“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, 29 December 2012

Being Present

It is nearly 2013, and the joys, excitements, fears and trepidations of a new year beckon. There are things I'm looking forward to, and things I'm decidedly not. So I turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson, for some challenging yet reassuring advice on how to live this next year:

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year. No man has learned anything rightly until he knows that every day is doomsday. Today is a king in disguise. Today always looks mean to the thoughtless, in the face of a uniform experience that all good and great and happy actions are made up precisely of these blank todays.

Let us not be so deceived; let us unmask the king as he passes! He only is rich who owns the day, and no-one owns the day who allows it to be involved with worry, fret and anxiety.

You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubht crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays."

Friday, 21 December 2012

The True Meaning of Christmas

Yesterday a beautiful card came in the post from a fellow Unitarian. He had bought it from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the words really hit home:

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."
The words are by Howard Thurman, an African-American minister, civil rights activist and author, who in his time met Gandhi and influenced Martin Luther King Jr and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the midst of all the glitter and tinsel, over-indulgence and commercialism that is popular Christmas today, I am going to carry the inspiration of these words with me, and try to act on them.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Inclusivity and Identity

One of my favourite ways to pass the time on long car journeys is to listen to a Great Course. These audio CDs are produced by the Teaching Company, and cover many fascinating topics. The one I am listening to at the moment is The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era, which is taught by Professor Brad S. Gregory of Stanford University.

I was listening idly to a lecture about the Mennonites on my journey home yesterday, when he said something which really caught my attention: "Too much inclusivity threatens to dilute our identity." and that part of being a member of any denomination is being in "community with others who share the same commitments."


It really made me wonder - Unitarians are proud of our inclusive attitude -  "All are welcome here" says the hymn - but are we taking it too far? One of our central tenets is that of freedom of belief - we don't believe that every Unitarian should sign up to a statement of belief in order to become a member. Cliff Reed writes in Unitarian? What's That? "shared values and a shared religious approach are a surer basis for unity than theological propositions." And I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly.

Nevertheless, I think that our individualistic approach to the spiritual journey does have its dangers. It is somewhat problematic for Unitarians to articulate what "we" believe as a denomination - every Unitarian can explain what they as individuals believe, but it is difficult (and even perceived as improper) to speak for others. But I believe that it is a problem that we need to face - unless we can articulate clearly what we believe, how can we attract other like-minded people into our churches and chapels?

Perhaps each congregation should try to put down on paper some basic statement of the beliefs and values that they have in common that can go onto their website, so that outsiders will understand what we stand for, what our identity as Unitarians is, and will be able to judge whether Unitarianism is for them.


Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Wonder of Sight

This morning I had to leave very early, at 7.00 am, to get to a meeting. Boy, oh boy, I am so glad that I did. The journey over was amazing.

I started out in the darkness, with my headlights picking out the frosty branches of the trees. As I travelled on, through Yeats' "night and the light and the half light" the world turned from a monochrome pre-dawn grey through the palest peaches and apricots as the sun came up. Every individual twig on every individual tree was thrown into sharp relief by the magical light of the early morning sun, and the colours were fabulous - every shade of brown and gold and grey and green you could imagine. I felt like I was driving through a landscape painting.

I feel so very blessed to have been awake to the beauty around me.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Thank Goodness for Friends

I've had a busy week. In fact, I've had a busy month. And I would not have got through it, had it not been for the love and support of my family and friends.

I am reminded of the beautiful words of the Arabian proverb:

"A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away."

And also of Roy Croft:

"I love you, not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.

I love you, not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me.

I love you for the part of me that you bring out;

I love you for putting your hand into my heaped-up heart, and passing over all the foolish, weak things that you can't help dimly seeing there, and for drawing out into the light, all the beautiful belongings that no one else had looked quite far enough to find.

I love you because you are helping me to make of the lumber of my life, not a tavern, but a temple;
Out of works of my every day, not a reproach but a song.

I love you because you have done more than any creed could have done to make me good, and more than any fate could have done to make me happy.

You have done it without a touch, without a word, without a sign.

You have done it by being yourself. Perhaps that is what being a friend means, after all."

Thank you; thank you all.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Making the Best of Who We Are

Today I was in my local supermarket, doing the weekly shop. One item that I wanted was at the back of a top shelf, and those of you who know me in the flesh will know that I am vertically challenged - only a little bit over five feet tall.

So it was way out of my reach. Then I had a sudden sense of being loomed over, and a very tall young man in the supermarket uniform came up behind me. I asked him whether he would be kind enough to reach the said item for me, and made a facetious remark along the lines "It must be nice to be tall."

Then he blew me away, by turning and smiling, and saying quite simply "We have to make the best of what we're given, and give thanks." It felt like a moment of deep sharing. Then he gave me the item and walked away, before I could thank him for the good lesson he had taught me.

We have to make the best of what we're given, and give thanks.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Thank you!

Every morning, when I log on to my computer, the first thing that I look at is Clare Law's blog, Three Beautiful Things http://threebeautifulthings.blogspot.co.uk/. Every day since 2004 she has recorded "three things that have given me pleasure", and I love being reminded that there is so much in life to be grateful for, to be thankful for. As she says: "Gratitude is not just for Christmas. It works because it's about noticing what the universe does." Let me share a typical day's entries with you (Alec is her young son):

"1. Alec and I have had fun this morning. As I am carrying him to nursery, I say: "I wish I didn't have so much to do this afternoon. I'd like to keep you with me to cuddle and nuggle and read stories."
He replies, quite firmly: "Bye Mummy."

2. To finally sit down and sew that bloody button back on.

3. The crystal water jug is standing where the sun falls on the table. The light splashes around the room, shuddering, dancing, laughing at me."
It's a new way of looking at the world, of appreciating your blessings, and being grateful for the wonders and joys of everyday life. For we live in a world of wonders.
And in the last few months, I have been trying to take a leaf out of her book, by recognising God / the Spirit at work in my life every day. Mostly these are things to be thankful for, but I am learning that sometimes they are things that challenge me to look at my life whole, so that I can grow into the best Sue Woolley I can be. And I try to be grateful, although it is often hard.
So today I wanted to record my thanks to Clare, for starting my day with a smile, and to Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Germany theologian, philosopher and mystic, who wrote "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."
Thank you.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Accepting Change

It seems I need to take my own advice ... at the moment I am finding it very hard to accept some forthcoming changes in my life.

For me, it is quite easy to embrace change on a work level, but much harder to do so on a personal level. And it is all around me. My friend Linda is moving back to the States at the end of the month, and my two children, no longer children, are both in the throes of applying to university. And I am happy for them all, but very sad for me. To be truthful, I have been wallowing in self-pity, which is never good.

A crowd of sorrows (image from creativeeveryday.com)

So I turn to Rumi's wonderful poem The Guesthouse for comfort:

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.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Welcome difficulty.
Learn the alchemy True Human Beings know;
The moment you accept what troubles you've been given,
the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets
that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath,
Is the sweetness that comes after grief.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Change: Challenge or Opportunity

Last night a kind friend lent me an amazing book: Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. It is subtitled An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life, and it really appealed to me.

The basic plot is simple: four beings (two mice and two Littlepeople) are living in a maze, and looking for Cheese - "cheese being a metaphor for what we want to have in life, whether it is a job, a relationship, money, a big house, freedom, health, recognition, spiritual peace, or even an activity like jogging or golf." The two mice are Sniff "who sniffs out change early" and Scurry "who scurries into action." The two Littlepeople are Hem "who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse" and Haw "who learns to adapt in time when he sees changing can lead to something better."

Although on one level, it is a very simple tale - when the cheese runs out at one Cheese Station, the two mice immediately head off to another part of the Maze and eventually find some new cheese, whereas the two Littlepeople take longer to react - it is a profound metaphor for our attitudes to change. Some people sense very early on that change is in the air, and trim their sails accordingly; and some rush straight into action in the new direction. But some, like the Littlepeople, find change very challenging. Some, like Hem, simply cannot accept that a change has taken place, and stay as they are, in the stubborn and despairing belief that things will go back to what they were. They are resistant to change, because it doesn't feel safe. Others, like Haw, are afraid of change at first, but then common sense kicks in, and they realise that anything is better than staying on the sinking ship, or in the losing situation, and slowly, warily, move on and discover that actually, change can be good.

In the story, Haw leaves Hem at the old, empty Cheese Station, and sets out to find New Cheese. On the way, he makes a series of discoveries about himself, and leaves little notices up on the walls of the Maze for Hem to find, should he summon up the courage to leave the old Cheese Station. In the process, he learns how to cope productively with change, so that it is an opportunity, rather than a challenge. The notices read as follows:

  • "They Keep Moving The Cheese (change happens)
  • Get Ready For The Cheese To Move (anticipate change)
  • Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old (monitor change)
  • The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese (adapt to change quickly)
  • Move With The Cheese (change)
  • Savour The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese! (enjoy change!)
  • They Keep Moving The Cheese (be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again."
The whole story reminds me of two of my favourite advices in Quaker Advices and Queries:

"Live adventurously. When choices arise, 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."

"Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness."

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Music of the Heart

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.

And our bodies have feelings of their own. 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 sense - 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 wonderful variegated colours of the autumn leaves, 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 mundance 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 beyone 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.

image: youthvoices.net

Music can affect us in many ways, some obvious, some not so obvious. For example, when I am driving, and get stuck in a traffic jam, I automatically switch the radio on to Classic fm, which I find soothing; it helps me to keep my patience and not get wound up about the delay. And when I am on the M45, which is a short stretch of generally empty motorway, I like to put on something fast-paced and exciting, like Highway Star by Deep Purple, and put my foot down. In fact, I am very careful not to listen to music like that when I am on a busy road, because it subconsciously makes me drive faster.

Music has the power to move us, to change our mood. This is well-recognised by the people in charge of public spaces - shops, restaurants, pubs, for example. The organisation Music Works has conducted research about the effect of music on shoppers, and the results are startling. 90% of the people surveyed said they were more likely to recommend a store that plays music they like to their friends and family. 76% of retailers believe that they can positively influence the behaviour of customers through playing music; and 60% of retailers agreed that playing music not only increases staff productivity, but also makes the staff more friendly towards customers. Furthermore, 84% of customers like shops that play in-store music, and 77% of people say that music is an important factor in creating the ideal atmosphere in-store.

Personally, I found this research startling - I actively dislike the loud music in most stores these days, but I guess I must accept that I am in a small, out-of-date minority!

Music can also be used more subtly to stir people's emotions. For example, who remembers that marvellous moment in the Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca, when the singer in Rick's Bar begins to sing the Marseillaise to drown out the Nazi singing on the other side of the bar? I am getting tingles down my spine just thinking about it. And I am sure that most people could name particular instants in films where the music - often a song - has a profound effect on the mood of not only the people in the film, but also on the cinema audience. Another example might be the singing at football matches, which unites fans in a bond of partisanship. And of course, it can also be used less harmlessly, to control the hearts and minds of those who hear it.

What is it about music that has the power to thrill us, to move us to tears or laughter, to calm us? I have often wondered what it is about music that elicits such emotions. Philosophers and biologists have asked the question for centuries, noting that humans are universally drawn to music. It consoles us when we are sad, pumps us up in happier times, and bonds us to others, even though listening to an iPod or singing "Happy Birthday" does not seem necessary for survival or reproduction.

An article in Scientific American comes to the following conclusions: "that music's influence over us may be a chance event, arising from its ability to hijack brain systems built for other purposes such as language,emotion and movement. Music seems to offer a novel method of communication rooted in emotions rather than in meaning. Research shows that what we feel when we hear a piece of music is remarkably similar to what everyone else in the room is experiencing. Songs facilitate emotional bonding and even physical interactions such as marching or dancing together, and thus may help cement ties that underlie the formaton of human societies."

All is know is that it is an important part of my life, and I thank God for it.


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Letting Go of Someone You Love

Letting go of someone you love can be the hardest thing in the world. It can be a minor, temporary letting-go, such as a mother does when she drops her 4+ year old child off to school for the first time, a longer-term one, such as a parent dropping their 18 year old off at university, or a permanent one, when you have to come to terms with the death of someone you love.

Yesterday, I had to make the decision to let my beloved 14 year old cat, Bruno, go. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer back in May, and given "weeks" to live, but spent the Summer quite happily poofling around the garden, eating everything in sight and just chilling out. Evenings were spent curled up on my knee, purring. Then two days ago, he became withdrawn, and off his food, and I knew that the time had come to do the right thing, and take him to the vet, so that his suffering would not be prolonged.

my beloved Bruno

I know it was the right thing to do, but it was so hard. But at least society is on my side - putting an animal who has an incurable illness or insufferable pain to sleep is seen as merciful and sensible and correct. Yet if Bruno had been my parent, or my sibling, or my child, or my friend, any attempt on my part to shorten his life would be seen in many circles as "murder" and completely unacceptable. I know that life is sacred, but I truly believe that if a person is incurably ill, and in possession of their senses, and is able to communicate their wishes, they should be allowed to end their lives with dignity, at a time of their choosing. I also believe that if they are physically unable to do this for themselves, then relatives or doctors should not be punished for helping them. Relatives in particular will have to live with their grief for the rest of their lives - why should they be punished further, if that is truly what the ill person wants? Obviously, there have to be rigorous safeguards, so that it is always abundantly clear that the wishes of the ill person are respected, but otherwise I truly do not understand  why putting an animal out of its suffering is "merciful", while doing the same to a person is "unlawful killing".

Friday, 14 September 2012

A Perfect Experience

I am feeling so blessed. I have just been through the most perfect experience. I am full of gratitude to God for making it possible. Let me explain: this morning, a beautiful, sunny, cool, breezy September morning, I went for run. The sun was shining, and the sky was blue, and the hundreds of different greens of grasses and shrubs and trees shone in the sunlight. My body was doing what it was supposed to, and it felt so good to be alive! I feel almost exalted by this experience.


When I got back, I knew that I would have to share this wonderful experience. And to my surprise, I felt compelled to turn to the Book of Psalms to find the right words, in Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your work;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
And I give thanks and praise God. Life is good.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Back to Normal

The last few weeks have been wonderful. I have attended a retreat for ministerial students and probationers, spent a wonderful ten days in Poland with my husband, been at Summer School for a week, then back to Hucklow the following week for the Ministers' conference. And it has all been rich and nourishing and spiritually uplifting.

And now it's all over, and I am home, and it is good. While I was away, my usual regular activities have gone for a burton - I haven't been for a run since the end of July, my devotional practices have been scrappy, to say the least, and work has been dodged into spare moments. So I'm looking forward to the next few weeks - I'm going to run three times a week, get back to healthy eating (no more Hucklow cooked breakfasts!), get on top of all the things I need to do for work, and spend some quality time with my family. I'm also looking forward to leading worship at several different Unitarian congregations round the Midlands, which I really missed during August.

As I have said on this blog before, the quality of life is about finding a balance. The last few weeks were wonderful, but I couldn't live on those heights all the time. A little bit of "back to normal" is just what I need.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Spiritual Nourishment

Maybe it's because I've spent so many years involved with education - both my own and my my children's - but for me, September always feels like the beginning of the new year. The long lazy days of Summer are over, and I can scent the fresh-baked bread smell of new beginnings in the air.

photo: livingforgod.net

September is the time for feeling energised, and for making plans for the year to come. Luckily for me, it also comes just after my spiritual batteries have been re-charged by spending a week at Hucklow Summer School. This wonderful Unitarian institution gives a few lucky people the opportunity to spend seven precious days at the Nightingale Centre in the Peak District, living together, worshipping together, re-connecting with old friends and making new ones, caring and sharing, and growing spiritually. Going home at the end of it feels like a little death.

A prayer written at Summer School this year:

Dear God,
Thank you for the annual blessing that is Summer School.
May it be a week of deepening old friendships,
And creating new ones.
May it be a time of spiritual stretching and nourishment.
May I be open to new light from whatever source it comes,
And may I be open-handed and open-hearted in all my dealings here.
Thank you,

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Tragedy of Idealism

As we have spent the last ten days in Poland, I thought it fitting that my holiday reading should be Nostromo by the brilliant Polish-born author, Joseph Conrad. I studied it for A level many years ago, and hadn't read it for years. I had forgotten how brilliant it is.

image from Amazon UK

It is a story on the grand scale, whose main theme concerns the (generally tragic) consequences of idealism, either in oneself or in others. Most of the main characters suffer on account of their own or somebody else's devotion to an ideal.

What hadn't struck me until two-thirds of the way through the novel and the end of the holiday was how it fitted in with our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Nazis too were obsessed by an ideal: the supremacy of the Herrenvolk, the German race, and the elimination of all others. And this ideal, like many in Nostromo, led to death and destruction on a large scale.

It seems that if we allow ourselves to become obsessed by an ideal, its skews our judgement and corrupts our reason. If we idealise something or somebody, we don't see it / them straight. Examples of this are littered throughout history (and sadly, very often have to do with one party's religious ideals conflicting with another's).

Think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Great Ejection 350 years ago this month; and in more modern times, Hitler's Final Solution, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the Rwandan massacre, 9/11 and so on. And if you strip every example back to basics, they all happened because one group of people stopped recognising their essential commonality with another group of people (that of being fellow human beings) and got carried away by the idea that their point of view or ideal was the only correct one, and that therefore people with different points of view should be eliminated.

It is only by the exercise of compassion, by being open to the hearts and minds of others, by recognising that each of us is "unique, precious, a child of God", that the closed mind and consequent intolerance can be avoided.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Power to Choose

Our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau yesterday reminded me forcibly of the power of evil. The sheer scale of the suffering undergone by the Jews, Poles, gypsies, Communists and other prisoners was horrendous. And it was part of a deliberate and evil (that word again) plan to "free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies", in the words of Otto Thierach, Hitler's so-called Minister of Justice. Jews in particular were to be totally exterminated, being seen as sub-human vermin.

It was a task undertaken with meticulous and horrifying efficiency, carefully documented every step of the way.


But I don't believe in evil as an independent power in the world. No-one is born evil - there is no such thing as original sin. I believe that every human being has the power to choose between good and evil. However, the choices that each person makes will set them on a path towards a life filled with good deeds or evil ones, and the farther one walks along the chosen path, the harder it is to turn aside. As the Native Americans believe, "it depends which wolf you feed."

I have to believe that there is a divine spark "that of God" in everyone, but perhaps those people we call evil choose to ignore its promptings. And there are many degrees of evil; for example, I do not believe that the majority of German people during Hitler's Reich chose evil consciously, although the dyed in the wool Nazis certainly seem to have done. But the Nazi propaganda machine awakened the latent anti-Semitism in many German hearts, giving them someone to blame for their hard lives, and enabling them to believe its lies, and close their eyes to what was going on.

Yet there were some who turned their backs on the temptation to evil, and chose good. For example, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, the Catholic priest who took someone else's place in a starvation cell in Auschwitz - we saw the actual cell yesterday. Or the brave Poles who risked their lives to help the Auschwitz inmates by providing them with food and medicine, and organised escapes. And of course, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews, as famously portrayed in the Spielberg film Schindler's List.

We all have the power to choose, every day, between acts that will make the world a better or a worse place for its inhabitants, not only our fellow human beings, but all living things.

I pray that when I am put to the test, that I will have the courage to stand up for the good, and deny the evil. Amen

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Holiday Time!

"We're all going on a Summer Holiday, no more worries for a week or two". These lyrics by Cliff Richard are buzzing through my mind today, as I try to clear my desk before going off for a glorious eleven days to Poland.

image by bigbaddaddyvader.com

The word "holiday" comes from Holy Day, a date in the church calendar that was set aside for devotion and reflection. And in the Hebrew Bible is the stern injunction: "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. "

I have posted before about the importance of the sabbath, of rest, and recuperation from the daily tasks of our busy lives. Nobody should work without a break. It is a recipe for disaster. All of us need "down time", in which to rest our bodies and minds, and to touch base with the important things of life - our families, our friends, and to spend time nourishing our souls.

This post is my last "job" before I start the joyous task of packing and tidying and switching into holiday mode. Blessings on you all.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Finding God in the Dryness

I'm not good at anti-climaxes. You work and work towards something, doing the best that you can to achieve your goal. And then you get there. At first it is wonderful, you're on Cloud 9, and everything in the garden is rosy.

And then life, as it has a way of doing, goes on. Kind friends have congratulated you on your achievement, and then something else happens, and it is time to move on. But there is a flatness, a smidgeon of "so-what-ery" about things, and it is then that I find it difficult to motivate myself to carry out the present task, or even to enjoy the present pleasure. I feel a bit like the Christian described by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, who, "no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God's] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

As usual, I turn to Quaker Advices and Queries for advice. And it is there:

"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 may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?"

So I have a job to do - to recognise the working of the Spirit everywhere - in nature, in humankind, in the ups and downs of everyday life. I know in my deepest heart that He/She is there, but need to keep on being mindful, so that I won't miss the shining examples when I see them. And to "listen with the ear of my heart", as my friend Danny would say, so that I hear them too. And to realise how very fortunate I am to have been given the faculties to recognise the sacred at work in my life.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Can There Ever Be A Just War?

Last Tuesday I attended a debate at Kidderminster New Meeting House, on the question "Can there ever be a just war? It was an interesting evening ...

(c) bestclipartblog.com

Sandy Ellis (Evesham) opened the debate for the motion. His two main arguments were that the leader of any nation has a moral duty to defend its citizens, and that although war is an evil and barbaric thing, it can be justified if it is waged to defeat a greater evil. He went over the standard Just War critieria - that the cause is just, that it has been properly authorised, that there is right intention, that all other means of avoiding conflict have been explored, that it must be winnable, and that the force used is "proportionate". He also mentioned the internationally accepted guidelines about how a war should be conducted, for example, obeying international conventions, not injuring or killing non-combatants, and looking after prisoners of war. The decision to use force when all else has failed is a choice of the lesser of two evils. He concluded that the only way that evil can triumph is when the good man decides to sit by and do nothing.

Then Martin Layton, of Bewdley Quakers, opposed the motion. The main thrust of his argument was that the motives for war are never just; wars are usually started to protect a country's political and economic interests and to get more power. He stated that fear, hatred and revenge have powerful propaganda value, and that atrocities are considered in isolation, apart from root causes, in order to encourage over-simplified responses. He stated that authority is always self-legitimising, and commented on the fact that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council also dominate the international arms trade. War is all atrocity and outrage; it is impossible to contain, and only the victors get to dispense justice. He concluded that war is a business and a crime, and must be stopped.

Ian Kirby of Kidderminster seconded the motion. He argued that the just war principles place limits on warfare. He acknowledged that Christians struggle with warfare, but also that we shouldn't be passive in the face of aggression. Civil disobedience only works when there is a framework of law. We can't just sit by and let genocide happen - we need to intervene. He concluded by reiterating the just war principles mentioned above.

Moira Brown of Bewdley Quakers seconded the opposition to the motion. She mentioned the Quaker Peace Testimony; that it was about deeds, not creeds - a way of living. This is based on integrity, patience and love, not on adopting the ways of an oppressor. Justice is achieved not by war, but by peacemaking. She argued that the refusal to go to war is not surrender, and mentioned the two Quaker offices in Geneva and New York, which exist to facilitate dialogue between potential enemies. She concluded that wars create more problems than they solve.

My own view is this: that to justify war or to take a pacifist line is one of the deepest and starkest choices of personal conscience. Is pacifism a cause worth fighting for? What a paradox! I speak as one who has a fairly volatile temperament at times, and one who is not a naturally pacific person. I admire pacifists enormously. I am deeply impressed by the realisation that we are all human beings, given life by God. What right have others to take that life away? What cause can possibly justify it? Not many I think. I am also convinced by Martin Layton's argument that no war today can ever truly be called just, because economic and political interests and power are at the heart of every conflict.

Our world is riven by conflict, and it is hard not to feel despondent. Yet I also believe that the common humanity of humankind could be an overarching bond that prevents war - there is that of God, the divine spark, in everyone - and that the faith communities could and should do much to promote this. After 9/11, we saw this in action - people all over the world, of whatever political or religious complexion, were united in horror at the toll of death and damage. We just need to be reminded of our common humanity. Often. This is why the work of the Charter for Compassion is so important, so vital - it is trying to transcend boundaries, to break through fear and distrust, to the common humanity of humankind.


Friday, 6 July 2012

Living with Intention

A wise friend of mine, Eugene Hughes, posted the following on Facebook this morning: "How do you want your day to be? Ask yourself what's the single most important outcome? It could be a way of doing or a way of being."

Time for reflection and rest is so important. It is too easy to rush from task to task, ticking off items on the to-do list, and then straight on to the next thing. But it is not the best way to live our lives. We are "spiritual beings having a human experience", to quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and we need to remember that more often. Or at least I do.

In his wonderful book Sabbath: Finding rest, renewal and delight in our busy lives, Wayne Miller writes:

"What makes life fruitful? The attainment of wisdom? The establishment of a just and fair society? The creation of beauty? The practice of loving kindness? Thomas Jefferson suggested that human life and liberty were intimately entwined with the pursuit of happiness. Instead, life has become a maelstrom in which speed and accomplishment, consumption and productivity have become the most valued human commodities. In the trance of overwork, we take everything for granted. We consume things, people, and information. We do not have time to savor this life, nor to care deeply and gently for ourselves, our loved ones, or for our world; rather, with increasingly dizzying haste, we use them all up, and throw them away."

He goes on to say that we have lost the rhythm of work and rest, and explains that "Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. ... We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls. ... Sabbath time ... is a time to let our work, our lands, our animals lie fallow, to be nourished and refreshed. Within this sanctuary, we become available to the insights and blessings of deep mindfulness that arise only in stillness and time. When we act from a place of deep rest, we ar more capable of cultivating what the Buddhists would call right understanding, right action, and right effort."

It is a different approach to our lives. It is a way of being as well as a way of doing. It is living with intention.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Give Your Soul Away

At the Wednesday morning service of the MOSA conference, Ann Peart included a lovely reading which really spoke to my condition: Thirty Six by Linda M. Underwood:

All this talk of saving souls.
Souls weren't made to save,
like Sunday clothes that
give out at the seams.

They're made for wear; they
come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul.
Pour it out like rain on
cracked, parched earth.

Give your soul away, or
pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or
laugh it up the wind.

Souls were made for hearing
breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,
remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.

These men who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before
you sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be
in alphabetical order.

I will spend my soul,
playing it out like sticky string
into the world,
so I can catch every
last thing I touch.

Some beautiful ideas here - souls being "made for wear"; coming with "lifetime guarantees". Yes, we should give our souls away, pouring them out "like rain on cracked, parched earth", playing them out "like sticky string into the world". If we only do this, then we can connect with the Divine, and with each other, and with the world. I believe that that is why God gave them to us.

Monday, 18 June 2012

A Time of Anticipation

Last Friday, my daughter and I went to our first University Open Day, at Sheffield. It was an exciting day, opening up new possibilities and opportunities for her.

The campus was full of Year 12 students and their parents, all trying to decide whether Sheffield was the university for them. I expect that most of them, like us, will be spending the next few weeks visiting other Universities, to enable them to make an informed decision about their futures.

They then have to wait until mid-August, until they get the results of their AS levels, before making final decisions and filling up the dreaded UCAS form.

It's a lot of pressure. Because so many young people now opt to go to University, competition for places is fierce - if you want to get onto a popular course at a respected university, you will probably be expected to get three As at A2 - a big ask in anybody's money. Most universities do not do interviews any more, so the students are judged purely on their grades and on their Personal Statements.

My thoughts and prayers are with my daughter in this time of waiting, and with all her fellow students, whose lives are going to be fundamentally shaped by what happens in the next few months.
May they survive with their self-esteem intact, and may they find a course they will find fulfilling and exciting.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Future of Unitarianism

In a keynote speech to the FOY Society seminar in 1997, Miles Howarth said:

"If we can get the fundamentals right, then there will be enough people who are inspired, involved and active so they provide the money, the ways and the means ... We must be in the business of impact and success and growth."

This begs the question: "What are the fundamentals?" I think that this is the issue that our General Assembly needs to be concentrating on - to provide a clear, simple to understand exposition of the fundamentals of Unitarianism, so that new people will be attracted into our movement, and will stay.

Six years ago, in June 2006, the Executive Committee circulated a statement entitled Our Unitarian Ethos, which I believe was a step in the right direction. In comparison with the wordy 2001 GA Object, it is snappy, easily understood, and interesting. It reads:

"We Unitarians and Free Christians are united by our ethos and values. We aspire to create a loving, caring, religious community within which we:
  • value people in their diversity and uniqueness
  • encourage freedom of thought and speech
  • support spiritual exploration
  • create celebratory worship
  • advocate justice, liberty, honesty, integrity, peace and love
Hence we strive to:
  • make the best of the life we have
  •  be democratic in our practice
  • celebrate life in its many forms
  • respect people whose beliefs and attitudes are different from our own."
This statement, with which I think the vast majority of Unitarians would agree, needs publicising widely. It sums up the underlying values of present day British Unitarianism. We all need to work together to save our precious "uncommon denomination" from extinction. Let us use our heads and hearts, our reason and imagination, and turn our movement around. In the words of Earl Holt:

"We remember this day those who have gone before us here, who laboured not for themselves alone, but with a vision of building for the future a world better than they had known. Inspire in us also a like vision, that we too may labour for things beyond ourselves, that our lives may be dedicated to high purposes and grand horizons. Make us unafraid of hopes and dreams; release us from cynicism and despair. Teach us to be realistic about our limitations but never to lose hope in our potential to transcend them."

May it be so.


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Interdependent Web of Life

These are the words of Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman philosopher:

"All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to the one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things; all being is one, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking creatures possess) and all truth is one - if, as we believe, there can be but one path to perfection for beings that are alike in kind and reason."

If we believe that this is so (and I do) then everything we do has a knock-on effect on everything and everyone around us. I read these words as a reminder and a warning - that all of life is sacred, and it is our duty to treat others (and the earth) "with absolute justice, equity and respect". (Charter for Compassion).

Forrest Church quotes Unitarian Universalist minister David Bumbaugh: "We are called to define the religious and spiritual dimensions of the ecological crisis confronting the world, and to preach the gospel of a world where each is part of all, where every one is sacred, and every place is holy ground, where all are children of the same great love, all embarked on the same journey, all destined for the same end." Church continues: "Unlike those religions that view the world as a charnel house from which we must escape, Unitarian Universalism reveres the creation and challenges us to nurture it, even to defend it against ourselves when we lose our sense of intimacy with the earth as the ground of our being, the living web that connects us."

May it be so.

Friday, 18 May 2012

All You Need Is Love

Often in this life, it is easy to pretend that all is well, that you are self-sufficient, that we don't need anyone's help. But eventually, there comes a time when relying on yourself is not enough. You need to reach out to another human being, and, in all humility, ask for what you need. There is no shame in this, or there shouldn't be. As John Donne wrote:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We are all "involved in Mankind" (or humankind). Love (or compassion) is the central truth of all religious traditions. Every time we reach out to another person, every time we feel their pain, every time we try to make someone else's world a better place, we are putting love and compassion at the centre of our lives. Which is where it needs to be. As St. Paul wrote:

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. ... And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Some Good Advice

I have not had a good couple of weeks - lots of stress about various things. So I was uplifted by the picture below, which was posted by Joy Happiness Love Family:

So I am going to really try to not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess; just breathe and have faith that everything will work out for the best.

Friday, 27 April 2012

A Good Laugh

I think it was Anne McCaffrey who once wrote: " A man can sleep any time, but a good laugh restores the soul."

I was reminded of the truth of this yesterday. The week so far had been fairly tedious, full of tasks and duties, and not full of fun. Then I went for my piano lesson, and for the last few minutes, my teacher suggested that we play some duets. Well, within minutes of starting we were both convulsed with laughter, tears pouring down our faces, as I vainly tried to keep up with her. And for the rest of the evening, I felt light and bubbly and happy. I felt Joy.

In his classic The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis divides the causes of human laughter into "Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper and Flippancy." He writes: "You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. ... Laughter of this kind does us [devils] no good and should always be discouraged."

Of Fun, he writes: "Fun is closely related to Joy - a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. ... in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils."

Of the Joke Proper, he writes: " The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. ... Humour is for them [the English] the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. ... A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke."

And he writes: "But Flippancy is the best of all. ... Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. ... every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. ... It is a thousand miles away from Joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it."

Whenever I read these definitions, it makes me reflect on the amount of Joy and Fun in my life, and reminds me of the danger of Flippancy. Laughter does indeed restore the soul, but never at others' expense.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Joy of Learning

I have just been required to summarise the three years of my ministry training in a report to the Interview Panel. And it brought home to me two things: a) how much I have learned in the last three years, and b) how much I still have to learn.

Many years ago, my wise mentor, Arthur Beckenham, quoted the following advice to me, which I have tried to follow ever since:

"Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow."

When I finished the bulk of my training last June, I felt bereft. I had really enjoyed the experience of learning more about Unitarianism; its history; its theology; all of it. I had also derived huge benefit from contact with the Baptist ministry students at Regent's Park College, who gave me a real insight into mainstream Christianity, from an insider perspective.

I love learning new things, and I love that my Unitarian faith is broad enough and deep enough to incorporate what I learn into my life. To quote the Quakers: "may I be open to new light, from whatever source it comes".

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The challenges for liberal religions

One of the highlights for me of the recent General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches Annual Meetings was the keynote speech by Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. He spoke movingly about the future of liberal religions from a Quaker perspective. I would guess that most of those present could identify strongly with the challenges he spoke about:

    Paul Parker (photo by John Fitzgerald)
  • to try to understand what is going on with our membershhip, in terms of age distribution etc
  • being confident about who we are and what we offer and being able to talk about it to others
  • how to answer the question "I'm a Quaker [Unitarian] - ask me why" in language accessible to new people
  • living up to what we say and believe - putting our faith into action
  • how do people know we exist - how to raise visibility
  • making sure that people can find us, and that they feel welcome when they do
  • being vibrant, effective communities
  • recognising the variety of ministries within the Quaker [Unitarian] community - acknowledging what gifts people bring and the service they offer
Like the Unitarians, Quakers are a minority faith in the United Kingdom, but have a wonderful and important message to share with many spiritual seekers who are looking for just such a faith. So dealing with these challenges is vital for our future.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Walking the Talk

[written during the Annual Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarians & Free Christians]

Being at the Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings is a bit like living inside a bubble. For these few days, spent with 300 or so fellow Unitarians, I am immersed in matters Unitarian, morning, noon and night. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

On the good side, it is an annual opportunity for spiritual nourishment, and a chance to catch up with old friends, and perhaps make new ones. It is so good to spend time with like-minded people, talking and learning about things I care for passionately, and enjoying the deep cameraderie and fellowship that is GA at its best. The opportunity to worship in a large group is particularly rich.

And yet, and yet. In the world outside - the real world - anything may have happened. We are cocooned in our Unitarian bubble, and I have no computer, and hence no access to what is going on.

This year, for the first time, this worries  me. I feel as though we are perhaps too inward looking, maybe even a little self-obsessed, rather than being concerned with how we can make a positive difference to the world in which we live.

Maybe that is a bit unfair. Several of our motions, about which there were passionate debate, were very much concerned with that same outside world. And I have seen and heard some marvellous examples of Unitarian social action this week - Send A Child to Hucklow, the new social justice initiative in Bethnal Green - the list goes on. During these meetings, I have heard over and over again the wish that we might have a higher profile, so that our marvellous Unitarian message of welcome and inclusivity and spiritual & religious liberty could nourish the lives of other spiritual seekers.

I just hope that the people here (myself included) will take this to heart, and go back to our congregations and our lives inspired to spread the Unitarian message through our words and our actions, so that we may indeed become a force for good in our complicated 21st century world.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (I know not by whom, I've just looked it up in both my Dictionaries of Quotations, and it isn't there, to my surprise). However.

What does this mean? I think that it is reminding us that there is no one standard of beauty in the world, no matter what the celebrity press might tell us. For example, it is a truism that every new parent thinks that his or her baby is the most beautiful creature in the world, when an objective view might think otherwise (to say the least). So maybe if we can believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we might be able to avoid making snap judgements about people based on how "pleasing" their appearance is to us, because we will understand that our standard of beauty may not be shared by others.

The importance attributed by many in our society to  having a particular type of body or set of features worries me. I am not immune to this - I look at pictures of the great and the good (or even the merely famous) and compare myself unfavourably to them. This even though I KNOW that the photos I am seeing are often airbrushed impossibilities.

Perhaps the real meaning of the phrase is that when you look at someone with love in your heart, they are beautiful, because you are looking at the whole person, not just at their physical appearance. Perhaps we should train ourselves to look at others in this way, so that we may, in the words of the Quakers, "refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others" and "Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God."

Friday, 23 March 2012

Travelling Hopefully (and Attentively)

Today I am travelling down to London, to spend the weekend on a training course. Usually, I don't particularly enjoy travelling - I am one of those who would love the teleport machines in Star Trek to be a reality - but this time, by serendipitous chance, one of John O'Donohue's wonderful poems will accompany me on the way, and remind me to enjoy the experience. It was posted by Joe Riley (aka Panhala) who posts an inspirational piece most days. I thank him (and the late, great John O'Donohue) for changing my attitude.

John O'Donohue
For the Traveller

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

~ John O'Donohue ~
(To Bless the Space Between Us)

Friday, 16 March 2012

Write It Down

This is a busy time of year. I am preparing for a major AGM (in two weeks' time), and also organising a conference (in two and a bit weeks' time). Not to mention all the other "ordinary" tasks which are part of my job and the rest of my life. At times I feel like a squirrel in a cage, running round and round, and getting nowhere fast.

But then I remember. Write it down. Even the longest "to do" list gives a shape and form to the scale of the problem (mine has 19 items on it at the moment, some of them quite complicated). But at least I now know what I have to do in the next two weeks, in order to get to the AGM and conference with all boxes ticked and all tasks done. Writing it down has made me focus on the jobs in hand, and enabled me to prioritise them, so that things get done in their due order.

I find that the act of writing something down, whether it is a to-do list or the pros and cons of making a particular decision, helps me to calm down and think more clearly, so that I can make the best choices about what to do when. It is as though a gentle hand has been placed on my shoulder, reassuring me that there is a way out; I just need to slow down, get off the squirrel-wheel and think about it. It once helped me to decide whether to move jobs - I divided a page into four columns, labelled 'Staying: For', 'Staying: Against', 'Leaving: For' and 'Leaving: Against'. It really helped to clarify my thoughts and separate them from my emotions. (in case you were wondering, I left - best decision I ever made!)

And oh yes, no. 20: have a rest day - go for a run, stitch, journal, chill.

But without the list, I would not be able to give myself permission for this sanity clause.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A ship of thought

I have found a beautiful quotation by 19th century American Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, which sums up how I feel about books and reading:

Theodore Parker

"The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading; but a great book that comes from a great thinker is a ship of thought, deep freighted with truth and beauty."

Reading has always been a passion of mine, to the extent that it has occasionally got me into trouble, when I have been too deeply buried in a good book to pay attention to life going on around me. Yet few things give me greater delight than the discovery of a new book that makes me think; that makes me see the world and everything in it in a new light. In his introduction to Mister God, This is Anna, Vernon Sproxton speaks of Ah! Books, "those which induce a fundamental change in the reader's consciousness. They widen his sensibility in such a way that he is able to look upon familiar things as though he is seeing and understanding them for the first time. ... Ah! Books give you sentences which you can roll around in the mind, throw in the air, catch, tease out, analyse. But in whatever way you handle them, they widen your vision. For they are essentially Idea-creating, in the sense that Coleridge meant when he described the Idea as containing future thought - as opposed to the Epigram which encapsulates past thought. Ah! Books give the impression that you are opening a new account, not closing an old one down."

Everyone will have different Ah! Books. Mine include Beliefs of a Unitarian by Alfred Hall; Quaker Advices and Queries; Enough by John Naish; Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain; Rilke's Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke; The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong; The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran; Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life by Frederic and Mary-Ann Brussat and A Backdoor to Heaven by Rabbi Lionel Blue. And of course Mister God, This Is Anna. Each of these books has shown me the world in a different way, and made me think about myself in relation to it. They have influenced what I believe, and how I behave in very fundamental ways.

What are yours?

Friday, 2 March 2012

Spiritual Teachers

For my birthday last week, my daughter bought me The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. She describes it as "an approach to changing your life. First is the preparation stage, when you identify what brings you joy, satisfaction, and engagement, and also what brings you guilt, anger, boredom, and remorse. Second is the making of resolutions, when you identify the concrete actions that will boost your happiness. Then comes the interesting part: keeping your resolutions." The book takes the reader through the different resolutions she tries to keep throughout the course of a year. It makes fascinating reading.

For August, one of her resolutions is "imitate a spiritual teacher" as a way of learning to be a better person by following the example of a great life, for example, Christians following Jesus. This made me wonder - who is my spiritual teacher? After some thought, I came to the conclusion that he is Rabbi Lionel Blue, whose writings and talks I have loved for 30 years. His approach to religion is honest and straightforward, based on kindness and compassion to others (including himself) rather than creeds and dogma, all leavened with his marvellous sense of humour. I have read and re-read all his books many times, and often use bits of them for readings in services. I think it is his directness and honesty, his ability to find a spiritual lightness in most situations, and his willingness to pick himself up after a bad day and go on, that so appeals to me. That and his total faith in God / Whomsoever, Whatsoever / Fred.

Who is your spiritual teacher?

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Creatures of Habit

We are all creatures of habit. The other day, the presenter Mark Forrest was talking about this on his breakfast programme on Classic fm. He commented that for him, the first cup of coffee of the day has to be in a particular mug, and sitting in a particular chair, otherwise it doesn't feel "right". The location and receptacles of the rest of his drinks for the day don't matter to him, but this first drink is special.

And I am much the same - I don't mind about which mug I have for breakfast, but my morning routine is unvaried: rise, shower, dress, then breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table, the same meal every day - mug of coffee (two sweeteners), bowl of Fruit & Fibre (same bowl every day), glass of breakfast juice. It is my way of easing into the day, of bringing myself up to speed.

Having a daily routine is not a bad thing, so long as we drive it, rather than it driving us. Certain things need to be done daily, or weekly, or whatever, and having some sort of routine can help with this. But I think we also need to leave some space for the unexpected, the new, the unusual, and not be so bogged down in our everyday routine that we cannot respond easily and quickly, to whatever comes up. It's a fine balance.

Habits can be good for us, or bad for us. For example, good habits might include regular exercise, cleaning one's teeth twice a day, and so on. Whereas bad habits might include smoking, drinking alcohol to unwind in the evenings, whatever. And most of us will sit in an accustomed seat in any particular setting, and be unreasonably annoyed if someone else sits in "our" seat. It's not rational, it's a matter of habit, and we need to be on the watch for habits which cause us to behave less than our best.

It reminds me of the old Native American tale about feeding the wolf, which appears in Rev. Bill Darlison's story collection The Shortest Distance:

"'Why is is that sometimes I feel that I want to do helpful things, but at other times, I just want my own way?' a little Cherokee boy asked his grandfather one day.
'It's because there is a battle inside every human being,' replied his grandfather. 'The battle is between two wolves. One wolf is kind and gentle, full of peace, generosity, compassion, and trust. The other is wicked, full of anger, hatred, greed, selfishness, pride and arrogance.'
The young boy thought for a moment, and then he asked: 'Which one will win the battle inside me?'
'The one you feed,' replied his grandfather."

We are all human beings who have been given free will, and can choose to follow a variety of paths through our lives. The story of the two wolves helps me to remember that I do have this choice, and reminds me to try to follow the best I know, and not to feed the wolf of bad habits.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Love Makes The World Go Round

Love is an amazing thing. I very much like Raymond Feist's definition: "Love is a recognition, an opportunity to say 'There is something about you I cherish.' It doesn't entail marriage, or even physical love. There's love of parents, (to which I would add love of family), love of city or nation, love of life, and love of people. All different, all love."

And love is fundamental to human well-being. I am sure many of us can remember those sad, sad photos of those little children in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s, left in their cots 24/7, with no attention paid to them, who had withdrawn into themselves, totally unable to relate to anyone else, because they had been starved of love and attention. And it is well-known that in bringing up children, even "bad attention" is better than being ignored.

I would go so far as to say that we can only become fully rounded people if we love and are loved in return. Jesus recognised this when he described "Love your neighbour as yourself" as one of the two greatest commandments.

But it is not always that easy to do. We are so often concerned with the mundane busy-nesses of life; making money, acquiring the latest gadget, working, working, working, whether it is for an employer or at home, that we don't spend nearly enough time or attention on the truly important stuff - our relationships with our families, neighbours and friends. And we will regret it.

Luckily, it is something we can all get better at, if we try. Building loving relationships with all the people we come into contact with may sound like an unrealistic proposition, but stick with it; the rewards are beyond compare. Starting from where you are is the important thing, and building up slowly. Resolving to live your life in a spirit of love and compassion means recognising that there is "that of God in everyone", to use a Quakerly phrase.

In fact, the Quakers have a lot of extremely good advice about building loving relationships; let me share some of it with you:

"Do you respect that of God in everyone, though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or may be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language."

"How can we make ... a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other's failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other's lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God's love and forgiveness."

"Do you cherish your friendships, so that they grow in depth and understanding and mutual respect? In close relationships, we may risk pain as well as finding joy."

"Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others. ... Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God."

"Do you recognise the needs and gifts of each member of your own family and household, not forgetting your own? Try to make your home a place of loving friendship and enjoyment, where all who live or visit may find the peace and refreshment of God's presence."

The teachings of Jesus sum up what we should do: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. ... Do to others as you would have them do to you. ... Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return ... Be merciful just as your Father is merciful."

There are people whose lives have been shining examples of putting this Golden rule, which is shared by all the major religions, into practice. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was one; Nelson Mandela is another; so is the Dalai Lama. What all these people have in common is that whatever life threw at them, they somehow managed to rise above the natural human instincts for revenge and hate, and continued to live their lives in a spirit of love and compassion.

It's a big wide world, and we are only little people. But each of us can resolve to make our little corners of the world more loving places.

 "There is something about you I cherish."