“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, 30 December 2011

Between Present and Future

In this deep breath between Christmas and the New Year, I would like to share some words by Patience Strong: "It is good to throw away the old calendar with its all too familiar picture, and to hang something fresh on the wall. How clean and bright the new calendar looks! It seems to symbolise the high hopes of this new morning of a new year. But as I flick through the crisp new pages of the months, I am suddenly aware of the strange mystery of the future. These pages with their neat rows of dates represent unlived time, the promise of seasons not yet come to fulfilment." This time of year is full of new promise.

During the past year, all of us have fallen short, and been less than the best people we can be. But we have also done some things well, and lived up to our potential as human beings. Many world religions have a special time of year, during which adherents "reflect on and evaluate their thoughts, words and actions over the past year [and] acknowledge their prejudices, negative behaviours and bad habits so that they may begin the process of transforming themselves." [Bhalodkar] The Hindu festival of Diwali is one, and the ten-day period leading up to the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur is another. It is a time "to celebrate and appreciate life and to look forward to the coming year with a renewed sense of purpose and passion." [Bhalodkar] For Christians, it is the period of Lent, but for the vast majority of people in Britain, who do not follow any particular religion, New Year is the time for reflecting on the past, and making resolutions for the future.

The process of self-examination is not an easy one. One of my favourite theologians is the wonderful Rabbi Lionel Blue, who I have been listening to on Thought for the Day for about 30 years. I have most of his books, which I have read and re-read, and was lucky enough to go and see him "live" a while ago. Over the years, he has taught me that the only thing that God wants frm us is for us to be more kind, more generous to everyone (including ourselves) and more honest, both with ourselves and our fellow travellers in the world. It is about listening to that inner voice, whether we call it God, or the light within, or our conscience, and about doing the right thing rather than the easy one.

My resolution for the coming year is to follow the advice of Rumi, in his wonderful poem The Guesthouse:

"This being human is a guesthouse
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness
Comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight."

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Winter Solstice: Science and Spirit

There is an interesting scientific explanation of the Winter Solstice on the website http://www.timeanddate.com/:

"The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly inclination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20th and December 23rd. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight. The sun is directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere during the December solstice. It also marks the longest day of the year in terms of daylight hours for those living south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Those living or travelling south from the Antarctic Circle towards the South Pole will see the midnight sun during this time of the year.
On the contrary, for an observer in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight for those living north of the Tropic of Cancer. Those living or travelling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole will not be able to see the sun during this time of the year."

by catanna.com

 Just so. But for me, there is so much more to it than that. It is the time of year when the earth turns back towards the light, a time of renewal and hope. But it is also a time to appreciate the necessity of the cyclical nature of things - and to celebrate "the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal." There is a beautiful passage in The Circle of Life: the Heart's Journey through the Seasons by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr, which really speaks to my condition. My thanks to Frederic Brussat for drawing it to my attention via Twitter:

"There is a tendency to want to hurry from autumn to spring, to avoid the long dark days that winter brings. Many people do not like constant days bereft of light and months filled with colder temperatures. They struggle with the bleakness of land and the emptiness of trees. Their eyes and hearts seek colour. Their spirits tire of tasting the endless gray skies. There is great rejoicing in the thought that light and warmth will soon be filling more and more of each new day.
But winter darkness has a positive side to it. As we gather to celebrate the first turn from winter to spring, we are invited to recognise and honour the beauty in the often unwanted season of winter. Let us invite our hearts to be glad for the courage winter proclaims. Let us be grateful for the wisdom winter brings in teaching us about the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal. Let us also encourage our spirits as Earth prepares to come forth from this time of withdrawal into a season filled with light.
The winter solstice celebrates the return of hope to our land as our planet experiences the first slow turn towards greater daylight. Soon we will welcome the return of the sun and the coming of springtime. As we do do, let us remember and embrace the positive enriching aspects of winter's darkness. Pause now to sit in silence in the darkness of this space. Let this space be a safe enclosure of creative gestation for you."
 May it be so.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Dark Is Rising

Like most people, our family has many Christmas traditions. Some of them go back forever, and some are more recent.

One thing that I always do at this time of year is to get out my battered copy of Susan Cooper's book The Dark Is Rising, and re-read it once more. All the action is set between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, and it really sets me up for the festive season. It is a beautifully written fantasy about the long struggle between the Old Ones of the Light and the Lords of the Dark, on which hangs the fate of our human world. The King Arthur legend gets mixed up in it too - the oldest of the Old Ones is Merriman Lyon (Merlin) and the hero of the books, Will Stanton, ultimately comes to serve Arthur's son, Bran. There are five books in the sequence, but The Dark Is Rising is my favourite.

There is a wonderful description of the magic of Christmas in the book, which reminds me of my own childhood Christmasses, which we have tried to re-create for our own children:

"Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in a corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that. Ageless, familiar Christmas music permeated the house whenever anyone turned on the radio. The television set was never turned on at all; it had become, for this season, an irrelevance."

Later on in the day, they decorate the Christmas tree: "Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.
There were other treasures, then. Little gold stars and circles of plaited straw; swinging silver-paper bells. Next, a medley of decorations made by assorted Stanton children, ranging from Will's infant pipe-cleaner reindeer to a beautiful filigree cross that Max had fashioned out of copper wire in his first year at art school. Then there were strings of tinsel to be draped across any space, and then the box was empty."

The whole book is beautifully written, and very exciting. In the end, of course, Will Stanton, the Sign-seeker, achieves the first part of his quest, and the rest of the story unfolds in the next three books. The central theme is the fact that the forces of the Dark are preparing for a second great rising, and the Old Ones of the Light must prevent it from happening. It is a battle between good and evil, in the most fundamental way. In a later book, The Grey King, one of the human protagonists, John Rowlands, comments:

"Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun. At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of everything else. ... At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe."

We, unlike the Old Ones, are fully human. So we must be concerned with humanity and mercy and charity and compassion, for they are the true meaning of Christmas.

Wishing you every happiness this Christmas, and for the coming year.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The last mystery

Yesterday afternoon, I came back from a convivial Christmas lunch with a friend, and opened my e-mails, to find an e-mail on my computer from another friend to say that a mutual friend had committed suicide the previous night, having left him a suicide e-mail, which he had opened that morning. It was such a shock – I saw her (the friend who has died) last month, and she seemed fine – up and quite content with her life, full of plans for the future.

Mourning flower by Solemn Hypnotic

And now she has gone. Such a waste.

It made me think about how little we know about what is really going on inside other people's heads and hearts. I am comforted by some wise words by Rev. Arthur Stewart::

"For some, living involves no obvious self-conflict; while for others, there is deep inner stress. We realise we are deeply affected by those who have struggles; and more so by those who, in their aloneness, could not see a chance of winning. For it is from these last that we shall learn in the days to come, to labour more earnestly, and to share with one another our common stores of beauty, joy and love."

I mourn for the lost possibilities of my friend's life - so much that could have been accomplished, that will not now be. And for the friends and family left behind, who must now come to terms with a life that does not contain her. Let us pray for the strength to move forward in wholeness. A prayer by Rev. Michael Dadson fits what I want to say:

"Spirit of Life and Hope and Love, we find ourselves today in the presence of unfathomable mystery,
As with humble hearts we bow before the veil which has fallen between us and one whom we have known and loved.
Help us not to fear - nor to surrender ourselves to grief alone.
Help us to remember that greater than sorrow is love, which endures through pain and conquers grief. Love can bind all hearts in bonds of fellowship and courage; they who love unselfishly face even the depths with courage, for their strength is the strength of many and their courage rests upon the love of friends.
Let us open our hearts now - all the windows of our hearts - in search of the inner resources we shall need, if we are to face life's varied experiences of joy and sorrow.
At this time when ties of friendship and kinship have been broken, we seek the peace of acceptance.
May the words, the feelings, and the remembrances we share in these quiet moments strengthen us each in our grief, and all in our support, one for another.

May she rest in peace.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The core of religion

Last night I was fortunate enough to hear Karen Armstrong speak at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. The occasion was the World Congress of Faiths' annual Younghusband lecture, and she spoke for an hour, entirely without notes, sharing her passionate belief in the sovereign importance of compassion as a force for good in the world.

Karen defined compassion as "the ability to dethrone yourself from the centre of your world and put another person there." This is promulgated in the Golden Rule, which was first formulated by Confucius in the 5th century BCE "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Its positive counterpart appears in Matthew's Gospel, when Jesus says: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." Most of the world's religions have their own version.

In 2008, Karen Armstrong won the TED prize - a sum of money and the means to make "a wish for a better world" come true. She knew immediately what she wanted to do. In her work as a religious writer and broadcaster, she had come to realise that the Golden Rule was a common thread running through all religions, but it didn't seem to be spoken about in the modern world much. So she determined to set up a Charter for Compassion "to restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life." An invitation was sent out to leading theologians and religious thinkers from across the world's religions, and between them, they formulated the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November 2009. Two short years later, it has over 80,000 signatories and nearly 200 Partner Organisations, including my own General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The message of the Charter for Compassion is one that all human beings should heed. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone followed it! If every person genuinely tried to behave to the rest of humankind with a concern and care for how they would feel. As it says in the Charter for Compassion "Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect." We live in a global community, and we need to recognise this, and put aside our petty differences and work to create a world in which all human beings can live together in peace and freedom.

Oh let us live to make it so.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Shadow Side of Christmas

Christmas is the time of year when all the charities go into overdrive. It is the season of goodwill when people are more inclined to respond favourably to pleas for donations for good causes. The first Christmas catalogues plopped through my letterbox way back in August. I buy most of my Christmas presents from them, as well as all my cards.

So Christmas is a time of joy, of goodwill, of charitable thoughts and deeds. God's in his heaven; all's right with the world. Or is it? No, of course it's not. Many people I know are the lucky ones - we all have family and friends who love and care for us, with whom we can share the joys of the season. But not everyone is so fortunate. Christmas has a darker, largely unacknowledged side. Unaccustomed proximity can lead to bitter family arguments and breakdowns in relationships. And there are also so many lonely people who simply don't have anyone to share Christmas with, and who wouldn't feel like celebrating even if they did. For such people, the contrast between their lives and the Christmas projected through the media can exacerbate feelings of isolation, panic, stress and depression. For them, Christmas is a season to be got through somehow, not a time of joy and sharing. And even people who are spending time with friends or family may feel pressured to appear happy and to hide their true feelings or problems so as not to spoil the party atmosphere.

There is one particular charity, not as high profile as many, which exists to help such people. Its mission is (and I quote) "to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those who may lead to suicide." It is the Samaritans.

Most of us will be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. A man lay wounded and dying by the roadside. The priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road, not wanting to get involved. But the Samaritan was different. Although he was a stranger in those parts, he did not hesitate. He went across to the man, gave him water and bound up his wounds. Then he put him onto his own donkey and took him to the nearest inn, and left money for his care. When Jesus told that story, he asked which man had been the wounded man's neighbour, and was told "He that showed mercy on him."

The Samaritans was founded in November 1953, by an Anglican priest named Chad Varah. Eighteen years before, his first act as a young minister had been to bury a 14-year old girl who had killed herself when her periods started, because she thought she had some dreadful disease. Varah never forgot this girl and, in his own words, seized "every opportunity to teach young people about sex, and finding that it led youngsters to join my youth clubs and young couples to come for marriage preparation, and couples drifting apart to seek marriage guidance before it was invented." He was labelled a dirty old man for his troubles, but carried on with his work regardless. People got in touch with him to talk through their problems, and he was delighted to help.

Then one day he read in a digest that there were three suicides a day in Greater London. To use his own words again: "What were they supposed to do if they didn't want a Doctor or Social Worker from our splendid Welfare State? What sort of a someone might they want? Well, some had chosen me, because of my liberal views. If it was so easy to save lives, why didn't I do it all the time? How, I answered myself, and live on what? And how would they get in touch at the moment of crisis? He concluded that he simply didn't have the time and that "it'd need a priest with one of those city churches with no parishioners" to do the job.

A short while later, he was offered the benefice of St Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City of London, a church endowed by the Worshipful Company of Grocers. He told them of his idea of setting up a helpline for suicidal people, and the Samaritans was born.

The rest is history. There are now 202 branches of the Samaritans in the United Kingdom, and in 1974, Varah founded Befrienders International, the worldwide body of Samaritans branches. The basic principles have remained the same - Samaritans volunteers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer that unique befriending service, and to provide confidential emotional support to anyone experienceing emotional distress or despair. In 2010 in the UK alone, Samaritans received nearly five million contacts, 85% of which were by phone, many of whom felt suicidal at the time of the call. They are dealt with by a total of 18,700 volunteers, who between them give nearly three million hours of their time to befriend people in need of emotional support. I think they are splendid.