“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

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Time and Sadness

 I am not sure that I entirely agree with Jean de La Fontaine, when he wrote, "With the wings of time, sadness flies away."

I know that "time is a great healer" - another cliché - and that in many cases, time does lessen, or even heal, the impact of lesser sadnesses. For example, events which seemed the end of the world when we were teenagers, matter not a jot now (unless they do, of course). 

The passing of time can even lessen the sharpness of grief. But here's the thing - grief is far from a simple process. I know about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Yet no grieving person I know has moved smoothly from one to the next to the next. It is far more complicated than that.  One day we can believe we're "over the worst" then a sound or sight or taste or smell can remind us all over again of what we have lost, and we are plunged back into the depths once more. 

Some grief never heals. But somehow, we learn to make space for it in our hearts and go on living anyway. We never forget, never cease to miss our loved one, but somehow manage to choose life. Perhaps that is a form of healing.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Step by Step

Paula Modersohn Becker wrote, "Do not try to skip steps. If you have a long way to go, do not run." Such good advice.

Because it can be so tempting, when we start something new and exciting, to forge ahead with all our strength, and then run out of steam and enthusiasm a few weeks down the line. Or at least, that is what I have found. 

In her wonderful book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin divides people into 'sprinters' and 'marathoners'. She writes, "I'm a Marathoner. I like to work at a slow and steady clip, and I dislike deadlines - in fact, I often finish work early.... Sprinters prefer to work in quick bursts of intense effort, and they deliberately wait for the pressure of a deadline to sharpen their thinking." I am definitely a Marathoner. 

And that was true in physical terms as well as ideological ones. When I used to run, I far preferred the slow, steady plod of distance running to the short, sharp shock of sprinting.

Rubin acknowledges that both approaches can work well; it depends on your personality. I much prefer the slow and steady approach. For example, my writing habits. Some writers, who work full time, can only find the time to write at weekends. They will spend a whole day doing nothing else, and their output on that day will be phenomenal. Then they won't have time to write again until the next weekend. Whereas I prefer to write for an hour each morning, producing between 500 and 1,000 words a day. And get up an hour earlier in order to find the time to do so.

But neither of us skip steps. We each tackle the task in front of us, at a pace that feels comfortable. The process of writing a book is necessarily a long one. I have heard of writers who write the scenes and chapters that come into their heads, and then settle down to fill in the gaps between them. I could never do that. 

The same applies to writing a service. I might be inspired by a particular reading or a particular theme, but I always follow the same process: I find the readings and prayers, the chalice lighting words, opening words and blessing, choose the hymns to fit with them, and then, only then, do I write the address.

I guess it doesn't matter what your overall approach to getting a task done is; the important thing is not to skip steps.

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Power of Dreams and of the Mind

 A lovely inspirational quote this week, by Wilma Rudolph: "Never underestimate the power of dreams and the power of the mind. The potential for greatness lives in all of us."

I have blogged a couple of times on here about the power of dreams, here and here. So today I'd like to think about the power of the mind... 

Last weekend, my grown-up daughter contacted me to tell me about a new diary / journal she had bought herself, The 6-Minute Diary. And it sounded so good that I looked it up and treated myself to one.

The idea is that you spend three minutes each morning, filling in the first half of the page, and another three minutes in the evening, reflecting on the day just over. The idea behind it is to encourage positive thinking and hence enhance happiness.

It's a fascinating book. The first sixty plus pages explain how it all works, and then there is a page for each day, plus an introductory page for each week, where there are five different questions to answer and a habit tracker. And it's beautifully designed, complete with two bookmarks - one to keep in the beginning-of-the-week page, the other for the current day.

There are six daily prompts:

For the morning, 1 I'm grateful for... (and 1,2,3)
                            2 This is how I'll make today great (five lines of free writing)
                            3 Positive affirmation (you can either change these each day or focus on one particular

For the evening, 1 My good deed today
                           2 How I'll improve
                           3 Great things I experienced today (and 1,2,3)

I started doing it on Tuesday and I'm loving it. Interestingly, the one that has me chewing on the end of my biro for inspiration is 'My good deed today' - they say it can be something small and insignificant, but it's been hard to rack my brains and remember a specific small act of kindness. 

It's going to be fun reading back over all the entries when it's full (they give you six months' worth of pages in each diary). And I hope it will make me remember all the little things I am grateful for, and help me to establish some good habits.

Friday, 9 October 2020

The Difference between Choosing Isolation and Being Forced Into It

 The words of Seneca, the Roman philosopher who lived in the first century CE, really resonate with me. He wrote, "You have to combine and alternate times of solitude and times of sociability. The one awakens in us a longing for people, the other a longing for ourselves" (or, I guess, our own company).

I have found that as I have got older, I have embraced solitude more and more. I blogged about it last year, here. I think I am a true ambivert, which the Google Dictionary defines as, "a person who has a balance of extrovert and introvert features in their personality."

And yet, there is a huge difference between choosing to spend time alone, and being forced to, as many people have learned this year. I probably only left the village once a week, during the first months of this coronavirus crisis, to do the weekly food shop. But, here's the thing - I could have done, if I had wanted to. I am not in an at-risk category, so was not compelled to self-isolate for weeks and months at a time, which has been the fate of many. And in recent weeks, I have even started to lead worship in person again, for a few brave congregations.

Most people have a very natural contrarian streak in them: if they are told they MUST NOT do something, that something becomes even more attractive. Older family members and friends, who truly are vulnerable, have, by and large, shrugged their shoulders and accepted the inevitable. I was so very glad when the concept of 'bubbles' was floated and it became possible to visit my parents once more. But even there, I keep my distance, and keep my visits rare and short. And I have not been able to do any in-person pastoral visits since March. Phoning people is good, but it's not the same.

But I have really missed the possibility of gathering in Unitarian community, at our General Assembly meetings, at Great Hucklow, at Summer School. Virtual meetings just aren't the same. And I do wonder what it will be like next year (?) when we are once more able to meet in person... because I'm guessing it won't be the same. I will be worrying about things I took so much for granted: can I hug people? will it be safe for more vulnerable people to spend so much time in close physical proximity to others? I'm sad to say that I think we are only touching the edges of what we have lost.

The impact of enforced self-isolation has been enormous, particularly in terms of mental health. Which is why it has been so important to reach out to our friends, our community, in new ways. I would guess that at the beginning of this year, hardly anyone of my acquaintance had heard of Zoom, let alone used it. But now we meet for worship, for coffee, for business meetings, just to talk, all the time, using this wonderful software programme.

And it has enabled Unitarians all over the country to keep in touch with each other, to sample each others' worship services, in a way that would have seemed... unbelievable, a few months ago.

I pray that we will continue to find ways to keep in touch with each other, to help those who are forced to self-isolate, to keep their sanity.

Friday, 2 October 2020

A Love of Mystery

The Unitarian and Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, "I prefer to live in a world surrounded by mysteries, rather than in one so small, that my mind can comprehend it."

 And one of my best-loved non-fiction authors, Brené Brown, wrote in my favourite book of hers, The Gifts of Imperfection, that she initially believed that "faith meant 'there's a reason for everything'" Then she discovered that "faith meant something else to [the men and women living the Wholehearted journey]." Which led her to redefine faith, based on the responses she was hearing from them, "Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty."

I believe that our lives are richer if we can find that courage, and love the mystery, the sacred not-knowing of life. Theologican Frederick Buechner wrote, "Faith is better understood as a verb rather than as a noun, as a process rather than a possession. It is on-again-off-again, rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is about not being sure where you're going, but going anyway. And theologian Paul Tillich wrote, "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."

Unitarians have a great capacity for mystery, for "living in the questions", as Rainer Maria Rilke put it. For example, we can never prove that God exists (or doesn't exist). But we can have faith that He (or She or It) does. And live our lives as though we believed it. Which I think is what Emerson meant when he said he preferred to "live in a world surrounded by mysteries." 

Unitarian faith often includes a healthy dollop of doubt - not taking anything for graned, not accepting anything without questioning it first. We have always been in the habit of questioning beliefs and cherishing doubts. I would guess that many of us came to Unitarianism precisely by that path - by starting to question some of the beliefs 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. But to quote Jan Carlsson-Bull, Unitarians have learned to "hold faith and doubt in reverent balance". 

Which 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 tough call, sometimes.

Holding faith and doubt in reverent balance, living and loving in mystery, 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 our own lived experience. 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 lived experience, in order to live out our lives in the best and truest way we can, making room for mystery, for uncertainty, along the way

Friday, 25 September 2020

The Benefits of Smiling

 I once read somewhere that it takes only four muscles to smile, but 72 (I think I remember it correctly) to frown. Whether that is true or not, smiling is good for us. So I warmed to this week's quotation, an Indian proverb, "The smile you send out will return to you."

Because it really works. When I'm out for my daily constitutional, I always smile and say "hello" to anyone I pass. And even the most pre-occupied will acknowledge me, often with a smile of their own. Which makes the world a slightly more benevolent place, every time.

With so much crap going on in the world at the moment - wars, famine, poverty, discrimination, violence - not to mention the corona virus, our spirits need lightening, if we are to survive. And smiling (and being smiled at) helps enormously. Admittedly it is sad that we can't make closer physical contact with anyone outside our own personal bubble at the moment, but a smile can mean so much...
  • I like you
  • I love you
  • Well done, congratulations
  • I know how you feel
  • You've got this
  • You make me happy
  • I care about you
  • Life is good
  • That's funny
  • Namaste - that of the divine in me cherishes that of the divine in you
And a thousand other things. A true smile is never a negative conversation. So smile at someone (or someones) today... and cherish that smile back.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

The Spectrum of Belief

 The French novelist, poet and dramatist Victor Hugo (most famous outside France for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables) grew up Catholic. But in later years, according to Wikipedia, he "settled into a rationalist deism similar to that espoused by Voltaire. A census taker asked Hugo in 1872 if he was a Catholic, and he replied, "No. A Freethinker."

I would guess that this week's quotation came from the free thinking stage of his life: "To believe is difficult. To believe nothing is impossible."

Which sentiment I guess would be shared by many Unitarians, although not all.  We too are free thinkers, and proudly espouse freedom of belief as one of our three tenets. We call ourselves "A Faith without a Creed". Unitarians form a religious and spiritual community in which each person can explore what gives their life meaning and purpose. Each congregation, each society, and the movement nationally is a faith community made up of individuals on a spiritual journey who have come together because they share an open and inclusie attitude to religion and spirituality.

Unitarians affirm for each individual the right of private judgement in matters of religion and spirituality: no-one should be under any pressure to sign up to particular beliefs. In practice, many Unitarians do hold many beliefs in common; but this is not a prerequisite for being a member of the Unitarian community. Each Unitarian is free to treat new ideas, new beliefs, critically, and to take from them what speaks to their own reason and conscience, and what makes sense in the context of their own life experience, in order to live their life in the best and truest way they can. The sole proviso is that any belief that excludes, harms, or belittles another person or group will not be endorsed by a Unitarian community.

Unitarian beliefs change over time. Unlike most mainstream Christian denominations, Unitarians recognise that, as people have new experiences and encounter new ideas, their beliefs may change. The beliefs of most long-term Unitarians will evolve over the years, according to what they see and hear and learn and experience and take to heaert. We find this liberating. So Unitarianism is a continually evolving faith.

But I, personally, am with Victor Hugo, when he stated "To believe nothing is impossible." I think it is a deep instinct of human beings to seek purpose and meaning in their lives, and therefore come to believe in *something*. That something may be a personal deity, Nature, or humankind or any one or several of a thousand thousand philosophies. Even atheism is a form of belief - a belief that any form of supernatural being does not exist. 

Truly, "to believe nothing is impossible."