“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, 24 June 2011

Senses and Spirituality

Human beings are complicated organisms - we have bodies, we have minds, and we have souls. In order to grow into the best people that we can be, we need to nourish all of them. In religion, our bodies often get ignored; all the emphasis is on what we think and believe and feel. But our bodies need nourishment too - we have to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and so on. if we neglect them, we will become unhealthy, and all of a sudden everything seems twice as difficult, like pushing a hippopotamus uphill. If we look after our bodies, they will look after us.

Rabbi Lionel Blue shared an interesting viewpoint about bodies when he wrote: "My body is not just a lump of meat. It thinks, and has its own insight. Many times it came to my aid when my mind and my soul could not help me. I was in a train at night, surrounded by Arabs making their long way home to Morocco. Our politics and our religions were separated by two decades of misunderstanding and political animosity. It was hunger which brought us together, not theology or ideology; common hunger and the desire to have a little taste of what the other person was eating."

Before I read that, I hadn't really thought about my body having feelings of its own. But it's true: if I am sad, I don't want reasons or explanations or even spiritual insights; I just want a cuddle. And it is my body - through my senses - which gives me access to a whole world of beauty and spirituality. This morning, on my run, the feel of the sunlight on my skin, the taste of cool water, the sight of summer flowers by the roadside and the sound of birdsong combined into one joyous paean of praise for the universe.

Through what we see and hear, smell, touch and taste, we can be transported from our mundane lives into another dimension.

Bodies have their own memories too - for example, have you ever been transported to another time and another place by a smell or a sound or a taste? I only have to hear the first chord of The Air That I Breathe by the Hollies to be back in 1974, fourteen years old and very sad. I cry every time I hear it - can't help it! Even though the circumstances of my life have changed beyond recognition, and the emotional scars of young love have long healed, my fourteen-year-old self is somewhere in there, and reacts when she hears that song.

Human beings are indeed complicated organisms, and I find the fact of our bodies, minds and souls working together wondrous to contemplate. May they all be nourished in the coming days.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Living a full life

One thing I am learning is that living a full life is not the same as living a busy life. Living a busy life may be stressful and draining, as pressure piles upon pressure, and we wonder how on earth we are going to meet the next deadline. Living a full life is not the same (although a busy life well-lived may be full as well). I think that living a full life is about the quality rather than the quantity of our activities, and about the perspectives we have on those activities.

I derive a great deal of inspiration and comfort from reading the Quaker Advices and Queries. Two of these seem to be particularly relevant to the issue of living a full life:

"7. Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways.There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it comes? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?"

To me this Advice is reminding me that the whole of life is sacred, and that if we can just try to live mindfully, with an awareness of the sacred and the numinous in our everyday lives, those same everyday lives will be much fuller and richer and more rewarding. I also believe that being "open to new light" is a wonderful way of living a full life - there is always room for new insights and revelations in our minds and hearts - or there should be.

The other is no. 27: "Live adventurously. When choices areise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community. Let your life speak."

Live adventurously. Wow! There's a challenge. With our busy lives, it is tempting just to look after your own, doing the bare minimum for other people. In these days of DVDs and home entertainment centers and the Internet at our fingertips, it's very easy to retreat to our own little castles and pull up the drawbridge. Using our gifts "in the service of God and the community" takes much more effort. But it can be very rewarding to volunteer for something, not for the kudos it will bring you, but because it's the right thing to do.

My mother is a case in point. When my sister went up to university, 22 years of dedicated child nurturing came to an abrupt end. But instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for herself, she went out and became a Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer. That was in 1981, and she did it for more than 25 years. She became one of the most respected debt counsellors in the county, and found a great deal of fulfilment in helping those less fortunate than herself. It also broadened her outlook on life and society.

In the late 1970s, the print and poster shop Athena International also sold books, with titles like The Language of Friendship and The Language of Happiness. Each consisted of a collection of short statements or poems or quotations on the topic concerned. My favourite, to which I still turn (indeed it is falling apart) is Creeds to Love and Live By, and I have used much of the wisdom contained within its covers as readings in services.

One of my favourites, by Sidney Lovett, chaplain of Yale University from 1932 - 1958, is all about how to live a full life:

"Give the best you have received from the past, to the best that you may come to know in the future.
Accept life daily not as a cup to be drained,
But as a chalice to be filled with whatsoever things are honest, pure, lovely and of good report.
Making a living is best undertaken as part of the more important business of making a life.
Every now and then, take a good look at something not made with hands -
A mountain, a star, the turn of a stream.
There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all,
The assurance that you are not alone in the world."

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Spice of Life

It was the 18th century poet and hymn writer William Cowper who wrote "Variety's the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour." This has been brought home to me for the umpteenth time in the last 24 hours.

Yesterday afternoon and evening, I travelled up to Friargate Unitarian Chapel Derby for the last service of my student pastorate (which has been going on since last October). I've been running an engagement group called Building Beloved Community, and the half-dozen faithful attenders have entered wholeheartedly into the process; some wonderful deep sharing has taken place. During this last session, we all had a go at formulating a covenant for our congregations, which was both fascinating and challenging.

This was followed by the service at 6 pm. I was feeling kinda sad, because I have grown very fond of the Derby (and Mansfield and Hinckley) folk. I was just about to announce the last hymn when Elaine (Derby's Secretary) took the wind out of my sails completely by presenting me with a beautiful bunch of tulips and a book-token. I had been expecting nothing of the kind, and was totally blown away by their appreciation - it had been both a pleasure and a privilege to get to know them all and to serve them.

The journey back down the M1 in the rain went in a flash. I was riding on a tide of euphoria, feeling so very blessed and lucky. Drank a glass of wine and went to bed feeling very good.

Came downstairs this morning and went into the kitchen, or should I say bombsite? OK, I exaggerate slightly, it was only in its usual post-weekend mess - the dishwasher needed emptying; there was stuff all over the sides, and the floor needed sweeping. The bubble burst. I sighed and set to work, and in a few minutes, all was (relatively) pristine again (or at least clean and tidy enough to pass muster).

The thing that I find irritating (and am trying to rise above) is that it will all need doing again tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow. Repetitive housework is seriously not my thing - it comes about number 576 on my list of priorities, and I'm pretty good at sitting at the computer surrounded by chaos, up to a certain point. Then it all gets to me, and I have to have a blitz. I envy people like my friend Ali, who seems to really enjoy housework, and whose house is always immaculate. But here's the thing: I'm not prepared to put in the work to make this possible, which must mean something. It's about finding a balance, I think.

So as I was standing with my arms up to the elbows in washing up, I consciously tried (again) to count my blessings - that I was able to use hot, soapy water to wash up with, which was available by simply turning on a tap; that I owned all these things that needed washing, so that meal preparation is an easy task; and yes, that variety is the very spice of life. Last night, the goodwill and connection I felt with the Unitarians at Derby was wonderful. But I couldn't live on those heights all the time - it is good to be brought back down to earth by a spot of domesticity.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The wonder of it all

I spend a lot of time on my computer most days of the week, either working, or browsing Unitarian blogs or Facebook. Having been born in a pre-personal computer age, (which really wasn't that long ago, no matter what my kids might think!) I am still blown away by the sheer wonder of it all. This was brought home to me by a comment, made about my last blogpost here, on Facebook, by Rev. Victoria Weinstein, who is mentioned in it. She had been alerted to it by a mutual friend, Paul Wilczynski, whose wife comes from my small part of the UK. So an American Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts made contact with a British Unitarian ministry student in Northamptonshire, linked by a friend in South Carolina - and almost instantaneously. Can you imagine how long it would have taken, and what a complicated undertaking it would have been, before the existence of the World Wide Web?

It was Unitarian Sir Tim Berners-Lee who came up with the idea of the World Wide Web. Joshua Quittner, technology editor of Time magazine, describes what happened:

"he cobbled together a relatively easy-to-learn coding system — HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) — that has come to be the lingua franca of the Web; it's the way Web-content creators put those little colored, underlined links in their text, add images and so on. He designed an addressing scheme that gave each Web page a unique location, or url (universal resource locator). And he hacked a set of rules that permitted these documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet. He called that set of rules HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol). And on the seventh day, Berners-Lee cobbled together the World Wide Web's first (but not the last) browser, which allowed users anywhere to view his creation on their computer screen. In 1991 the World Wide Web debuted, instantly bringing order and clarity to the chaos that was cyberspace."

The thing that brings a lump to my throat is that Berners-Lee could have become a millionaire, a billionaire, as a result of this inspired invention. But from the very beginning, he has fought to keep the Web open to all and free to all. Which is such a gift to the world. I salute him.

1991 - that is only 20 years ago. The world has changed so much since I was a little girl in the sixties. My life as a child then was not enormously different to that of my parents in the 1930s. OK, there were more cars, and we had a television, but my childhood activities and pleasures were much the same as theirs had been: exploring the neighbourhood (I was lucky enough to be brought up in the country); reading (voraciously!); playing board games; doing jigsaw puzzles; building lego - simple pleasures.

I think that things started to spiral out of control with the advent of the first PCs - personal computers - in the early 1980s. For the first time, this amazing technology could be owned and used by ordinary people. My first computer was an Amstrad PCW, with green letters on a black screen, and 256K of memory. And I thought it was brilliant! Then Bill Gates introduced Windows, and Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and the whole computer world took a giant leap forward. On the entertainment front, first videos, then CDs and DVDs and MP3 players and satellite television changed the way we experience music and films. Today, hundreds of every-day objects have little computers inside them to make them work. Mobile phones are everywhere, and the latest smartphones are mini-computers all by themselves.

The sad thing about all this progress is that it is all taken so much for granted, especially by young people, who have grown up with it. Remember, it is twenty years since the invention of the World Wide Web, so a whole generation has never known a world without it, my children included. If my husband and I talk to them about what growing up in the sixties was like, the response is "how did you manage without it all?" coupled with relief that they don't have to. Sometimes I will comment on how amazing I find a particular piece of technology (for example when I watch the How does it work? programme on the Discovery channel) and they look at me with pitying smiles. They are very hard to impress. Their sense of wonder seems to have atrophied.

And I think that's a shame. I hope I'm not sounding like a Grumpy Old Woman, but I really do worry about our dependence on technology for our work and leisure. I'm a victim of this as much as anyone else; if my computer breaks down, or I can't access my e-mails or the internet for any reason, it feels as though my arm has been cut off. I can't do much of my job of serving Unitarians in the Midlands without it. But I think that it is only too easy to take all our modern marvels for granted (until they go wrong). We live in an immensely complex world, entirely reliant on the work of others and on technological innovation to live our lives. We press a switch and the computer turns on, the light turns on, the car starts. We turn on a tap and the water comes out, fresh and drinkable. We go shopping, and the shops are full of goods that have been delivered by a complex logistics network. How often do we actually consider where things come from, and how many people we are dependent on for our consumption? All these things are taken for granted; it is the nature of the complex society we live in. It is mundane, every-day, not a matter for wonder.

Well, maybe it should be. If we lived mindfully, with awareness, paying attention to the every-day miracles that make up our lives, maybe our sense of wonder would return. I have a book at home called Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Every-day Life, which has really made me re-think how I approach that same every-day life. Frederic and Mary-Ann Brussat, the authors, explain: "The readings in this book reflect the wide variety of approaches and experiences of the sacred in everyday life. Many of us recognise the presence of Spirit moving in our lives through encounters with things, places, nature, and animals ... Our activities also put us on a spiritual path, [as does] being moved to service. A spiritual perspective is perhaps most evident in our relationships. We use this term broadly to refer to the many connections in our lives."

Reading it was a revelation for me. The Brussats have collected hundreds of examples from contemporary books and films, which they use to show the reader how to see the world with fresh eyes. Before reading it, it would never have occurred to me to thank my car for getting me where I am going, or to see the spiritual benefits of washing up mindfully. But I know now.

This is a very different approach to life. It involves being open and trusting, taking life as it comes, with thankfulness. Most importantly, it involves being aware, all the time, of the marvels around you, whether they are people or places or things. I'm not saying that we can do all this all at once; it is the work of a lifetime. But just being aware of this different approach to life may make a difference; it may help us to realise that the world is a pretty amazing place, and to count our blessings at the wonder of it all.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Unitarian and/or Free Christian?

Our parent body is known as the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The other day I was having a fascinating exchange of views with fellow ministry student Jim Corrigall about what these two designations mean, and which of the two is most important to us.

In the red corner, Sue Woolley, Unitarian. In the blue corner, Jim Corrigall, Free Christian. Ding, ding, round one.

The discussion started when we were talking about the evening event which Golders Green Unitarians are hosting on 11th July – a talk by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, entitled ‘Conversation with Unitarian Christians’, which both of us will be attending, but for different reasons. Jim will be attending because he is co-convenor of the London District Liberal Christian Affinity Group, which is hosting the event. I will be attending for two reasons:

a) because I would like to hear what Victoria Weinstein’s theological viewpoint is, as an Christo-centric UU minister
b) because I am a huge fan of her alter-ego Peace Bang, who runs the amazing blog Beauty Tips for Ministers, and have wanted to meet her for years

For me, being a Unitarian involves being “open to new light from whatever source it comes”, to use the Quaker phrase, following the tenets of total respect for individual freedom of belief based on reason and conscience, and extending a broad tolerance and acceptance towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others. But working away in a little corner of my deepest beliefs all by itself until fairly recently was the proviso “except that I can’t accept the divinity of Jesus as a valid belief – I’m a Unitarian – that is what defines me.” I still find the designation “Unitarian Christian” quite uneasy, and would much prefer my Christo-centric friends to call themselves “Christian Unitarians”, with ‘Unitarian’ being the noun and ‘Christian’ being the adjective, rather than the other way round, because I see being Unitarian as “the important bit”. And I suspect that many Unitarians would feel the same – they might not admit it, but that proviso is there, ticking away at a very deep level.

Jim, on the other hand, describes himself as a “Free Christian” or “Liberal Christian” with pride, finds the teachings of Jesus and Jesus himself of fundamental importance, and argues that the current bias against Christianity within the Unitarian movement is intolerant and non-inclusive – positively un-Unitarian, in fact. I have to admit that he has a point – many Unitarians are distinctly “anti-Christian” in a way that they are not against the beliefs of any other religion – Buddhism, Hinduism etc. I think this is because they (we) have come to Unitarianism from a Christian background, and from a position of rejecting the tenets of Christianity. So we bring a lot of sub-conscious anti-Christian baggage with us, as I discovered a few months ago when I wrote an article for The Inquirer about attending a Baptist service, and was stunned by the vitriol of some of the responses.

When I was studying for the Worship Studies Course, Rev. Alex Bradley minister at Styal, and Chaplain to the Unitarian Christian Association, gently pointed out the importance of the Bible to English-speaking Unitarians, specifically: “The beauty of the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version. To make use of, and reference to, a literary tradition … is not necessarily to accept it uncritically. We can admire its aesthetic qualities, the truths it embodies, and leave out the rest. … Our Western culture, for good or ill, has been shaped by this collection of writings we call ‘The Bible’ and to ignore it is rather akin to ignoring the presence of the elephant in the drawing room.” The same is true of Christianity – in spite of secularisation, this is still a nominally Christian country, and it is deep in our culture.

Like many Unitarians, I was not brought up in a Unitarian context, and spent my primary years at a little school, which held assembly every day. We followed the round of the Christian year, and sang all the lovely Christian hymns, without questioning their meaning.

It was not until I hit teenage years that the doubts began to kick in. I had never attended a mainstream Christian church (except at Christmas). Then I found out that several of my friends were being confirmed. So I started to investigate Christianity a bit more deeply. With some reluctance, I realised that there were many things about being Christian that I simply couldn’t go along with. I watched Jesus of Nazareth on the TV, and was horrified by the barbarity of the trial and the crucifixion. This led to a fairly violent reaction – excuse me, I didn’t ask for this man to be put to death in this horrific way for me! And anyway, how could that possibly be? I also found the whole concept of communion impossible to stomach (if you’ll excuse the pun). How on earth could bread and wine be turned into flesh and blood? It was mystifying! And then I read the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, and common sense really went out of the window! How, in the name of all logic, could someone be Three and One at the same time? Or created and uncreated? It just didn’t make sense. And as for the 39 Articles … well! And yet I still believed in God.

It was at this point that I had a long conversation with my father, who had been brought up a Unitarian, but who had not attended church for many years. He explained that there was an alternative to mainstream Christianity, which didn’t involve outraging your common sense, or requiring you to suspend disbelief. He gave me a copy of Alfred Hall’s little book Beliefs of a Unitarian, and it had a profound effect on me. So this is what it’s all about, I thought.

One of the important things that Dad and Alfred Hall taught me is that it is not necessary to throw the baby Jesus out with the Christian bathwater. What I mean by that is that you may not believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified to save us from eternal hellfire, who rose again on the third day, and will sit at the right hand of the Father on judgement day. But the importance of the man and his teachings should not be underestimated. As a pattern and an example, he can hardly be bettered.

Historically, Unitarianism grew out of Christianity. The early Unitarians still believed in Jesus as divine, but not equal with God. By the end of the 18th century, Theophilus Lindsey, minister of the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England, could write “the holy Jesus was a man of the Jewish nation, the servant of this God, highly honoured and distinguished by him.” I like and also agree with Alfred Hall’s reflection on the humanity of Jesus: “Unitarians believe that in regarding Jesus as a man, they pay him the loftiest tribute possible. If he had been God, there would have been nothing to wonder at either in his life or his words, for all things are possible with God. But when we say he met temptation to evil and conquered it with the strength of a man; when we say that, by the diligence of his search and the purity of his heart, he discovered truth which has helped millions of his fellows, we render him the highest praise.”

Today there is a wide spectrum of beliefs about Jesus within the Unitarian movement. Some Unitarians have rejected Jesus completely – won’t even say the Lord’s Prayer – and are distinctly uneasy if the readings in today’s service include a passage from the New Testament. Their belief in the essential unity of God (or the Spirit of Life or whatever) is so strong that they view anything that smacks of Christianity with deep suspicion. At the other end of the scale are the Liberal Christians, who cheerfully take communion, sing many Christian hymns with only minor word changes, and reverence Jesus above all other teachers. Some, as I have now discovered, even believe that he is divine. Yet others regard Jesus as one teacher among many, and look equally to the prophets of other faiths for inspiration and guidance. And that’s great – it is one of the strengths of our Unitarian tradition that such a diversity of belief can not only be tolerated, but wholeheartedly accepted. At least that is the theory!

It wasn’t until I talked to Jim that I truly realised how very Christian some Unitarians are – believing that Jesus is divine, for example. In the flyer for Victoria Weinstein’s talk, she is quoted as follows:
“Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God … Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition … Jesus is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle … I call myself a Christian because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ—not just Jesus-that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals but Jesus the living avatar of the great God and Jesus the Christ of Easter morning …”
Which point of view is way more Christian than most Unitarians would be happy to go along with, I guess. It is certainly not a viewpoint I could share. For me, one of the main points of being a Unitarian is that I believe with Alfred Hall in the true and total humanity of the first century Jewish prophet, Jesus, “that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals.” Yes.

And yet Jim, the Free Christian author of the flyer, comments: “This essentially mystical approach to Jesus is shared by several leading UU Christians -- as well as by many Hindus and Buddhists. It could also be a trend among Christians in our diverse denomination in the UK, but perhaps difficult to acknowledge for fear of being labelled ‘not Unitarian’.” Hmmmm.

For those of us who describe ourselves as ‘Unitarians’ on the grounds of our shared values, “mutual respect and goodwill in personal relations and constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others”, to quote our leaflet A Faith Worth Thinking About, this must surely include being tolerant and open towards liberal or free Christians. And according to Jim, this means taking on board that it is not only possible but acceptable for fellow Unitarians to hold Trinitarian beliefs – which is a new idea for many of us.

For others, however, this is a non-issue; for example, the Brook Street Chapel’s website describes it as: “a creedless church. We agree to differ while remaining united in friendship, fellowship and faith. Many of us are liberal Trinitarians, a large number are traditional Unitarians, and a few refuse any label. We believe that there are many different ways to God.” To which I would also add in the words of Cliff Reed: “no honest and sincere expression of belief should be discounted out of hand. To judge another’s faith is presumptuous and dangerous. All true expressions of the religious impulse come from our encounter with the wonder and mystery of the universe. All result from the joy and pain, the highs and lows of our life-experiences in this world. … Unitarians afford respect to all sincere believers of whatever faith. We seek to learn from the witness of all spiritual traditions, but we do not do so uncritically.” Which includes non-theistic beliefs too.

I guess the ultimate question is – what do we care most about? Rejecting Trinitarian Christianity, or being open and inclusive and tolerant and loving? Surely there is room for all of us in our wonderful, uncommon denomination, our faith without a creed. Surely we can agree to differ on our theology, and get on with the important stuff, which is making ourselves “welcoming, inclusive and a blessing to the wider world.” A lot of instinctive gut reactions will have to be consciously overcome, but if Unitarianism comes to be seen as a haven not only for free thinkers and spiritual seekers, but also for disillusioned liberal Christians, and we can spread the word about it, this might even help to reverse the decline in our numbers that is so worrying everybody at the moment.

It’s a thought …

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Moments to be experienced

"So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come, and against the moments one was currently disregarding." (from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman)

I really don't like waiting days. You know the kind of day I mean - when you've got things to do, but they're not particularly urgent or interesting, when your motivation to do anything at all is at a low ebb, when you've had all the baths you can usefully have (thank you Douglas Adams) and when you realise with a start that you've spent the last hour messing around on the computer, doing pointless quizzes and looking at other people's lives on Facebook.

It is at times like these - like right now to be honest - that I try to remember Neil Gaiman's Abbot of Black Friars - and realise again that moments are to be experienced, not wasted. And to recall that I am so damn lucky to be me, and to have my life in all its Western luxury - boredom is something that most of the world's population can only dream about - they are far too busy just surviving.

May I be thankful for my blessings and grateful for all the precious moments of now that I should fill with doing what I ought or what I like, but not frittering away.