“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, 29 May 2017

Coming Together in Peace

When something dreadful, like the Manchester Arena bombing this week, happens, we have a choice about how we are going to respond. It's quite a simple choice, really, and it's made a quite a deep, often sub-conscious level. We can choose to respond with fear or hatred, or we can choose to respond with love.

Many followers of this blog will know that I am currently undertaking a survey of Unitarian beliefs and spirituality, which I will be writing up over the summer. Two of the questions are:

"What do you believe about the nature of evil?" and "What does the concept of sin mean to you?"

I believe that in the violent world in which we live, it is vital to think these things through, so that we can respond appropriately, when incidents like the Manchester bombing happen.

So let's think about the nature of evil. My own belief is that nobody is born evil. Who could believe that an innocent babe, fresh from the womb, is evil? Nevertheless, through a combination of factors, such as upbringing, poor environment, bad nutrition, mental instability, addiction, brain-washing, people are driven to do acts which we judge to be evil. Almost all my respondents so far are very clear that *no-one* is evil in the beginning, but that the capacity to do evil is within every human being, and must be kept in check, by each and every one of us. Evil comes from an absence of compassion, an inability to feel with the other. It is about the deliberate choice to do the wrong thing, not the right one. Which many people would define as sin.

But people are not evil. Only the acts they do are evil. It is important to hold on to that distinction. I have to wonder what lies the Manchester suicide bomber was told, that he would believe that blowing himself and other people up was the next right thing to do. I feel for his family, who are surely grieving for a beloved son, a beloved brother.

For me, the lies that the suicide bomber was surely told are the real sin, the real evil. Sin is a falling short of the standards we know are right, that we should be aspiring to. Many of my respondents defined the concept of sin as this falling short, as making the wrong choice, as separation from God, from good. Again, they were very clear that this is a learned thing - every respondent so far was totally against the idea of 'original sin' - that human beings are born flawed.

And we need to hold on to the other side of things too - the outpouring of love and compassion and support that we have seen in the last few days. On the night of the bombing, Twitter was filled with offers of support - of a room for the night, of food, drink, safe transport home, anything that people could think of. The emergency services did their usual splendid job, and taxi drivers of all religions and none turned off their meters, and showed up at Manchester Arena to offer a free ride home to anyone who needed it. Local hospitals have been flooded with offers to give blood.

The British Red Cross, in conjunction with the Manchester authorities, has now set up a 'We Love Manchester Emergency Fund', and money has been pouring in to support the families and friends of the victims. Because once this horrific story fades out of the news, which it surely will, these people are still going to be bereaved, still going to have to live with the consequences of that young man's evil deed. In less than a week, over £5.6 million pounds has been raised. My own small congregation at Banbury gave £50 yesterday. Every penny will be needed.

Tolkien, as ever, has it right. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo comments "I wish it need not have happened in my time" To which Gandalf responds: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." May we decide well, and respond with love.

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.