“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 June 2013

Anticipation and Experience

We have just come back from a lovely holiday in Rome. We visited many of the most famous sites - the Colosseum, the Forum, St Peter's Square, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and so on. The sun shone, the sky was a deep and vivid blue, and there was even a gentle breeze. And it was amazing to see these iconic buildings and sculptures in real life, having seen photos of them so often before.

And yet the things that enchanted me about the Imperial City were not what I had expected. Yes, standing in St. Peter's Square or in the Colosseum or among the ruins of the Forum did take my breath away, and all these things were truly impressive, and I'm really glad I've seen them. But what I really loved about Rome was strolling through the narrow streets of Trastavere, savouring the beauty of the buildings and the joy of coming out of a narrow street into a sunlit square with the inevitable little jewel of a local church, or wandering around the lively Campo de' Fiori, looking at all the wonderful flowers and foodstuffs, and trying to decide what to bring home as a souvenir, or sitting outside one of the many restaurants in the sunshine, just people-watching. And the wonderful food, and the statues on every corner. And having the time to talk about life, the universe and everything with our two children-no-longer-children, with us on holiday for probably the last time.

If you had asked me, before we left for Rome, what I was really looking forward to, I would have enumerated the sites I hoped to see, and how impressed I expected to be with it all. But anticipation and reality were very different. The enchantment was not in the magnificent, in the impressive, but in the vivid light, the mellow paint of the buildings, and the serendipity of wandering freely, open to what we might discover next.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Cultural Christianity

On the latest census form, there was a series of tick boxes for religious persuasion. Nearly 60% of the U.K. population ticked the "Christian" box, yet hardly anybody goes to church regularly, and most of the Christian denominations are bemoaning falling congregation numbers.

So who are all these people who call themselves Christians, but who don't attend Church (except at Christmas)? An answer was suggested on the Sunday programme on Radio 4 a while ago by a spokesman for the Secular Society. He called these people "Cultural Christians". They are a silent majority of this country, who aren't active churchgoers, and are not members of any other faith. Yet they call themselves Christians because they would sign up to what being a Christian in Britain means. To my mind this includes:

·         Going to Church at Christmas
·         Having a crib and/or other religious symbolism in the house at Christmas.
·         Expecting your child's school to have broadly Christian assemblies.
·         Subscribing to the broad ethics of Christianity as taught in schools - the Ten Commandments; the life and example of Jesus etc etc
·         Choosing to have broadly Christian life ceremonies i.e. having your children christened; getting married in church; having a minister at a family funeral.
·         Quite enjoying singing hymns and carols if you are ever in church.
·         Being familiar with Bible stories from both Old and New Testaments, in the same way that you know all the traditional fairy tales.
·         Listening to or watching "religious" programmes on radio or television (whether documentaries, religious services, films/stories or even just Thought for the Day)

This cultural heritage is very strong, and hasn't perhaps been realised as a force by the powers that be. Cultural Christians don't perceive the Christian institutions to be part of their everyday lives; almost certainly wouldn't sign up to the 39 Articles; and would probably have problems with the concepts of the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth.

BUT they want the Church to be there when they need it e.g. in a time of crisis or to commemorate significant events in their lives.

Is this an opportunity for Unitarians? Many of us could describe ourselves as cultural Christians (I certainly am one) but want so much more from our religion. We are a creedless faith, based on freedom of conscience, the use of reason, and tolerance of other people's views (so long as they do not harm others by them). We encourage people to think for themselves and to work out where they stand on religious and ethical issues. I wonder how many cultural Christians could come along to a Unitarian service, or to a Build Your Own Theology session, and find that they had come home?


Friday, 14 June 2013

Getting Your Priorities Sorted

When I logged onto Facebook today, there was a post from David Smith, member of the UK Unitarians group, with a quotation from whilom Apple Chief Executive, Steve Jobs. It said:

"If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?"
It stopped me in my tracks. My first response was "not exactly, I'd rather be spending time with the people I love", but then, I realised that I was also blessed to be doing a job that I love, and now, in the late afternoon, I have a feeling of accomplishment, as I've got done the things I needed to get done, and can now look forward to spending the evening with my family and friends.

But I do wonder, how many people are as lucky as I am? I appreciate how very privileged I am in my soft Western life, with enough food in the house, clean water to drink, a nice house, an abundance of belongings, and a reasonable amount of security. It also made me realise how important it is to ask the right questions about life, so that if it were to end today, I would have no (or few) regrets. How do you sort out what your priorities should be? I was reminded of the old story of the Professor and the golf balls, which has been doing the rounds on the internet for a long time (I truly do not know the original author, so cannot credit him or her):
"One morning a professor of philosophy stood in front of his class and wordlessly began to fill a very large and empty vase with golf balls.  He then asked the students if the vase was full.  They agreed that it was. 
 The professor picked up a box of tiny pebbles and tipped them into the vase.  He shook the vase lightly allowing the pebbles to roll into the open areas between the golf balls before asking the students if the vase was full.  They agreed it was. 
Next the professor poured a box of sand into the vase filling up all the remaining space and once more asked his class if the vase was full.  The students responded with a unanimous "yes."  
The professor then produced two glasses of wine from under the table and poured the entire contents into the vase, the students laughed.

"Now," said the professor, as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this vase represents your life.  The 'golf balls' are the important things; your family, your children, your health, your friends and your passions.  In other words, all those things that if everything else was lost and if only they remained your life would still be full.
The 'pebbles' are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car, holidays, etc.  
The sand is everything else, all the small stuff.  
Now if you put the sand into the vase first," he continued, "there is no room for the 'pebbles' or the 'golf balls'.  The same goes for life.  If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are truly important to you.  So pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness, play with your children, take care of your health, make time for your friends and go out to dinner with your partner because there will always be time to clean the house and fix the car.  Set your priorities and take care of the 'golf balls' first for they are the things that really matter; all the rest is just sand."

One of the students raised her hand and asked, "What does the wine represent?"  The professor smiled, "I'm glad you asked.  I was also showing you that no matter how full your life may seem there's always room for a couple of glasses of wine with a friend.""
Sorting out your priorities, your “golf balls”, can be a difficult task. As the professor said, they are “all those things that if everything else was lost and if only they remained your life would still be full.” But working out what it is you truly value can be hard, and people get it wrong. We’ve all heard of top business types who are so addicted to their work that they take their laptops and Blackberrys on holiday with them. To my mind, they are out of balance, and their health and family and social lives will suffer.
So how should we approach this most important task? Bill Adams, author of The Five Lessons of Life, passes on the following method from his teacher, Sangratan, the Amchi teacher from the Himalayas:
Firstly, think of the things and people you value most. Give yourself plenty of time to do this, in an environment where you will not be disturbed.
Secondly, on a piece of paper, list all those things that you value most, and why you value them. Include such things as family, relationships, health, career, religion, hobbies.
Thirdly, try to number them in order of importance, beginning at 1.
Fourthly, examine your choices. Be honest with yourself. Consider the questions [that follow]:
  • What do you spend most of your free time thinking about, or wishing for?
  • What have you always wanted?
  • What gives you most pleasure?
  • What ways of behaving do you find most admirable?
  • Are there things you enjoyed as a child which you were told to put away for the sake of a career or a relationship? If so, do you still value them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What attributes do you most value?
When you have considered these questions, look again at the list of things you value. Is there a contradiction between your most important values and what you spend most of your life wishing, craving, wanting, or working for?”
Of course, our priorities will change during the course of our lives, so this is not a once-for-all exercise. But doing it, and trying to put it into practice in our lives, might mean that we could answer Steve Jobs' question with a "yes".

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Pleasures of Good Design

This week I have acquired two new belongings, both of which are giving me enormous pleasure. One is high-tech and one is no-tech, but the reason for the pleasure is the same: both are fit for purpose, and both are highly complex things that are easy to use. Both are well designed - using the criteria in the image below.

(image: blog.echoenduring.com)

The high-tech one is a new mobile phone - the contract on my old one, which I've never been happy with, because I've never understood how it works, ran out at the end of last month, and a friend of mine had just got a very good deal on an iPhone 4. So I made enquiries, discovered that the same deal was open to new customers, and it arrived yesterday.

It feels all wrong to extol the virtues of a consumer item on this blog, but this phone really is a pleasure to use - for a non-techie like me, the interface is delightfully intuitive and user-friendly, and I really don't care that it's not the latest model. I can dimly appreciate the hugely complex programming which must underlie this user-friendly interface, and marvel that the result of such complexity is simplicity.

I gave up smoking (hopefully for good this time) last Friday, so to keep my hands and brain busy, I have treated myself to a new cross-stitch kit. It could not be more different than the phone - there is no electronic technology involved at all - but the pleasure of unpacking it all, sorting the threads and starting to stitch a new project will be one that is familiar to all craft-loving friends.

In a way, it is the most complicated stitching project I have ever attempted - there are 16 different stitches as well as cross-stitch, but the design is wonderful and the chart is clear and easy to follow, and it's going to look spectacular when it's finished. Like my phone, the chart is fit for purpose, and therefore a pleasure to use.

Enjoying these new belongings - the phone and the chart - has made me appreciate anew the pleasure of good design. If an object is well-designed, form will follow function, and it will be simple to use and make the life of the user that much easier and more pleasurable. It has also made me reflect on how comparatively rare such good design is. My old phone is a good example - it had all sorts of wonderful features, but I could never work out how to use them, so I ended up just using it for texts and phonecalls, which was such a waste.

So I'm going to carry on enjoying my two new possessions, the more in that I appreciate the human ingenuity that has gone into their design.