And when our actions match our values,
   that is the virtue of integrity,
   to which I aspire.

I believe that all any of us can do
   is the best that we can,
   with the tools that we have,
   at any particular time.
That we will always make mistakes,
   and upset and hurt other people,
   and ourselves.

Therefore I believe that we have to be responsible,
   for our words and our actions,
   to each other, and to God.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

That Bit

A friend of mine just posted a lovely meme about the days between Christmas and New Year:

And the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I realise that I really love "that bit", when the frenetic socialising in the lead-up to Christmas and the two Big Days (Christmas Day and Boxing Day) are over, and I have the chance to sit down quietly and appreciate the days that have gone, and the people with whom I have spent them, and the gifts I have received. I am blessed in usually being able to take the period between Christmas and New Year off work. There is generally oodles of food left in the fridge and cupboard, so we can nibble on our favourite dainties, and drink our favourite drinks (peppermint and liquorice tea, in my case) without the pressure to put on a show. And there is often something good to watch on the TV. It is an interlude of peace between the frenzy of Christmas, and the re-dedication to work that the New Year brings. And I am very grateful for it.


I wish you all a very blessed That Bit, and a Happy, Peaceful, and Productive New Year.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Both / And, not Either / Or

There is a very neat meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment, which sums up the two Spirits of Christmas for me. It is a Christmas Bucket List, with six items, partly crossed out, and substituted with other words, so I'll have to paraphrase for it to make sense:

1. Instead of buying presents, be present.
2. Instead of wrap gifts, wrap someone in a hug.
3. Instead of send gifts, send love.
4. Instead of shop for food, donate food.
5. Instead of make cookies, make memories.
6. Instead of see the light, be the Light.

And yes, I get it, but in my opinion, it should be both/and, rather than either/or. I have bought presents for the people I love, but welcome the reminder to be present in the moment, day by day, instead of getting lost in the busyness. I will be wrapping the gifts I have bought this weekend, but will also be wrapping a lot of people in hugs, during the next few weeks (and being wrapped in hugs also, I hope!)

I will be sending gifts, but also sending love to all those people who make my life so blessed. Including you. I will be shopping for food, and have already paid a visit to the Northampton Food Bank with a donation. This Christmas, sadly, I won't be making or eating cookies, or mince pies or many other sweet Christmas treats, because most of them contain gluten, but I will surely be making memories, particularly on Boxing Day, when the whole extended Ellis family gets together at my parents, for what my mother insists on calling Christmas Day Two. And a very kind friend, who is also gluten-intolerant, has made me a beautiful little GF Christmas cake - so very lovely of her. Finally, as well as seeing (and enjoying) all the beautiful, colourful Christmas lights, I will be striving to be the Light for those I love.

It was a good reminder about the things which really matter at Christmas - not the tangible things that one can buy, and consume, but the gifts of love and awareness, which cannot be bought and always renew themselves. The things we can look back on with fondness, when the food has been eaten, the presents have been opened, the paper recycled, and the decorations taken down.

I also want to acknowledge what I think should be the true spirit of Christmas, "the spirit of good will and peace ... [the] spirit that bids us renew our hopes amid the gathering darkness, that kindles our generosity and our concerns, that attunes our ears to the ever-renewed angelic chorus" as Max Gaeble puts it. Because that is here too, in our minds, and in our hearts.

Wishing you a peaceful, blessed, and mindful Christmas.

Friday, 9 December 2016

More Blessed to Receive?

I have often heard that "it is more blessed to give than to receive", as it says in the Book of Acts. Indeed our Discussion Group at Banbury was discussing this question yesterday morning, and came to the conclusion that both are equally important, but that it is probably *easier* to give than to receive, graciously, and thankfully.

But God had other ideas for me yesterday, and I spent the rest of the day being blessed by many small kindnesses.

the sweetest little Christmas cake in the world
First of all, I got stuck in traffic on my way back from said Discussion Group, and was able to phone ahead and ask my best beloved to have my lunch ready for me. So that when I shot into the house at 1.20, a nutritious and delicious meal was waiting for me, which I was able to eat and enjoy, before rushing out again at 1.40.

Second, when I got to the car park on time, and was feeding pound coins into the machine, a young woman stopped on her way out and rolled down her window: "I have a ticket here that's valid till midnight - do you want it?" Yes please - thank you!

Third (and fourth), when I shared some very intimate good news with two friends, both had tears of joy in their eyes for me.

Fifth, another friend, who eats gluten-free herself, had baked me the prettiest little Christmas cake in the world.

And finally, when we were sharing out stories about the gift of difference in the Encounter group, I felt so honoured to have *been* the different person who had unknowingly helped someone else to grow spiritually.

By the end of the day, I felt so light, so blessed, so very grateful. Yes, it is blessed to give, but also so blessed to receive.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Digital by Default

Sometimes, on very rare occasions, a book or film comes out that is so important, it becomes a personal signpost in your life. Time divides into "before" and "after", and life is never the same again, because your eyes have been opened, and there is no alternative but to respond, to change, to act.

I can think of two straightaway, in my own past - Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth,  which opened my eyes to the futility of war, and the necessity of working for peace; and the film Cry Freedom, about the life of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody.  Others include Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant, so memorably brought to life in a factional film by John Hurt; Pride,  about a group of young homosexuals who came to the aid of a village of Welsh miners; and the graphically violent Twelve Years A Slave, which portrayed the horrors of slavery in the US. Although for me, it was the book Noughts and Crosses, by British author Malorie Blackman, which really woke my conscience to the issue of white privilege.

All these books and films have one thing in common: they show the viewer / reader very clearly what it is like to be on the losing side of the System. Tonight I can add another to that list. I went to see the award-winning Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake with a friend, and it affected us both profoundly.

To sum it up in a phrase, it is a tale of the dispossessed, based on a true story about two real people, who fell through the cracks in the pavement of "normal" society, and about the unthinking, unfeeling prejudice they encounter. It is about the inflexibility of the welfare system at its bureaucratic worst, in which jobs-worth employees of the Department of Work and Pensions and its associated companies blindly stick to the rules in their dealing with their "clients", denying their common humanity. Valid reasons for not complying with the many and varied regulations are dismissed as excuses, and no leeway is given, no mercy involved.

[PLOT SPOILERS] In the case of the title character, Daniel Blake, a seriously ill widower and trained carpenter of long experience, is recovering from a major heart attack, but officials refuse to listen to his clear explanations that his doctor and consultant have both told him that he is unfit to work, and insist that he applies for Job Seekers' Allowance. Which involves completing online forms, producing a digital CV, and other pleasant impossibilities, which Blake, who is computer-illiterate, like many of the older dispossessed, is simply unable to do, although he tries and tries.

And because they deem that he is "fit for work", he has to prove that he is actively searching for it. He hawks his CV round the streets and working sites of Newcastle, walking miles a day to do so, but is unable to provide digital "proof" of having done so, and so is sanctioned (denied any benefits at all) for four weeks. He is warned that the next time this happens, it will be 13 weeks.

One particular DWP employee is portrayed as sympathetic, and tries to help him (for which she is severely admonished by her superior), but the rest just stick to the letter of the law, and refuse to listen to him. He is told by one pompous official "We are digital by default", to which he retorts brilliantly, "Well, I'm pencil by default!".

Eventually, after having to sell virtually all his possessions to stay alive, he finally gets to an appeal to be allowed to claim Sickness Benefit, but succumbs to a second, and this time fatal, heart attack just before it.

The other main character, Katie, is a young single mother from London, who has spent the previous two years living in a one-room hostel with her two young children, before being offered a flat, hundreds of miles away from friends and family, in Newcastle. Her story is similarly heart-breaking.

One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film comes at a visit to a food bank. Katie, who has been denying herself food to stop her children from going hungry, is given a tin of baked beans with one of those snap tops. She loses control, goes into a corner, tears open the tin, and begins to scoop the cold baked beans into her mouth, avidly, desperately, Dan and the food bank volunteer are both moved and horrified, as she apologises: " I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I was just so hungry." Both my friend and I were in tears at this point (and many others) as were the people around us.

Katie is eventually forced to turn to prostitution in order to pay for food and clothing for her children. She hates what she is doing, but feels she has no choice.

We came out at the end of the film feeling helpless and angry. What sort of crappy society is it that we live in, where people are treated without kindness, without compassion, where obeying the system matters above all, and where breaking any of the System's rules has dire consequences?

The only rays of hope that we could find were in the ordinary human-kindness of neighbours and friends, and of Dan and Katie towards each other. The mercy shown by the store manager when Katie was caught shop-lifting; the concern of Dan's young neighbour; the various folk in the library who tried to help him on the computer. These stand out as beacons of hope in a cruel world.

I, Daniel Blake has left me feeling angry and helpless, but filled with a desire to *do* something to stop this crap from happening to people in my country, right now.