“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, 21 December 2013

Passionate Living

I have a dear friend. Superficially, we are quite different. She is very feminine - always wears make-up, has her nails done, and has a shoe collection to rival Imelda Marcos. Whereas I rarely wear make-up, keep my nails fairly short for ease of typing, and own about ten pairs of shoes, two pairs of which are trainers. And yet, we are very good friends indeed, and I count myself blessed that she is a part of my life.

image: kaceycrawford.com.au
We were talking last night, and realised what it was we have in common - we are both passionate women, who do what we do, and like what we like, with our whole selves. This can have its down side - we are "neck or nothing" people, who find it very difficult to moderate. (which is one reason why I've stopped smoking and drinking this year - a few were never enough, in either case). And my friend is a stickler for housework - her house is always like a new pin, no matter how tired or busy she is.

But passion can be good too. It can mean that we throw ourselves into the things we care about wholeheartedly, with no holding back, no partial commitment. I am passionate about my family, about my ministry, about Unitarianism and about writing. I am passionate about my friends, about running, and about cross-stitch. So I do and interact with all these things with my whole self, with heart and mind and soul. And that is good.

Which is why I was unutterably moved by a quotation by Lyman Abbott, which was posted on Facebook the other day, and which I believe are words to live by:

"Put all your ambition, all your enthusiasm, into the work of service. Make it the aim of your life to leave the world better and happier because you have lived in it, and take without greed or grasping what the world will give you of service in return."

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Christmas Reflection - Winter 1947

I am honoured to post an editorial written by my grandfather, Alec R. Ellis, editor of the Martins Bank Magazine, and a member of Ullet Road Unitarian Church. It originally appeared in the Winter of 1947.

There is something about Christmas, some strange power for good, some mysterious spirit which gets abroad. When it is there, the tinsel and cotton wool snow in the shop windows look bright and sparkling; the week after, when the spirit has gone, the decorations look drab and tawdry. Or is it that we see them with different eyes?

On Christmas Eve, there is an air of cheerfulness and goodwill about the office, a sense of pleasurable anticipation felt by everyone. We hurry to get through our appointed tasks so that we can leave early. Some of us are going to have a memorable time, for Christmas is a time of reunion, the festival of the children and the family, when every member who can possibly do so joins the family circle.

But when Christmas is over you will find, if you inquire, that most of your colleagues have had a quiet time and have done nothing special. The young ones will have had their round of parties and merrymaking, but the older ones will have remained by their own firesides. Why, then, the keen anticipation, the gladness that Christmas is here again, when in actual practice it seems merely to be a welcome breathing space between the deposit and the current account balances?

In these days of the popular quiz, if we were to ask the question as to what is the most powerful thing in the world, someone would probably instance the atom bomb. We venture to think that few would suggest a child's cradle. Yet the thought of a child's cradle silenced the guns on the Christmas days in the first world war, and grounded the bombers in the recent war. In a world torn by hate and dominated by fear, something in the heart of man has never failed to respond to the symbolism of the cradle. Therein lies our hope for the future......

So on Christmas Eve, as we wish each other the old, old wish, let us leave the cares of the world and our workaday lives behind us for a few hours, and in the friendly light and warmth of our own homes close the door on all else. With our loved ones around us, and the echo of happy laughter in our ears, let us remember that there is something special about Christmas, something which stirs our deepest feelings and accounts for our keen anticipation of the Christmas season. Phillips Brook summed it up for us in these beautiful lines: "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Light of New Hope

I will never forget the Christmas of 1989. I was pregnant with my son, my first-born, and just beginning to show. I was in my fourth month, and was awash with feelings of serenity and awe about the miracle that was happening to me. Although I hadn't yet felt life stirring within, I knew that deep inside my body a new person was growing, and that my wonderful, clever body was supporting him and nourishing him. And that was this was occasion for awe and gratitude.

On the second Sunday of December, I went along to our service at Northampton Unitarians, and broke the news that I was expecting a child. They were all very happy for me. But the icing on the cake came during the service, which was our Christmas service. (Then, as now, we only met on second and fourth Sundays, and that year, the fourth Sunday was after Christmas). One of the readings that lay leader Peter Galbraith had chosen, all unknowing, was the wonderful section early in the Gospel of Luke in which Mary rejoices about being blessed with child. The bit that starts: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his handmaiden. Surely, from now on, all generations will called me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." I really felt the joy that she must have been feeling. More, I felt exalted, that I was going to participate in the miracle of bringing forth a new life.

Twenty four years later, I still believe that becoming a parent was one of the most important events of my life. Being a parent changed me in fundamental ways - from the moment of my son's birth, there was always someone else to consider, someone else's needs to take into account, and someone else (later two someone elses when my daughter was born) to love and to nurture, and to be overjoyed and frustrated by, in roughly equal measure. Being a parent has been a roller-coaster for me, with wonderful highs and devastating lows, and I would not have missed a day of it.

image: gograph.com

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of one particular child, two thousand years ago, who grew up to have a profound influence in the world, through his teachings and his message and his example.  For me, this is the true meaning of Christmas. But today I want to think about the potential for good that is represented by the birth of every child, and also about the inner child that dwells within us all.

Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote: "Each night a child is born is a holy night - a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping." Yes. This is something I believe so deeply. It is one of the foundations of my Unitarian faith - that the birth of every child should be an occasion for rejoicing, not just that of Jesus. Every single child born of man and woman has the potential to make a difference in the world, and to leave it a better place than he or she found it.

Perhaps it is our job as Unitarians to provide the space and the community in which individuals can grow to become the best people they can be, giving them the opportunity to "Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you," as the Quakers would say. If this is so - and I believe it is -  every Unitarian congregation and every Unitarian has an awesome responsibility - to nurture that of God in other people, and in ourselves, so that the world might become a better, kinder, gentler place, in which everyone has enough to eat, a roof over their heads, a place to sleep, and other human basics such as freedom from fear and freedom to grow into their unique and proper selves.

But we cannot do this unless each of us recognises for ourselves that we are "unique, precious, a child of God." My starting point for this blogpost was a beautiful reading called A Manger of the Heart by the late, and sorely missed, Simon John Barlow, which was published in the Christmas edition of the Cotswold Group Newsletter. The first lines really grabbed my attention: "Prepare the way to welcome your inner child, / The being of love and light / The spark of holiness that lies deep in us all."

And I do believe that there is a spark of holiness within every human being, "that of God in everyone", to use the Quakerly phrase. Our job, here on this earth, today and tomorrow, is to recognise that spark, in ourselves, and in each other. This is the same as Jesus's great injunction to "love your neighbour as yourself." Love your neighbour as yourself - both parts are vital, because it is not possible to truly love your neighbour unless you first love your true self, your inner child, your spark of the divine.

Later on, Simon John advises us to "Commit yourself to nurture your inner holiness / To seek joy wherever it may be found; / To give and receive love every moment of life; / To keep to the paths of beauty, truth and love." These are quite tall orders. We are all human beings, fallible and broken, but I believe that this injunction to committing ourselves to nurture our inner holiness is a path of hope.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Be True, Live Truly

This week I have been reminded of the words of a lovely hymn in our green Unitarian hymnbook, Hymns for Living. The words (after Horatius Bonar) are as follows:

"You must be true unto yourself / If truth to others you would teach; / Your soul must overflow with love / If you another's soul would reach.
Think wisely, truly, and your thoughts / This hungry world shall help to feed; / Speak truly, and your every word / Shall yet become a fruitful seed.
Let lips be full of gentle speech, / Your heart respond to human need;  / Live truly, and your life shall be / A glorious and a noble creed."

And it seems to me that this advice is the most important advice in the world - to be authentic, to live with integrity, and to be true to yourself, rather than trying to persuade yourself into inappropriate feelings, because they are what the majority in society believe. It is not a particularly comfortable way to live - it is much easier to run with the crowd, and to follow others -  to "fit in". But I am finding that I feel so much better about myself, if I am being authentically Sue. Of course I slip, often, because I'm a beginner at this, but I'm finding that I am becoming more aware of those slips, and they are making me feel more uneasy.

I think it was Socrates who said that "an unexamined life is not worth living." So I am examining my life, and trying to make choices that are true to who I am. As ever, I am uplifted by the Quaker Advices:

"Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you."

"Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life."

"Live adventurously. ... Let your life speak."

"A simple lifestyle, freely chosen, is a source of strength."

"If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions."

So I am going to try to be true, live truly, and be Sue.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Gift of Wonder

At this time of the year, I can end up feeling distinctly un-Christmassy. Positively bah-humbuggerish, in fact. As I have written elsewhere: "By the time December comes, we will be blatting around like the proverbial blue-bottomed flies, buying presents, sending cards, ordering turkeys and making the hearts of the supermarket shareholders glad by spending our hard-earned cash on excessive amounts of food and drink to see us through the festive season. Then, when Christmas Day has come and gone, many of us will end us with post-Christmas indigestion - too much food, too much drink, too much everything."

When I am doing the weekly food shop, the commercial over-kill of Christmas is only too apparent. The supermarket shelves are groaning with "seasonal" goodies, most of which have either too much sugar or too much fat in them. Not to mention the booze, which of course I have forsworn this year, and which is on offer on every aisle-end.

image: archive.aweber.com

So it was a particularly welcome gift this morning, to spot a toddler in a pushchair, gazing up at the Christmas decorations that festooned the supermarket ceiling, with a rapt expression of wonder on his face. I pointed this out to his Mum, and it made her day too. Of course, to him, it is all new and wonderful and wonder-full. I was so grateful for the reminder of what Christmas really is about - not the food and the drink and the presents, but the joy and the sharing and the sense of wonder at the birth of a child. And I share a reflection which I wrote some years ago, for times such as these:

Let us take a moment to appreciate all the good things in our lives; our comfortable homes our many possessions, which make our lives easy and secure.

But more importantly, the blessings that money cannot buy:
the love of families;
the companionship of our friends;
this beloved community of freedom and trust;
the beauties of nature;
our bodies - those complex systems that work in such mysterious ways;
our health;
the very air that we breathe.

Help us to realise how rich we are already, and help us to ask the question "do I need this?" rather than "do I want this?" in relation to everything.

Help us to realise that true happiness lies in wanting what you have. And in a sense of wonder.