“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, 24 March 2011

Thanksgiving for Spring

This day and the last have been beautiful. I am lucky to live in the countryside; the sun has been shining, the birds have been singing, the sky is blue and the blossom is all over the place. And I just feel the need to give thanks for this beauty, and for the feeling of hope and renewal that Spring always engenders in my heart.

Spring is my favourite season. After the short, grey days of winter, with their seemingly endless rain and gloomy clouds, it is so nice to see the odd bit of blue sky and sunshine! I often walk around our village, and notice buds starting to form on the trees and in the hedgerows, and the first brave Spring flowers pushing their heads up through the soil of the verges.

Spring has always been an important season for people, right back to earliest times. Indeed, in "the old days", before we could fly fruit and vegetables into our shops from around the world 365 days a year, the last few weeks of Winter were hard for people, who had to subsist on dried or otherwise preserved greens and fruit until the growing season began again. It is also the time of year when the days start to lengthen, and the evenings and mornings get lighter, and we naturally react to that - we are creatures who need natural light, even if we don't realise it, cocooned in our electric wombs.

I think it is important that we continue to experience the wonder of Spring - the sense of divine renewal, the small annual miracles of the first flowers and the first buds appearing. They have got to be a sign of hope, that Winter cannot last forever. There is the wonderful dichotomy between the revelation of the eternal round, and the revelation of that which is new. Every Spring we encounter something never before seen "which embodies hope and potential for the wholeness which is yet to be."

Spring is also the time when we feel renewed, and have new resources of energy. It is no accident that Spring cleaning has endured as a tradition through the centuries. Partly it is a necessity (more so in times past, when people almost hibernated during the cold winter months, and Spring was the time of the big clear out). But it is almost an instinct too - it is a time for taking stock of what we have, of discarding the broken and the useless, of repairing what is worn but useful, and of setting our faces forward for the new year. If we don't carry out a periodic Spring clean, our lives can become cluttered and stagnant, with no space for renewal and growth. You can guess by this that I'm not just talking about physical Spring cleaning (satisfying though that is) but also about mental and spiritual Spring cleaning. It is only too easy to plod along in the same old ways, carrying out the same old duties, not realising how flat and dull our lives have become. sometimes we need to have a good breath of fresh air blowing through our lives, revitalising us and setting us on a new path in good heart.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Quaker Invitation

On Monday, I conducted a funeral for a Unitarian friend at the Quaker Meeting House in Northampton, because our Unitarian premises aren't big enough for rites of passage. When I booked the room, a couple of weeks ago, I found the beautiful invitation below on the home page of the Northamptonshire Quakers website:

"We hope you find here something that is right for you and what you need right now to help you on your spiritual journey and in your daily life
If you are wondering what God may be,
Looking for a purpose in life
Craving company, or seeking solitude,
Come to our Meeting for Worship!
We shall not ask you to speak or sing,
We shall not ask you what you believe,
We shall simply offer you our friendship,
And a chance to sit quietly and think,
And perhaps somebody will speak,
And perhaps somebody will read,
And perhaps somebody will pray,
And perhaps you will find here
That which you are seeking...
We are not saints,
We are not cranks,
We are not different ...

Except that we believe
That God's light is in us all,
Waiting to be discovered."

Apart from the bit about not being asked to sing, I would love to use this welcome on a Unitarian website. We too offer our friendship to those seeking a purpose in life, and do not require them to believe certain things in order to join us in worship. And I personally definitely believe that there is that of God in everyone "waiting to be discovered", although I know that some Unitarians would not agree with me!  

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The God I believe in

I was talking to my friend Graham, who is training for the Baptist ministry, and the discussion turned to the nature of God. Graham knows I'm a Unitarian, and hence do not believe in a triune God, and he was curious to know what sort of God I believe in.

My first response is that I'm a Unitarian, so I believe in one God. Then I went on to explain that (with the Quakers) I believe that there is "that of God in everyone". Graham's response was interesting; he said "You're not a Unitarian, you believe in a multiplicity of Gods inside everyone." Well, no. I believe that the nature of God is both transcendent - the Ultimate, Other, Divine Presence "out there", but also the "still, small voice" inside each one of us; the divine spark that makes us who we are. Some people might designate that part of us as "the soul". I believe that our job as human beings is to listen to "that of God" within us, and to respond to its promptings to be the best people we can be. Perhaps this makes me a Multiplitarian - I don't know.

Unitarianism grew out of Christianity. It was only during the 19th century that we started to explore different aspects of how and why we believe what we believe. I'm talking here about the nature of authority. In traditional Christianity, the teachings of the Church, tradition and the word of the Bible are the accepted sources of authority. Unitarians believe otherwise. In the words of Alfred Hall, author of Beliefs of a Unitarian:

"But above all it must be known and understood that Unitarianism is not a system of creeds or beliefs. It is more than anything else an attitude of mind. It is a fresh way of looking at life and religion ... It lays stress on the reliability of the human mind to judge for itself ... Its method is that of appeal to reason, conscience and experience generally, and above all to elemental principles of truth and right which are implanted in the human heart at its noblest and embedded in the universe."

Unitarians today "do not presume to define God for others. We believe that everyone should be free to encounter the Great Mystery for themselves 'without mediator or veil'." [Cliff Reed] This respect for the individual's right to work out their own beliefs has resulted in a wide spectrum of perceptions of God within our denomination. Some are what I would call 'Liberal Christians', who would define God in broadly Christian terms as a "loving personal power - father-lie, as Jesus experienced" [Reed]; others would say that they "experience God as a unifying force and life-giving spirit; the source of all being, the universal process that comes to consciousness as love in its creatures." [Reed] Yet others, whom we might describe as religious humanists, would use the word 'God' to signify "the human ideal, the noblest visions and aspirations of humanity, against which we measure ourselves." [Reed] And then there are some whose chief perception of God is that of the 'still, small voice' within us, rather than any external power. It should also be realised that these beliefs are not mutually exclusive. Most of us would say that belief in a combination of them is where we would find God. And finally, some of us reject the idea of any sort of divinity, and would describe themselves as 'atheists', preferring rather to place their faith in their fellow human beings.

It is also a vital tenet of Unitarian belief that all are free to work out their own positions, in the light of their own ongoing experience. This openness to new thoughts and ideas is a key concept in Unitarianism: indeed it is what has kept us green and growing down the centuries. Our movement has been underpinned by a process of continuous and continuing revelation. At different times, and in different countries, different ideas have been considered to be most important. The important thing is that we respect and accept each other's beliefs, so long as they do not harm anyone else.

Personally speaking, I find inspiration and truth from many sources - I happen to believe in a personal God, who is both immanent and transcendent, but also believe that the teachings of other faiths hold great truths for humankind. I count myself lucky in belonging to a religious tradition in which I can hold both these strands of belief together, and forge from them my own truth, and worship God - Father and Mother, Spirit of Life and Love - in my own way.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Thank God for Gok!

In these enlightened times, it is no longer acceptable to be racist, or sexist, or to discriminate against another person on account of their age or disability. This is not to say that prejudice about these things has died out, but it is not acceptable.

But there is one last bastion of prejudice which is alive and well - it seems to be quite acceptable to be sizist, or fattist, in other words, to judge someone by how much (or little) they weigh. It is commonly recognised that first impressions are important, and that, rightly or wrongly, most people do judge others by appearances. And it is endemic in our celebrity-obsessed society.

I've watched three programmes this week, all of which give different angles on this issue. The first was America's Next Top Model, a reality show in which a group of girls in their late teens or early twenties learn the skills of modelling (and there is a lot more to it than meets the eye) and are eliminated one by one, until the winner is awarded the title of America's Next Top Model. The current series is Cycle 15. The show has spawned many franchised imitations, the world over. Most of the girls are very slim, if not downright thin, and there have been incidents of girls passing out because they are not looking after themselves properly (i.e. eating and drinking enough to keep body and soul together).

To be fair to Tyra Banks, the originator and chief judge of the series, she is very concerned to teach the girls about the need to look after themselves. Indeed, at the beginning of the current series, one girl was sent home for being too thin, as the judges (quite rightly) thought that this didn't send the right message about healthy eating to the show's legion fans, many of whom are young girls themselves.

At the other end of the scale was Biggest Loser USA, another reality show in which a number of morbidly-obese contestants are taken out of their everyday lives, and taught to eat healthily and subjected to a ferocious exercise regime under the supervision of two excellent, but very demanding coaches. The amount some of these people weigh at the beginning of the series is phenomenal (one guy weighed over 500 pounds or 35 stones) and their rate of weight loss is similarly phenomenal - the same man has currently lost 129 pounds in nine weeks! But it's all done under medical supervision, and the contestants' lives are transformed by the process.

These are just two of the many reality shows on TV which are centred around physical appearance, the desirability of fitting in to some "ideal". Others include shows like 10 Years Younger, in which a woman (it is usually a woman) has her appearance transformed by a combination of cosmetic surgery, dentistry, makeover (hair and make-up) and dress. At the beginning of the show, 100 passers-by are asked her age, and the average is taken, and then again at the end, after the transformation.

We seem to be obsessed by physical appearance. It is not just TV shows, it is also endemic in magazines, worst of which are the "celebrity" ones such as OK, Closer and Hello, which seem to exist to show us endless pictures of A-Z list celebrities either at their air-brushed best (or more interestingly still to many readers) at their worst. The appetite for such things appears to be bottomless.

As a Unitarian, I firmly believe that there is "that of God in everyone", a divine spark that makes each person unique and worthy of respect as a human being, regardless of age, sex or personal appearance.

Which is why I thank God for crusaders such as Trinny and Susannah, hosts of What Not To Wear, and Gok Wan, host of How To Look Good Naked (the third programme I watched this week), who have quite a different message about physical appearance. While granting that physical appearance (looking your best) is important, the whole rationale behind What Not To Wear was to enable women (and men) to learn about their body shapes, and about what colours and clothes styles suit them best, to enable them to "make the best" of what they've got, and to be happy with themselves. Gok Wan has gone even further down this road, preaching a message that all women are beautiful, no matter what their shape, size or complexion.

It is a vitally important message, particularly for younger girls. It has taken me many years to be content with my weight - I started to obsess about it in my teens, and it was only through watching Trinny & Susannah, and reading their books, that I have learned how to dress appropriately for my body shape, to make the best of my assets, and to be content.

So Thank God for Trinny & Susannah, and for Gok, and for all people who can help insecure women who believe all the media hype about physical perfection, to be happy with the bodies they've got and concentrate on more important things.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

"Advices and Queries"

This little red booklet is the reason why I am a "Quakerly-inclined" Unitarian. Each of its forty-two paragraphs is a challenge, a comfort or a reminder of some fundamental religious or spiritual truth. I first came across it about 15 years ago, and was blown away by it - it really speaks to my condition (to use a Quakerly phrase).

Reading it has made me realise that Unitarians and Quakers have an awful lot in common, both theologically and spiritually. Take the introduction: "Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning, some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths."

You could build an entire service around each paragraph ... over the years, I probably will.

"Still I am one"

The title of my blog is taken from a quotation by Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century Unitarian minister and writer. The full quote reads as follows:

"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."

For me, this sums up where I'm coming from as a Unitarian. All of us are little individuals, but each one of us can do "the something we can do". In my case, this involves my job, my training and my involvement with sundry Unitarian societies. I feel so blessed to be able to serve such worthy things.