“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 30 May 2014

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

It was twenty years ago today that the United States and Russia ceased targeting long-range nuclear missiles at each other. And yet, twenty years later, both still maintain considerable nuclear arsenals, at enormous expense, and now at least eight more countries (the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and Iran) have nuclear weapons. What is wrong with the world?

According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research organisation dedicated to shifting the world's focus to peace as a positive, achievable, and tangible measure of human well-being and progress, "We are in an epoch different to any other epoch in human history. The problems we are facing are global in nature. They include climate change, ever decreasing biodiversity, full use of the fresh water on the planet, and, underpinning all these - overpopulation. Without peace we will be unable to achieve the levels of cooperation, inclusiveness and social equity required to begin solving these challenges, let alone empower the international institutions needed to regulate them."

And yet wars go on, continuously, all over the world. And their cost is enormous, not only in economic and pragmatic terms, but also, most importantly in human lives and the effects on the rest of creation.

They produce an annual Global Peace Index each year in June, and last year's makes grim reading. According to an article by Christina Smith in the latest issue of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship newsletter, "The total economic impact of containing violence is equivalent to 11% of global GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or US$ 9.46 trillion. If the world would reduce the cost of violence by 50%, it would generate enough money to repay the debt of the developing world, provide enough money for the European stability mechanism, and fund the additional amount required to fund the Millennium Development Goals."

So why, oh why, don't governments DO something about it? The 2014 Global Peace Index will be released on 18th June - let us see whether the last twelve months have made the world a more violent or a more peaceful place. And in the meantime, everyone who cares about the future of our world and its inhabitants should make their voices heard - peace is in our hands.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Fourth R

It is commonly held that there are Three Rs that all children need to learn (even though, confusingly, only one of them actually starts with the letter R!): Reading, Writing and [A]rithmetic.

And I agree, these are essential life skills. Being able to read, write and do basic maths are important skills for coping with life in our complex 21st century world. And I, personally, find both reading and writing immensely pleasurable, and know that my life would be much diminished without them.

But I would add a Fourth R: Running (or any kind of physical exercise of the person's choice). Because I also believe that in order to be happy and fulfilled, we need to look after our bodies as well as our minds. I go for a relatively short (20-30 minutes) run three times a week, and for one or two two-mile walks every day (one with a friend in the morning, one with my other half in the evening). And the feeling of physical well-being from doing this modest amount of exercise is huge! Especially the running - when I get back from a run I feel euphoric and satisfied and at peace. No drugs involved!

If I could wave a magic wand, I would wish for everyone to be able to find a form of physical exercise that they enjoyed, and that they could stick to doing long term, because I have experienced directly how much running (and being out in nature on my walks) feeds my spirit. And that is so precious. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

What's in the Temple?

In his poem What's in the Temple?, Tom Barrett poses three questions: 

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, what would you worship there? 
What would you bring to sacrifice? and 
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?" 

I think that the first question, "what would you worship there?" is quite a challenging one for Unitarians, as we do not presume to define God / the Sacred Divine for others, and some of us do not believe in an external divine other at all. Our Unitarianism these days is a wonderful “free faith based on the inner authority of the enlightened conscience.” And our consciences are enlightened by not only what we think and believe with our heads. Intuition and feeling are also considered important, thanks initially to James Martineau, the great 19th century Unitarian theologian. And our beliefs may change over time, as part of a process of continuous and continuing revelation.

So my answer to the first question might be: I would worship the God I believe in, whom I have come to believe in through exercising my reason and conscience, and through bouncing ideas off other Unitarians. And that the God I believe in is a personal God, who exists both "out there" as well as "in here", and whose divine principle is Love. But that is just my answer, as a unique Unitarian, and this belief might change over time.
At first sight, the second question "what would you bring to sacrifice?" may seem to have little relevance to modern Unitarians. But I think that if you understand the word "sacrifice" in terms of giving something up, it makes a lot more sense in a Unitarian context. Because our Unitarian faith should not be practiced lightly, without commitment, and making a commitment to something often involves sacrificing some part of our old lives. 

My answer to this second question would be, in the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross "all that is not truly me, all that I have chosen without choosing and valued without evaluating, or accepted because of someone else’s extrinsic judgment, rather than my own; and all my self-doubt that keeps me from trusting and loving myself or other human beings." This is a work in progress; to fulfil it will take my whole life.

Barrett's last question was "What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?" The holy of holies was the innermost sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, and was separated from the rest of the Temple by a curtain or veil. According to the Hebrew Bible, only the high priest could go in there, and he only once a year. The holy of holies was said to contain the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. This was the most holy and precious object in Temple Judaism.

So the answer to the question what would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies refers to that which is most precious to each of us, which we prize above all other things. Or perhaps what we appreciate most about our own faith tradition, in my case Unitarianism.

For me the important thing about Unitarianism is that we are united in our diversity; united in the mutual provision of this safe and sacred space, in which we may explore our diverse beliefs and faiths, knowing that our doubts and questions and beliefs will be held and respected, and that we will be welcomed just the way we are.

And it is precious. This way of being united in diversity - a way of being religious and spiritual that involves mutual respect and acceptance and love - is what would be behind the curtain in my holy of holies.

Friday, 9 May 2014

A Good Read

I am very grateful to my friend Jane for sharing a post by Kester Brewin, which appeared in Huffington Post UK, about reading as a spiritual practice. The paragraph that particularly caught my attention read:

some of my good reads - the bookshelf is horizontal; the photo is not!
"To read widely, and often, is thus to hope to be changed, to still believe that change is possible. It is never, ever a waste of time. Be it an essay or short story or novel or article, a good read never goes unanswered, because a good read opens up a world that requires our attention. That might be the inner world of the self, it might be the domestic world of a family relationship, or it could be the plight of a whole people."

"A good read opens up a world that requires our attention." Yes. I think that this is so true. A good read can change your life, whether it is how you see yourself, how you relate to other people or other living beings, or the rest of creation, or it might galvanise you into action. I have posted before on this blog about "Ah! Books", which fundamentally change your way of thinking. Ship of Thought in March 2012. I wrote then:

"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."

And there are new Ah! Books, new good reads, to be discovered all the time, which makes it such a joyous process. Recent discoveries of mine include Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott and An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. And the poetry of Ellen Bass. Each of these books has made my life richer, more complex, and I am grateful.

I hope that the process of change and development will continue indefinitely, as long as there are new good books to read.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Reverent Balance

Unitarians, like Quakers, have always been in the habit of questioning beliefs and cherishing doubts.  I would guess that many of us came to Unitarianism exactly by that path - by starting to question some of the beliefs that we grew up with. In my case, I realised that I could not accept the divinity of Jesus as the unique Son of God, and also struggled with the idea that his death on the cross somehow put me back into right relationship with God. When my father gave me Alfred Hall's Beliefs of a Unitarian to read, it was such a relief to learn about a denomination that "holds faith and doubt in reverent balance", to quote Jan Carlsson-Bull. 

What does holding faith and doubt in reverent balance mean? I believe that it is a very delicate balancing act, which certainly needs to be undertaken with reverence. It means actively searching for and working out what gives your life meaning, putting your whole heart and mind and soul into it, and yet at the same time totally respecting the right of every other member of your Unitarian community to disagree with you. It can be a very tough call sometimes.

Because it is only human nature to feel passionately about religious and spiritual matters, about things that touch us deeply. And when we feel passionately about something, it can be difficult to remember that our fellow Unitarians are absolutely free to disagree with us. And that it is our job as Unitarians, as folk who are aiming to "live Unitarianly", to use Michael Dadson's wonderful phrase, to not only tolerate their different views but also to wholeheartedly accept and cherish them. And to not feel aggrieved because Reverend X or Mrs. Y has written something on Facebook with which we disagree. 

Holding faith and doubt in reverent balance also means being open to new ideas, from wherever they come. Unitarianism at its best is a wonderfully open way of approaching life and religion, based on an appeal to reason, conscience and your own life experience. And it is an ongoing process - you don't just experience a one-off conversion, and then rest on those fixed beliefs for the rest of your life; every Unitarian has a duty to approach all new ideas and concepts reverently and critically, and take from them what speaks to our own reason and conscience, and what makes sense in the context of our own life experience, in order to live out our lives in the best and truest way we can.