“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

Monday, 30 November 2015

The Flame of Hope

Recently I came across a poem called Four Candles by that great poet, Anonymous, the last two lines of which read: "With Hope, no matter how bad things look and are, / Peace, Faith, and Love can shine brightly in our lives. Yes.

In her wonderful book, The Gifts of Imperfection, BrenĂ© Brown shares her research about how we can practice what she calls wholehearted living. One of her ten guideposts for wholehearted living is "Cultivating a resilient spirit: letting go of numbing and powerlessness." Which is where hope comes in.

If we go back to the legend of Pandora and her box, Hope was the only virtue left to humankind when she had let all the others escape. And my dictionary defines hope as "expectation and desire combined; feeling of trust", which I guess is how most people think of it. Brené Brown, who is an accomplished sociological researcher, thought so too, and was shocked to find that "hope is not an emotion; it's a way of thinking or a cognitive process." In other words, it is a way of being that can be learned!

I'd like to share what she says about how hope happens; it is when: "We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go). We are able to figure out how to achieve these goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I'm persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again). and We believe in ourselves (I can do this!)."

She also grounds the ability to be hopeful in a foundation of spirituality, which she defines as "the belief in connection, a power greater than self, and interconnections grounded in love and compassion." I would also argue that it is much easier to find hope, to be hopeful, and resilient, when we have a belief in something greater than ourselves. This might be a higher power, which some of us might name God or Spirit of Life and Love; or it might be a belief in the worth of working towards a lofty goal, such as world peace, an end to poverty, the spread of compassion - whatever.

It has been an eventful year, in our own lives, in the life of Unitarian congregations, and in the wider world. Some of us have faced bereavement and grief, others have faced life-threatening or less scary but still serious health issues, and all of us have watched the wider world seemingly going to hell in a hand-basket. At the beginning of this year, we came together, shocked by the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, at this end of the year, our thoughts are once more in Paris, in Beirut, in Iraq, with the refugees huddling in inadequate camps all over Europe and the Middle East, and in all the other places where violence and deprivation seem to be holding sway. Yet in between most congregations have continued to meet regularly in worship, to support various charities, and to try to make the phrase "beloved community" a reality. That is having hope.

May Peace, Faith, and Love shine brightly in all our lives, fuelled by Hope.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Foundations of Faith

The other day, a Unitarian friend commented: "A religion or a faith (any faith, or any philosophy for that matter) that needs to be defended with aggression or arrogance is not a faith or religion that I recognise as true and it is not a 'strong' faith with a good foundation but a weak one that seeks to cover up its own shakiness."

In the light of recent terrorist activities around the globe, this really rang true with me. Although I would not describe the DAESH / ISIL terrorists as representing anything but their own extremist insecurities - they are certainly not representing Muslims. Practically every post I have seen on Facebook since the bombings in Paris and Beirut have sought to express the outrage that ordinary Muslims feel about these attacks, which are being perpetrated against everything they believe in.

But I think these words also have wisdom for my own Unitarian context. While Unitarians on different parts of the belief spectrum are not likely to descend to actual bodily violence against each other, there can be some pretty fierce altercations on Unitarian pages on Facebook.

Which I find very ironic, since, in the words of the founding father of Unitarianism in Transylvania, Francis David: "We need not think alike to love alike." Cliff Reed, Minister Emeritus at Ipswich, puts it this way;

" The Unitarians are a community of people who take their religion, or their spirituality, liberally. That is to say, we hold that all people have the right to believe what their own life-experience tells them is true; what the promptings of their own conscience tells them is right. We say that each person's spiritual or intuitive experience deserves respect; that everyone's deep reflection and reasoning on religious and ethical questions should be taken seriously.

Unitarians form a movement that tries to put these affirmations into practice. Our local religious communities offer a setting where people can worship, explore, and share faith together in an atmosphere of freedom and mutual respect."

A few years ago, I would have said that I agreed with Cliff's statement completely. But I now believe that while people have the right to *believe* what their life experience and conscience tells them to be true, it is *essential* that these ideas pass the Pagan test of "so long as they don't harm anyone else."

In other words, if anyone feels the need to defend their beliefs with aggression or arrogance, as my friend said, then perhaps they need to go back to the Golden Rule, and consider whether what they are writing or saying is likely to upset or offend others. This is not to say that people should not stand up for their beliefs, but that they should do so in a respectful manner.

We are all human beings - surely we can at least try to live together in peace?

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Plea for Peace and Compassion

There are certain things I believe, and believe passionately, that some, with their different views of the world, do not believe. And it is hard for me to see these cherished beliefs trampled into the dust by their insistence that their reality is the only true one.

I believe that peace is to be worked for, and witnessed for, and struggled for, and that war and violence and automatic retaliation should only be the very, very last resorts, not the automatic go-to solution. I believe that the governments of the Great Powers, mainly in the West, but also in Russia and China and Saudi Arabia, are so invested in the arms trade, and in violence and intolerance and hatred of the Other (whoever the Other might be) that there is little hope for peace.

Which makes the need to witness for the possibilities that peace and compassion bring ever more urgent, day by day.

I believe that Western privilege and widespread Western, white, male, Christian blindness *to* that privilege, are facts. We simply cannot appreciate what it is like to be persecuted or picked on daily, simply on account of our religious beliefs, the colour of our skin, our sexual orientation, or our disabilities. The only one I have some insight into, being a woman, is male privilege. And even that is denied by many, in 21st century Britain.

I believe that only when we make the empathic attempt to show compassion, by learning from what others say and write about how it feels to be Muslim, or black, or gay, or transgender, or in any other way Not Like Us, that we have any hope of moving past that bastion of privilege and meeting people where they are. As human beings, each a child of God, each with the same divine spark within, each with the same potential for good or evil.

While my Facebook feed turns red, white, and blue as friends rightly react with shock and sorrow to the killings in Paris, similar events in Beirut a few days ago barely made the inside pages of the broadsheets. And the Syrian refugees, who are fleeing from the violence of these same terrorists, are suffering misery and hunger, illness and hopelessness day by day in their over-crowded, insanitary camps, where Death and disease stalk hand-in-hand.

And I want to say that if you really care about people, give some money or some warm clothing to the organisations trying to stem that tide of human suffering. It is by such small acts of kindness towards our fellow human beings, that the world will turn, and times will change.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Greatest Remembrance of All

Part of a prayer by Unitarian minister Rev. Chris Goacher reads: "We gather in remembrance of those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom and safety of others, but also in shame at the wars we have failed to stop and the actions taken in our name ... Let us dedicate our selves to the greatest remembrance of all - that war should be no more."

These few words really sum up my feelings on Remembrance Sunday - that we should be grateful to, and remember with respect, those who sacrificed their lives that we might have peace; but also in sad reflection on the indifferent use we have made of it. it is a desperate irony that World War One was called 'The War To End All Wars', and yet, one hundred years on, humankind still seems unable to stop the fighting, the bloodshed, the cruelty, and wars continue to be fought the world over, for reasons of fear, and misunderstanding, the hunger for power, and the despising of the other.

So how can we dedicate ourselves to that "greatest remembrance of all - that war should be no more?" How can we, as individuals, and as spiritual and religious communities, witness for peace? How can we 'do our bit'? How can we make a difference?

I think we have to start where we are. It's all about compassion - trying to empathise with other people by imagining ourselves in their shoes. I am not naive enough to believe that we can "make it all better" by witnessing for peace and compassion. But we can at least try to be compassionate, where we are. For every other person we encounter is also a human being, a child of God, utterly worthy of being treated with justice, equity and respect.

Perhaps we can each make a resolution to reach out in friendship to our neighbours, to our friends, and even to casually-met strangers. Perhaps if we witness for peace in our own lives, this might have a knock-on effect, as the people we show compassion to, show compassion to others in their turn and so on.Who knows what we might be able to achieve, if we are brave enough to reach out in friendship, reach out in compassion, witness for peace?