“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

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Knowledge vs Wisdom

For many young people (and some not-so-young) May and June are the most stressful months of the year. It is the time of year when all their accumulated knowledge, gained by hard work in classroom or lecture theatre or library, is tested. And on the results of those exams, their entire futures often depend.

It seems so unfair that our academic year is structured to end in the Summer, although I understand why it does: in former times, children had to be available during the Summer months to help with the Harvest.

But it is so hard to have to be indoors, either revising, or in an exam, when outside the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and there are so many fun things they would rather be doing. I can remember sitting my O and A levels in a sweltering, airless gym, wishing I could be anywhere else.

Looking back across the many years since then, I wonder at how little of the knowledge and facts I crammed into my brain in those days has come in useful in later life (except in pub quizzes!). Admittedly, I am eternally grateful to Mr. Griffith-Jones, the English teacher who passed on his love of good literature, but otherwise, not much else has had any lasting meaning for me, or influence on me.

It makes me wonder whether we are teaching our children the right things in school. I think that perhaps there is too much emphasis on gaining knowledge, on the accumulation of facts, and not enough on learning the important lessons of life, through gaining wisdom.

Perhaps wisdom cannot be learned through study, but only through the experiences of our lives. Wisdom is more about being awake, about paying attention to what is going on around us. Wisdom is more a way of living in the world; of responding to it, following the best that we know. it is about working out what we believe is right and good and true, and then trying to live wholeheartedly, with all of ourselves, as Brene Brown would say.

There are many great teachers of wisdom around, if we could only learn to wake up and pay attention to them. We may learn wisdom by reading the words of wise men and women, or by listening to the worship leader in church or chapel on a Sunday; but I think that a surer route is through our own life experiences.

There is nothing to beat actually experiencing something to teach us the wisdom it holds. For example, a child can be told repeatedly that fire burns, but it is only when she sticks her finger in the candle flame that she learns.

The opportunities to gain wisdom are all around us - in the wonders of Creation, in our interactions with one another, and in the things we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

Let us resolve to be awake and pay attention.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Losing Track of Time

It has been a crazy busy few weeks - I've had several major events to prepare for, organise, and partly deliver, including the Spring Training Day on How Unitarians Do Communion, the District AGM, and, just last week, the 2017 Annual Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. During which I had two slots to look after, and two stalls to help mind. As well as keeping track of requests for and responses to my survey of Unitarian beliefs and spirituality, which was launched towards the end of March.

And these are just the highlights. There has been all the "normal" stuff to do as well - leaders no worship, pastoral care, spiritual direction training and sessions, putting newsletters together, and all the other stuff involved with ministry. Then there is the non-ministry stuff: domestic tasks and self-care, including going to the gym four times a week, and trying to find the time to do some creative writing and art.

I normally keep on top (or at least nearly so) of all this by means of a very detailed weekly To Do List, which is written on a Sunday evening for the week ahead. Each task, whether for work or not, is assigned to a particular day, and I tend to "front-load" the week by having Monday and Tuesday as my desk work days (unless something comes up, Wednesday (if I can manage it) as my rest day, leaving Thursday and Friday more flexible, for whatever comes up or is needed. Saturday and Sunday are generally work days. Then it all starts again.

I share all this by force of contrast to my current situation. It is earlyish on Tuesday morning, and I'm sitting up in bed in a Welsh barn with a notepad balanced on my knees, listening to my husband in the shower and to the farm sounds outside the window. I've no idea what we are going to do today, and quite honestly, I don't care, so long as we are together and enjoying ourselves.

Presently, I will get up, prepare for the day and eat some breakfast. Then we'll decide what we fancy doing, according to what the weather looks like, and how we feel.

My normal watch is very accurate, and I know to the second what time it is. Each working minute is meticulously recorded, so that I know I'm giving the District good value for the stipend they pay me. I am conscious of the time, almost all of the time.

But not this week. I have a special watch, which I only use on rest-days and holidays. It came from Belarus, and only has (by design) one hand. The dial show the twelve hours in their usual configuration, but the space between each number is divided into four, indicating quarter-hours,  then each of those (very small) spaces are further divided into three, indicating five minutes. In practice, when I've not got my glasses on, I can't really see the five-minute markers clearly, so I generally only know the time to the nearest 15 minutes, as in "it's somewhere between quarter-past and half-past".

It is surprising how liberating this is. I normally do a fair impression of the White Rabbit from 'Alice in Wonderland', rushing from one task to the next, always busy. But when I use my holiday watch, I am tacitly giving myself permission to lighten up, to follow my heart and gut, to do what I want, rather than what I ought.

"What is this world, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" Asks W.H. Davies. So I am standing and staring, losing all track of time, and nourishing my soul.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Creative Time

For most of my adult life, I have considered myself to be a "morning person" - somebody who gets their best work done between breakfast and lunch.

But in recent years, and particularly in recent months, I have found that while I do my best work-related work between breakfast and lunch, the creative part of my brain seems to be developing a strong preference for the middle of the night - usually between 2 and 3 a.m.

So I googled "When is the best time to write?" and came across a fascinating article by Cathy Presland, on the blog 'Author Unlimited'. The scientific opinion seems to be that the best time to write is first thing in the morning, before you've showered, had breakfast, anything, because it is when your willpower is at its strongest.

But the part of the article which interested me was the argument that "The area of the brain that is linked to creativity is most active during and immediately after sleep. As you wake up and get on with your day, then this creative condition leaves you and the analytical side of your brain kicks in."

It seems that it depends on how your brain works. Some people find writing late at night works best for them; others, like me, prefer to be creative early doors (or even in the middle of the night) and would rather edit and do research later on in the day.

I would be fascinated to hear how other creative writers divide their time - do you do your original writing in the morning, and edit / do research in the afternoon? Or do you write creatively late at night, and edit / do research the next morning?

Monday, 20 February 2017

Words and Meanings

On Saturday I attended a wonderful Inter-Faith Peace Blessing in Birmingham. There were well over a hundred people there, from most of the many faith communities in Birmingham, and it was a joy to be in the same space as so many people from different faith traditions.

The theme of the occasion was 'One Family Under God', and I had understood this to mean that members of all faith traditions could join together in worshipping God, respecting one another's traditions and beliefs.

However, it turned out that it was more a celebration of the family as the place where you learn true morals and values - integrity, peace, responsibility, honesty, and so on. Now I would be the first to agree that the family unit is incredibly important in our society, as the source of the moral and ethical teachings which help us all to become responsible, tolerant members of our multi-faith society. Several of the speakers testified very movingly about the importance of their families of origin. Which was lovely.

But, as the afternoon progressed, it became clear that the families which were being held up as sacred and important were exclusively heterosexual, with the parents being one man and one woman. Both I and the Methodist minister I was sitting next to found the reiterated emphasis on this quite uneasy. We talked about it afterwards, and felt that queerness, in all its diversity, was the 'elephant in the room'. But I'm sure we were in the minority.

In April 2015, David Spiegelhalter had an article in The Guardian, in which he concluded that "my judgment would be that roughly one in 80 adults under 75 would consider themselves gay/lesbian and one in 80 bisexual, but with the balance towards bisexual in women. That works out to a total of nearly 1.2 million – the population of Birmingham."

This is a not-inconsiderable proportion of the population, to be so disregarded. As a straight ally, I found this to be a matter for concern, and it rather spoiled what would otherwise have been a warm and lovely occasion.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The Nature of Courage

The definition of outward courage - being brave, doing something under difficult circumstances, is perhaps the most common understanding of courage in our society today. The image that comes straight away into my mind is that of St George slaying the dragon. or Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins on their long journey into Mordor, in The Lord of the Rings, who kept on going, step by painful step, in spite of every peril on the road. Every soldier who goes into battle shows great courage.

But such deeds are not a part of most of our lives. Most of us will live our whole lives without having to undertake a perilous task, or enduring physical dangers.

But inner courage is something we could all do with more of. It is about living wholeheartedly, about standing up for what we believe in. In poet David Whyte's words, it is "to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world; to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on."

Above all, courage is the willingness to be vulnerable. As Brene Brown writes: "Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today's world, that's pretty extraordinary." Because it is often so much easier to Do Nothing! To keep your head down and your mouth shut, and not to stand up and speak out in a difficult situation.

We live in a troubled world. Everywhere we look, on Facebook, in the news, there are stories of ordinary people, people just like us, being deprived of their rights, imprisoned, or denied access to benefits, because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender, or their religious faith. Every day, it seems, the new US President is promulgating another law to exclude another particular group of people from the full benefits of society.

And it's not just in the States that these things are happening. Towards the end of last year, I went to see the film I, Daniel Blake, which really brought home to me what an unequal society we live in, here in our country. I blogged about it here.

I believe that sometimes, courage is just taking the first step. The first step which takes us outside of our comfort zone, moving us from a place of inaction and "walking by on the other side", as the Priest and the Levite did in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to a path towards acting from a place of integrity, standing up for what we believe in, speaking out against evil and injustice, wherever and whenever we encounter it.

It involves being in touch with our feelings, our beliefs; feeling the fear, and doing it anyway. It isn't easy; nothing worthwhile ever is. It involves laying our comfortable lives on the line, being awake to the many injustices in our society, in our daily lives, and daring greatly. Taking a deep breath and being seen. Because it's worth it. Because we are worth it. It's about saying "yes" to life.

But ... sometimes, just sometimes, courage can also be about saying "no". Just this week, I was invited to take on another role in our Unitarian movement nationally. My first instinct was to say "yes", particularly as the person doing the asking was somebody I like and respect very much.

But a little voice in the back of my head was saying "Hang on a minute, let's think about this." And I did start to think about the many calls on my time, both paid and unpaid. My ministry, my work for the Worship Studies Course, and my spiritual direction and training, not to mention this blog! And also the fact that I have a body and a spirit and a marriage, all of which need nourishing.

So I said "No, I'm so sorry; I can't commit to anything else." It took a lot of courage, as I hate disappointing people. But it was the right thing to do, for me, at this time. And I know that if I had said "yes", I would have ended up feeling depeleted and resentful, which would have done no-one any good.

How will you show courage, in the weeks and months ahead?

Monday, 30 January 2017

From Roots to Fruits

On Saturday I attended a one-day intensive for my spiritual direction course on the theme 'Tree of Life: from Roots to Fruits', led by Noel Moules.

It was fascinating to learn what a universal icon the Tree of Life is. There is something about a tree - any tree - which so beautifully reminds us both of the cycle of life, and that the whole of creation is inter-connected, in a very profound way. Without trees, there would be no life on this planet.

 No automatic alt text available.

It is a symbolism which can be used in so many ways in the spiritual life, by considering yourself as a tree, and asking some searching questions (most of which I remember from the Build Your Own Theology course):

  • What is your spirituality rooted in?
  • Which roots from your past have influenced you?
  • Had you considered that much of the work of the spiritual life goes on at a sub-conscious (roots) level?
  • What is the main foundation of your faith (trunk)?
  • Consider the different elements of your faith / spiritual journey (branches) - what fruits have resulted from them (beliefs and actions)?
  • Look at the discarded leaves on the forest floor - which parts of your spiritual lie have you left behind?
  • Consider that every fruit contains seeds, which need to be planted in fertile soil in order to grow and bear fruit in their turn.
He also emphasised the importance of living by life-giving values (Shalom), rather than by legal, head-based rules. All this was presented with beautiful images of living trees, which are so essential to the healthy life of our planet. It was a gentle, challenging, holistic day, with lots of time for reflection.

I feel blessed.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

And ... Breathe!

This morning I forced myself to do something I find incredibly stressful - I filled in my 2015/16 tax return.

I don't know why I find it so difficult - it should be simple enough, but every year it reduces me to a quivering jelly of stress, on the verge of meltdown.

I think that the reason is I'm terrified of doing it wrong. Finance and I do not mix - I'm good at keeping on top of my personal finances, and keep track of my income and expenditure by checking my bank statements every month, and keeping all receipts etc. But I could *never* be a Treasurer - the idea of having the responsibility for other people's money freaks me out big time. I take a look at a column of figures, and my brain switches off. Every. Single. Time. I take my hat off to the Treasurers of congregations, district associations and societies - they do a fabulous job.

I managed to get through the process this year by phoning a friend in the midst of my panic, who was reassuring. He told me to leave it for a few minutes, then go back to it. And it worked. I (and my brain) just needed a breathing space, a time away from the stress of it all.

It occurs to me that this advice is something I could take to heart more often. So I'm forming a new (a bit late) resolution for this coming year: "If you feel stressed out about something, physically separate yourself from it, find a quiet place, and just breathe."

Just breathe. Give yourself a break. Give your body, mind, and spirit a rest. Just breathe.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Gifts and Blessings

Unitarian Universalist Jay Abernathy wrote: "We are all blessings to this world. Our work of building bridges of connection by finding and naming and affirming those blessings we are is the work of nurturing our spirits and healing our world."

By long tradition, the three Wise Men or Magi brought their gifts to Jesus on the feast of Epiphany, which was last Friday. I wonder what gifts we can give to our loved ones, this chilly January? By "loved ones", I mean all the people with whom we are in relationship - our families, our friends, the people at work, and members of our beloved Unitarian communities.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have all exchanged many gifts with our loved ones - both material, in the form of Christmas presents, and shared Christmas meals and drinks; and non-material.

I, for example, received a new Great Course on reading Biblical Literature, which I'm finding fascinating, the DVD of Game of Thrones Season 6 (also fascinating, but rather more gory!), a beautiful Swarowski Christmas star to add to my collection, and some Amazon gift vouchers. As a result of which, I am a very happy bunny!

But the gifts that meant the most to me could not be bought. My daughter and her boyfriend came down for a few days, and my son was home too. On Christmas Day, after a gorgeous lunch booked to perfection by my beloved, a peaceful afternoon with the Great British Bake Off Christmas Special, we had cheese and biscuits for tea. Then the four of us (the kids and I, my beloved does not do board games) played some hilarious games of Cluedo. Then we all watched Independence Day: Resurgence.

Not a cross word was said, much laughter and hugging happened. I could not have been happier. The gifts of time and attention and love are priceless.

We can also bring gifts to the wider world - to the chance-met stranger, to the people in our town or village or city, to causes we care about. If you believe, as I do, that every human being has a spark of the divine in them, then we should try to respond to every person we meet  as though we are encountering a possible new friend. I wonder how different our world would be, if we tried to bear that in mind in the weeks and months ahead?

Jay Abernathy also wrote: "Each of us has at least one blessing - I believe each of us offers MANY blessings - to this world, in who we are. But sometimes, we and our world might have a difficult time affirming and seeing those blessings.

I invite you to look into yourself and discover again one of your blessings, one of your gifts to the world. Loving, peaceful, generous, compassionate - there are so many traits and blessings. What is yours?

Write that blessing on a piece of paper. Greet yourself in the mirror of your heart with that name.

Share that greeting with another person today."

May 2017 be the year that we discover our gifts, and manage to be a blessing to ourselves, and to the world around us.