Sunday, 19 December 2010

Two Songs, One Christmas Message

Then Hannah prayed and said: "My heart exults in the Lord, my pride has been raised through the Lord, my mouth is opened wide against my antagonists, for I rejoice in Your salvation. There is none as holy as the Lord, for there is none besides You, and there is no Rock like our God. The bow of the mighty is broken, while the foundering are girded with strength, the sated ones are hired out for bread, while the hungry ones cease to be so. The Lord brings death and gives life, He lowers to the grave and raises up, the Lord impoverishes and makes rich, He humbles and He elevates. He raises the needy from the dirt, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute, to seat them with nobles and to endow them with a seat of honour, for the Lord's are the pillars of the earth, and upon them He set the world" 1 Samuel 2:1-9

There is an interesting similarity between Hannah and Mary. Both women gave birth to children whose names would become known down the ages, Samuel and Jesus, and both would respond to this with a song of praise to the Almighty that would be deemed worthy of inclusion in Biblical cannon. (I personally think that Mary's song most likely was inspired by Hannah's and then attributed to the mother of Jesus by the writer of the Gospel of Luke). These are not the only Biblical songs attributed to women, a fact that perhaps can be understood by the emotional maturity and emotional awareness of the fairer sex, that lend themselves to such profound words, so beautifully expressed.

Hannah in her song paints an awe inspiring and broad picture of the Divine. In her composition God is not limited to some "bearded bloke in the sky" but is revealed to encompass wide and seemingly contradictory phenomena. Even at a time of great personal joy she is nevertheless cognisant of the Almighty's role in bringing death and impoverishment, humbling human arrogance while elevating the lowered. Other nations recognising these same realities, and being unable to understand them as the works of a single mind, attributed them to multiple deities or as in the case of Zoroastrians, to two supernal powers. Here Hannah says that God and only God is the source for all we see, He exists in a unique holiness, unique because nothing in creation bears any similarity to His essence, and yet this Divine Majesty, this unfathomable Mystery, this ever present Reality, is also her and our personal God, who cares for the needy and destitute and who answered her prayers and sent her the child she longed for.

For those who simply cannot except the reality of a personal God, then let this idea if nothing else teach them, that no matter how important, how grandiose a person or his status is, he should always lower himself to the pit, if necessary, in order to raise his disadvantaged fellow man to improved heights. Nothing is below oneself, when the goal is the honour and benefit of others.

I however do believe in a personal God, and if the report I read in today's Sunday Telegraph, regarding the growth in Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal and Baptist congregations is correct, so do a growing number of Britons.

The God of Hannah and Mary is what we all, like it or not, accept it or not, have in common with each-other. My Creator is your Creator however He is understood/misunderstood by you or I. A friend of mine sent me an essay he wrote on Sikhism and Judaism in which he writes how God's Unity is seen by Sikhs as a unifying force for humanity. He wrote:

This concept of “Oneness” developed from Guru Nanak in the 15th Century CE. Guru Nanak said: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, God is only one”. Asserting this monotheistic concept whilst respecting all faiths and embracing them as one, is what I particularly admire about the Sikh religion. Caste then, is, by implication, eradicated as is the religious tension between religions of differing or even similar beliefs. In the Gurdwara, (a Sikh Temple), all are given prasād, a sweet tasting, buttery food, as a reminder that all are welcome, all are one, everyone’s God is embraced as One, and is One.

That too is the message of Unitarian Christianity.

Christmas is soon upon us, one can almost feel the excitement in the air as the advent candles reach their end, and advent calendars leave only a few windows to be opened (and emptied of their yummy chocolates). Mince pies and mulled wine send up their festive aromas into many a home, and sweet carols and laughter drift through our streets, which this year are to my great joy bedecked with snow, (apologies to those who hate the white stuff). A spirit of good-will fills many a heart and propels those heroes of our society out into the world to provide sustenance and happiness to the lonely and infirm. And yes of course not to forget, there are also the usual voices decrying the lack of that "true spirit of Christmas" that wasn't always found even amongst our Victorian forebears who pretty much invented Christmas as we now know it, but still taking all things into account I think it fair to say, thank God for Christmas.

Unitarians have had a mixed relationship with Christmas over the years. A minority, exemplified by Rupert Potter (the father of Peter Rabbit's creator) were and are of the opinion that Christmas should be a day like all others. For them there was little merit in Yuletide observances, much to the disappointment it has to be said of Beatrix Potter who relished visiting her friends' homes, were Christmas was observed in all its Victorian splendour. Other Unitarians, such as Dickens himself, were and are great lovers of the Feast of the Nativity and even composed some of the carols that are still sung today. I personally think that Christmas can be a deeply meaningful celebration for Unitarian Christians, and one that should be embraced.

I have great sympathy with those who feel that they cannot sincerely embrace a festival that is based around what is viewed by them as a myth. Yes Jesus was born, but all the mangers, angels singing on high, shepherds and visiting Magi were pure inventions, or so goes this argument. I know of this argument because it is my argument!

I remain completely unconvinced (as were many of the earliest Christians) about the nativity narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and see them, massive contradictions and all, as retrospective stories designed to impute extra importance and mystery around the birth of a man whose importance in life and especially after his death cannot easily be exaggerated. I find Matthew and Luke's clumsy attempt to place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem unconvincing. (Why did Joseph have no relatives in Bethlehem with which he could stay if it was his ancestral town? Why would the Romans create chaos by asking people to return to their ancestral towns when surely for purposes of tax it is better to know where they are now not where they came from?) I find the accounts of heralding angels and guiding stars pretty but unconvincing. (Why would everybody, even Jesus' own mother quickly forget the angels heralding the birth of the Messiah, and display such scepticism of the adult Jesus' actions? Why did Jesus' nation not remember he was the Messiah whose birth was announced with such splendour that even foreign dignitaries knew about it?) And I think it goes without saying that I cannot accept notions of God becoming human to "share our sufferings". To some Christians, Christmas without the Nativity story and especially without the incarnation is not only a horrific heresy, but also a festival not worth the tinsel used to celebrate it. But why should this be so? The nativity story can still be treasured and loved for its heart-warming narrative and symbolic meaning. One can focus one's celebration on thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus, whose example and teachings provide one with a source, that when drunk from will never again allow for thirst. And why not in the manner of our deliverer's mother, direct our thanksgiving towards He who bestowed on Mary and Joseph a son, just as He did for Hannah and Elkanah.

And Mary said:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant, for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy.
Luke 1:46-54

Just like Hannah, Mary sings about God's Majesty but also His concern to raise the lowly and needy. This at heart is the same idea behind the incarnation doctrine that inspires faith in the hearts of our Trinitarian brethren. The only difference is that Mary, Hannah, myself and many others, celebrate God's nearness to us, without subscribing to that particular "Orthodox" doctrine. The Rabbis of Israel (also not known for their dedication to the doctrine of the incarnation), found ample inspiration and evidence of "God among us", in the scriptures:

"Rabbi Yochonon said "Wherever you find mention of the Holy One's, Blessed be He, greatness there you will also find mention of His humility. This is written in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.

The birth of a child is always a time of great celebration and the hopes and dreams of parents and friends are focused on the child, peacefully sleeping in the arms of its mother. A newborn child represents potential for a future that while unknown is hoped to be glorious. Hindsight is better than foresight, and we know what Mary could not know at the moment she gave birth to her son. We know that while his life would be short in length, but sadly not short of hardship, he would serve as the vehicle for perhaps the greatest transformation human society has ever known and that he would fundamentally change empires. We also know that his importance would be such, that two millennia later little children in villages in the heart of England would dress up with tea-towels on their heads to recollect that event, I bet Mary never envisioned that! Now while Christmas commemorates that birth all those years ago, it can still be seen like all births as a time of potential for now, which if properly actualised can lead to a hopeful future so beautifully expressed in the song "Do you hear what I hear." To me the fact that countless individuals give up so much of their time and money in country after country to devote themselves to the needs of others because of a dedication to the example and teaching of Jesus, is reason enough to celebrate that birth and to be hopeful for the future and to deepen my love for the heavenly Father whose will set it all in motion.

Well now has come the time to wish all those of you who have taken time to read my musings, which I began back when skies were sunnier and you could walk on pavements without slipping, a very happy and meaningful Christmas. May God shine countless blessings upon you and your families, and may He guide you in His ways. May your celebrations be filled with family, joy, good food and love, (and not to worry if you get a bit tipsy or your waistline expands over the festive season, after all was not Jesus himself accused of liking food and wine a little too much? Matthew 11:19)

I shall end my last post before Christmas with the words of our teacher when he was asked what one should do to inherit eternal life:

(Asked Jesus) "What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?
So he answered and said "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind" and "your neighbour as yourself"
And he (Jesus) said to him "You have answered rightly, do this and you will live"
Luke 10:26-28

Let us dedicate ourselves to this teaching during this Noel and may it stay in our hearts and minds deep into the year to come.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Liberty of Choice

"So now appoint a king to judge us, like all the nations". It was wrong in Samuel's eyes that they said "Give us a king to judge us" and Samuel prayed to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, "listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you whom they have rejected, but it is Me whom they have rejected from reigning over them" Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people...He said "this is the protocol of the king who will reign over you; He will take away your sons and place them in his chariots...he will confiscate your best fields, vineyards and olive trees and present them to his servants...He will take a tenth of your sheep and you will be his slaves" 1 Samuel 8:5-17

Well what a week it was for politics. Some have gone as far as saying that our entire political system has been changed as a result of the vote to raise tuition fees. I am unsure if this really is the case, if anything, what has happened this week has only served to clarify a situation that has been present for many years now, the unfortunate reality that all our political parties are more or less just differing shades of the same colour.

I can well understand the anger of many Liberal Democrat voters who feel that the party they voted for has betrayed them by reversing clearly stated electoral promises, and this anger of course is not only to be found amongst Nick Clegg's voters but can also be found amongst those who voted for Britain's (supposedly) Conservative party. This I am sorry to say is what coalition politics is all about, a situation that would most likely become a permanent fixture of our public life if the voting reforms that the Liberal Democrats (and Cameron?) wish to bring about become a reality.

The state is a looming enemy of human liberty. As the passage from 1 Samuel illustrates, ideally there should be no rule other than the rule of God in the heart of man. It is this self governance that is the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst, a Kingdom of conscience which Jesus is alleged to have declared as being;

"not of this world" John 18:36

As soon as human beings exercise dominion over their fellows, the faint spectre of enslavement appears on the distant horizon. Democracy however is a defender of political liberty by limiting the power of the state and empowering its citizens, but for democracy to thrive then authentic choice must be present. And for choice to be possible then there has to be differences and divisions.

It is stating the obvious that people have fundamentally divergent views about pretty much everything. It has, however, taken millennia for us to find ways to deal with this simple and obvious reality, and history shows us that we have, during times in our past, tried killing those who differ in opinions, branding such people heretical, removing their civil rights, finally settling upon creating a society where everyone has their say, with the will of the majority governing, with protection for those who dissent from the majority. This system is not perfect but it is the best we have. Sadly over the last few years the range of views represented by our political parties have diminished ever further so that now there is very little difference between them, and the burgeoning social trends that strive to shut down debate around issues as unrelated as Global Warming to same-sex marriage, is a further diminution of choice, and a great concern.

Who shapes our political landscape? We have the Tories, whose leadership have come to believe that in order to gain power the party must be "of the left", and which has fallen over itself to distance itself from conservatism. Only recently senior Tories have expressed their desire to continue their unholy matrimony with the Lib Dems even after the next general election as clearly they find a great deal of commonality with them.

We have the Liberal Democrats, who have been prepared to junk their stated promises and principles, in order to get their feet under the political table from which they have been absent for a good many decades, and who now argue with a great deal of conviction and with a straight face in favour of policies that only a few short months ago they would have denounced as "reactionary" and "right-wing" with equal passion.

We have the Labour party, which simply doesn't know what it believes in anymore, and half heartedly opposes policies with which it actually agrees and would not undo if it were in power, simply for the sake of opposition and the courting of easy popularity.

On issue after issue the leaderships of these parties agree with each other, differing only on minor details and thereby leaving themselves with no coherent vision to offer the nation, and reducing their campaigning to giving us bribes of our own money to convince us to vote for them. The age of idealistic or even utilitarian politics seems to be well and truly over. Although it is important to point out that there are still principled voices in each of the parties whose examples offer us hope.

Scipture tells us that when God created the world He did so by making many distinctions; day from night, upper waters from lower waters and sea from land, which is something we ourselves can witness all around us in nature. There are distinctions in all aspects of life and each and every day we come across them. Latter in the Bible's narrative we meet the commandments of the Almighty which give rise to a moral vision that makes ethical distinctions, that makes clear the fact that there are actions that are good and actions that are bad, and then we are told in words so powerful in their eloquent simplicity that we as human beings in the image of an unconstrained Divinity have freedom to choose:

"See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love the Lord your good, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances.....therefore you shall chose life" Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Freedom to choose is at the heart of our humanity and fundamental to our relationships with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. With great danger do we walk a path that seeks to limit the freedom of choice of our fellow human beings. Only when there is a strong consensus that a choice is fundamentally over the moral line, or that it poses undeniable threats to others should we dare to prohibit other's freedom. It is no surprise to me to see that those regimes that fear human choice the most, tend to have the largest amounts of blood on their hands, for despising something so central to our humanity inexorably leads to hatred of humanity itself. I see this trend even in the Green Movement, whose intolerance of differing beliefs and human choice itself, has lead to a growing anti-mankind sentiment eloquently illustrated in the disgraceful advert produced by green activists, that had people including children being blown up for not burning with enthusiasm for the green faith.

Differences and divisions so necessary for human choice and liberty have themselves been targeted by the well-meaning in a bid to increase unity and equality. Moral relativists have strongly undermined moral systems based on conceptions of a division between right and wrong. Educationalists have sought to obfuscate the natural difference of abilities between students in order to ensure that "all can have prizes". Supra-nationalists seek to erase valuable differences between nations in the hoped for desire to bring an end to conflict. Then there are those who in the name of tolerance seek to be all things to all people. Of course all these attempts have largely failed to bring about the huge improvements imagined.

We need difference! It is only when we make space for difference, and recognise it for what it is, that we allow unique voices to contribute to the human conversation which boosts our collected wisdom. We must not fall into the trap that Howard Jacobson expressed, of celebrating everything that makes other cultures and beliefs what they are while disparaging the difference and uniqueness of our own. If we lack a unique voice, a unique message then we can hardly expect people to listen to what we have to say. This I believe is one possible explanation for the lack in growth of UK Unitarians in our present era. It is one thing having a multiplicity of beliefs, but if there are no unifying elements then you have nothing. Principles such as tolerance and openness are, without concrete expression, too nebulous to serve as a unifying structures, and can often be found in the wider society thereby removing the need to attend a church to experience them. What are we offering people that they can't get from a multi-faith group of friends? What is our message of faith? Our numbers will not grow until we seek to answer these and other questions.

As with all things however, there is a darker side of difference and division, one which is all too apparent in the conflicts of our world and the bigotries that often fuel them. How easy it is for differences to become the ideological and emotional crux of hatred and total separation. "Us and them" mindsets are the universal outcome of the deep human recognition of difference that is present in the very youngest of children. So how do we safely embrace and validate difference without falling into the ever prevalent traps of rejection and hatred? Again an answer is in my opinion offered in the creation narrative of Genesis. Despite all the division and separation manifested in the acts of creation, the mind behind the process was One. It was the same One who created the darkness and the light, the sea and the land, life and death, health and illness, strength and weakness, thereby revealing that all the divergent forces in creation are ultimately the realised will of One God. (This is the reason for the use of the Hebrew word Elohim literally "powers") as one of the appellations for the Divine. Likewise the genuine differences between the members of mankind should not lead us to forget that we are all children of one Father, who loves each and every one of us. It was to teach us this revolutionary truth say the Sages of Israel, that the Bible informs us that originally God created one human being. Despite our differences we all come from the same source. A consciousness of difference is only safe were there exists an over-arching unifying identity. The nation of Israel was only given the instruction to march as individual tribes, complete with their own unique tribal banners, after the construction of the Tabernacle was completed. Only when the nation had a focus and centre, could individual differences be celebrated without such a focus the probability of fracture becomes too high. This is one of the reasons I am a supporter of our constitutional monarchy. Our Queen, separated as she is from the tribal battles of party politics, can serve as a unifying focus of our national identity.

But with the freedom to choose must come an equal awareness of the responsibility of choice. The whole scientific method is predicated on what appears to be the causal nature of the created world. One action leads to another. If you find the cause then you can have a good chance of knowing the effect. (Of course there is an element of uncertainty and Providence also plays a part.) Such a world, which the Hebrew philosophers teach is illusory, is the way it is because it gives us the ability to be responsible for our choices. When I throw a brick at a window, I know that the window will smash. Nature's regularity strips from me the ability to say "I didn't know what would happen". It seems to me that responsibility and culpability for our actions are written into the fabric of the universe. Albert Einstein even defined sanity and madness based on the reality of a mostly predictable Universe:

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"

This week we have seen wholesale abdications of responsibility and culpability. So many of the students and assorted fellow travellers who again went on the rampage through London, have sought to "wash their hands" of their childish and thuggish behaviour. "Self defence is no offence" I heard one student spokesman say on the TV. Yes because the treasury building was threatening their lives hence they had to smash its windows, the statue of Winston Churchill was posing an intolerable threat to life and limb that justified its vandalism. And Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were so hazardous to student safety that the attack on their car and persons was completely justified under the principle of self defence! Such self serving excuses have no place in public discourse, and are hopefully dismissed by the majority who recognise naked hooliganism for what it is. It was not the fault of the police, the politicians or the royals, that some individuals chose of their own free will to engage in a spree of destruction, which clearly by the smiles on their faces, was greatly enjoyed by those who engaged in it, and the many students that chose not to involve themselves in such negative behaviour are testament to that. At the same time our coalition Government must own up to their own responsibilities. Instead of making claims that they have no choice but to increase tuition fee limits, they should accept that it is one of several possible solutions to the funding problems, and accept that it is their choice to go for that particular solution. As such if all goes wrong, they will have to face the electoral defeat that such mistakes can bring about, after all they themselves never tired of telling us that Gordon Brown was personally responsible for the current financial crisis. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Also this week we have heard Ken Clarke say things which indicate a view that perceives criminality as a disease and offenders as victims, which therefore seemingly removes personal responsibility from the equation. Again over many centuries excuses for human transgression have been offered that transfer culpability variously onto the enemy, the devil, one's upbringing and poverty. Instead of recognising that while outside factors play a part and must be dealt with compassionately and seriously, in essence human wrongdoing is rooted in the desires hidden in the heart of man as was taught by the brother of he who's instruction and example redeems us from lives of transgression:

"Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God", for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed." James 1:13-14

The difference in attitude between someone who recognises his innate freedom to chose, and someone who feels that he has no choice but to act the way he does, is beautifully illustrated in one of the episodes in the life of King David. King Saul felt he had no choice but to destroy David, he would not see that jealousy and denial were the originators of the rationalisations that led him to think of David as a mortal threat to him and his progeny and therefore serve as justifications of his murder. David on the other hand when presented with the opportunity to bring to an end the genuine threat to his life posed by Saul did not succumb to the argument posed by those around him, that he had no choice but to kill Saul:

"Then the men of David said to him, "this is the day of which the Lord said to you, Behold I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as it seems good to you" And David arose and secretly cut off a corner of Saul's robe. Now it happened afterwards that David's heart troubled him because he had cut Saul's robe. And he said to his men "The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord's anointed." So David restrained his servants with these words, and did not allow them to arise against Saul.....And David said to Saul "look this day your eyes have seen that the Lord delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and someone urged me to kill you. But my eye spared you and I said I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed." 1 Samuel 24:4-10

As Christmas approaches we are all reminded of both the freedom and the choices that the Gospel of Jesus presents us with. Now is the time to celebrate and recognise our heritage and the fact that his teachings of our duties to our Creator and fellow man, have made us the unique civilisation we are. We should celebrate this with unapologetic joy.

Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round
Rule in our hearts that we may ever be
Guided and strengthened and upheld by thee.
One with the joy that breaketh into song
One with the grief that trembles into prayer:
One in the power that makes thy children free
To follow truth, and thus to follow thee.

John White Chadwick 1814-1904

Sunday, 5 December 2010

External Image, Inner Truth.

"What is frail man that you should remember him, and the son of man that you should be mindful of him? Yet you have made him but slightly less than the angels, and crowned him with soul and splendour. The Lord, our Master, how mighty is Your Name throughout the earth!" Psalm 8:5-10

There is a building so shockingly incongruous that the mind boggles at those that constructed it. The Colosseum. One wonders at a culture that invested so much time, and some quite obvious skill to create a beautiful edifice, breathtaking in its aesthetic qualities all for the purpose of entertaining the public with the suffering and death of human beings (and countless animals). The inhuman acts that took place in its arena are stomach-churning and horrific, so is it really possible for us to regard the building itself as beautiful?

Is it possible to separate the aesthetic from the moral? Can we regard the temples of the ancient world, in which men and women were prostituted, as examples of beauty? Can we regard the music of Wagner as works of art considering what we know of his disgraceful and bigoted views? Are Hitler's paintings worthy of display on our walls? Are those modern songs that glorify violence and misogyny harmless music?

Personally I believe not. To me external beauty is worthless if its purpose or essence violates human dignity and distances people from God and His image housed in each and every one of us. To borrow a metaphor from King Solomon, it is like:

"A golden ring in the snout of a pig" Proverbs 11:22

In fact it is the pig's external kosher signs (its hooves) coupled with its inner non kosher nature (it doesn't chew cud) that marks it as the symbol of "uncleanliness" amongst our Hebrew brothers and sisters. Don't flaunt holiness when you know you have much to improve.

Our teacher Jesus had plenty to say about those who focused on maintaining the external imagery of piety and goodness, while distancing their hearts from both the Almighty and His creations. He was certainly not a disciple of that Hellenic disposition, which viewed the aesthetic as virtuous in its own right. Can beautifully crafted poetic prayer, and elegant hymns really be considered worthwhile if they are not for the purpose of closeness to the Divine?

"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men." Matthew 6:5

"Moreover when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting." Matthew 6:16

"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" Matthew 23:23

Instead Jesus bids us to have only the watching gaze of God in our minds when we perform any act of worship or kindness, to limit the external so that we can focus on our inner motivations. Inner motivations are considered by him as fundamental to all moral and spiritual success,

"What comes out of a man, that defiles a man, for from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness and evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man." Mark 7:20-23

The phenomena of external piety and inner failing is very common and I am sure we have all at some point in time come across people who exhaust themselves in promoting an image of religiosity and holiness, while often exhibiting behaviour that contradicts their claimed allegiance to our Father in heaven. Certainly it is often those who know that their private lives harbour less than elevated behaviour, who mount campaigns of righteous indignation against those others who are viewed as deficient in one way or another. This attitude exemplified in my parents land of Galicia by the "Beatas Gregorias" (the pious women who never miss church, and take great relish in pointing out everyone else's failings), is such a common phenomena in religious circles that I am sure each and every one of us has on occasion behaved in similar ways. Of course this is not a religious phenomenon as such, but a human one. It is often demonstrated by those in political circles who bend over backwards to promote an image of themselves which is for public benefit only castigating others who do not agree with them, but who betray their promoted principles in their own personal lives. John Major's "Back to Basics" drive springs to mind! Politicians bemoaning the lack of social mobility, while happily feathering their insulated nests is another example that springs to mind.

One person who rejected such a dissonance was Lady Byron known also as Anne Isabella Milbank. Her life was lived with the constant knowledge that a small, mortal and limited life can become a tool in the eternal work of creation when it is devoted to God, and His image discovered in each and every person. For as the Psalm says "what is man"? The ancient Greeks and Romans put a great deal of emphasis on the human body, revered it so much that they projected their idealised forms onto the heavens, conceiving their gods as having human forms that would not be out of place in the Greek gymnasia, quite unlike many other ancient mythologies. But in reality our external form is nothing too special, many animals run faster than us, have sharper teeth and claws. Some can fly and almost all of them are better adapted to survival than our own naked and vulnerable bodies. In addition we have more than our fair share of faults, something that can't realistically be said of the animals, and yet external appearances can be deceptive as each human being is capable of immense holiness and perfection. Such "nearness to angels" inherent in every person led many people to preserve their higher conscience, even if it lead to their deaths at the teeth of lions or men's swords in buildings radiating external wonder but inner wickedness.

Born as an only child into a privileged family in May 1792, Anne really did not lack for anything. As soon as she was of age she would spend much time with her family immersed in highly fashionable London society (the very definition of meaningless external show). Despite being surrounded by wealth and social expectations, and blessed with considerable beauty, Anne valued inner values, moral, spiritual and intellectual over the ephemeral. Her husband to be, that quite difficult character Lord Byron, wrote about her:

"She is a very superior woman, and very little spoiled; which is strange as an heiress, a peeress that is to be, and an only child who has always had her own way. She is a poetess, a mathematician, a metaphysician; and yet withal very kind, generous, and gentle, with very little pretension. Any other head would be turned with half her acquisitions and a tenth of her advantages"

We should all aspire to such a description! Sadly her marriage did not exactly work out, and soon after her wedding she began to struggle with Byron's difficult personality, worrying incessantly about him until they became separated a year after their marriage in January 1816.

Lady Byron threw herself, despite her troubles, into the service of others fuelled by her passionately held Unitarian faith, and like so many in her era she focused on the welfare of children, prison reform and anti-slavery. Several schools owed their foundation to her beneficence, including a training school that also served as the place of refuge for two escaped slaves that she housed there. Strongly believing that she should share those gifts with which she had been so blessed, she worked to better higher education for women, wanting them to have broad knowledge of the arts and sciences. People from all walks of life, with all sorts of problems knew that they could turn to her for help, always given in that quiet and unassuming way that was testament to her desire to promote human happiness.

Devoted to her daughter, she suffered greatly as her beloved child suffered, the victim of a long and painful illness which added to the pain she no doubt felt as a result of Lord Byron himself, and the plentiful calumnies stemming from his circle of friends who worked to label her a cold and unsympathetic wife. Most people in her position would be consumed by the unfairness of the situation and retreat inwardly, dismissing the needs of others. She broke the bonds of human nature and continued to devote herself to others. She was also instrumental in providing the building that would provide the location for a very successful girls reformatory, which she placed under the control of that other splendid woman Mary Carpenter.

Braving the disapproval of the semi-aristocratic class she inhabited, she publicly supported the institutions of her Unitarian faith and was a regular member of the congregation of Essex Street Chapel. She always saw opportunities to learn and deepen her understanding of faith and its obligations and would take many notes when visiting ministers would deliver their sermons.

Her love of God, and her adherence to Jesus' example shone from her and were evident in all her actions. A Trinitarian Christian friend of hers wrote "There was in her so much of Christ, that to see her was to be drawn near to heaven".

For me Lady Byron's example is a triumph of substance over superficiality, which I think is something sorely lacking in our glitzy times, where often the pretence of wisdom, kindness, humility and justice is more important than the thing itself. During these days of Advent the growth of superficiality grows and grows. Shops become crowded by people purchasing more and more gifts they can barely afford in order not to lose face with friends and relatives, while speaking badly about those same friends and relatives behind their backs, and missing completely the cognitive dissonance this illustrates. Shoppers laden with gifts to celebrate the season of goodwill walk unfeeling past destitute people sitting at the side of cold streets. Groups of drunken people celebrating the time of peace to all men, beating each other to a pulp at the end of the night, and husbands and wives betraying each other with others at Christmas parties during the season of the family, that commemorates the creation of the holy family. All this surounded by the illusory glow of twinkling lights and decorative tinsel.

Thankfully however there are so many more who are coming into their own at this time of year, working to ensure that all can have the best Christmas possible. That unrecognised army of volunteers, in the spirit of Lady Byron, who visit hospitals and hospices to bring cheer to those who need it most. Those manning soup kitchens and shelters, to ensure that all have food in their bellies and a warm place to lay their heads during the festive season. And each and every one of those people should inspire us to do something, even if only a little something, before Christmas to help out our brethren, whether neighbour or stranger, perhaps by purchasing a few extra food items to donate to your local shelter. This army of kindness so often ignored and drowned in a sea of ephemera, is the binding that holds our society together.

And at this time of joviality and celebration our churches and chapels should embrace substance. It is easy to empty faith of content in a bid to accommodate everyone, but this runs the risk of not speaking to anyone at all. Let our places of worship buzz with intellectual and spiritual substance, embracing also the practical sphere of life in the community, and not drift into "vanilla" options in order to become distant from controversy. We don't have to agree with each other on everything in order to love each other and embrace fellowship. A church will only grow when it becomes a family and family will always contain a multiplicity of views.

It is a perfect time of year to define what it is our congregations stand for. What are the values and principles that the congregation sees as central, and how can these be further strengthened so that they pass from the wished-for and become real. What is our message, or what do we have in common that can become our unifying message that we are ready to witness? After all if you have nothing to say, then you will find it very hard to attract others to listen, and to have a grand, ornate and beautiful building that is mute, that projects no voice out into the world to inspire others is simply and tragically to have a mound of dry bones, but even still with focus and dedication God may say unto that congregation:

"I bring a spirit into you, and you will come to life" Ezekiel 73:5

If we succeed in rooting ourselves and identifying ourselves with something profound, rich in meaning, then the fairy lights and baubles become jewels in a weighty crown, and people will leave our services and our presence enriched.

Is it not wise however, to consider if there is not at least some small implicit value in the external? Do actors not say that putting on a costume makes them feel completely different and better able to assume the personality of the character? Surely now that the bloody games have ceased, the ruins of the Colosseum serve to beautify a city that would be diminished if it were not there? Surely the music of Wagner now inspires and gladdens the hearts of countless people who repudiate and despise all the views the composer held? Even in our own lives is it not sometimes necessary to promote an external image somewhat different from our inner reality, such as an air of confidence in a job interview when inside we tremble with nerves? I am strongly inspired by the teaching of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) who believed that actions done for ulterior motives with the intent of eventually achieving pure motives can be a useful stepping stone. To promote externally an attitude that we honestly wish to embody can help to direct our strivings. So perhaps giving to charity in order to make yourself feel good and look good to others, will eventually lead to a genuine love of kindness in which ego plays little part, in a person who might never embark on the path of charity if this "support" were not present.

I think the key to all this is honesty, specifically honesty with one's self. Only we know what our motivations are. Only we know if our actions are directed towards noble ends, and we must push aside all rationalisations and justifications and shine the light of truth on ourselves. Only then can we strive to close the gap between the external and the inner.

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" John 8:32

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Expectation and Dedication.

"It will happen in the end of days: The mountain of the Temple of the Lord will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths. For from Zion will the Law/Teaching come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge among the nations and will settle the arguments of many peoples" Isaiah 2:1-4

This week sees the arrival of both Advent and Chanukah, important dates on the Christian and Jewish calendars. Seemingly these observances have little to do with each other. One focuses primarily on an expectation for the future the other on a commemoration on the events in the distant past. But I feel they are linked, and certainly one was made possible only by the other.

I have been thoroughly enjoying a wonderful programme on the BBC entitled "Ancient Worlds". It never ceases to amaze me how different the societies of the ancient world were in comparison to our own. How very differently they viewed the world both philosophically and empirically. What is more striking is that in every other way they were identical to ourselves and indeed I still remember from the first episode, with some amusement, a letter from an Assyrian woman writing to her husband 4000 years ago, and complaining that their next door neighbour Salima had been able to expand her house, and expressing considerable dismay that her husband had failed to enable them to be able to do the same. Keeping up with the Joneses has a long old history it seems. As it is beyond doubt that essentially we are like our ancient forebears, it becomes crystal clear that the societies we inhabit today have been massively shaped by the world-view of that small, often persecuted and not particularly powerful people, the Jews, subsequently spread by Christianity. (Something that those seeking to de-Christianise Britain and Europe should try and remember). How many people today or how many nations today would publicly declare a beleif that to take the life of a human being for entertainment is legitimate? How many would assert the right of parents to murder their infants because they are the wrong gender or because they are weak? How many would support institutionalised paedophilia? How many would support human sacrifice? All notions quite commonly held in the ancient world. Not all that many I would suggest. And this is simply because the outlook of that one small nation has captured the imagination of the globe and even now those tyrants who would be happy to kill, maim and rape, feel that they must at least pretend to live by that code which has become the foundation of international "morality". Hence even the United Nations, an institution dominated by nations not committed to such positive values, has carved on its masonry the concluding part of my opening quote from Isaiah:

"They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and the spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study war".

This could all have been completely different had the events celebrated by Chanukah not taken place. For in the second century BC a helenic king decided to do away with these pesky Jewish notions once and for all. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was not satisfied with being a ruler of the Jews and their country, but also wished to be owner of their minds and their faith. (A desire shared by dictators and utopianists down the ages). Spurned on by those Jews eager to throw off their ancient heritage, this tyrant set about prohibiting central practices of the Jewish faith. Those Jews who realised that a life without their faith was not a life worth living, decided that they must rebel against the Syrian-Greeks and their Jewish lackeys in what must have seemed like a hopeless battle to save their religion. To cut a long story short they succeeded and they were finally able to observe the laws enshrined in their covenant with God. In memory of this and the miracle of the oil, in which a cruise of oil sufficient for one day, burned for 8 days, the festival of Chanukah was initiated, which to this day is observed as can be seen by the growing number of flickering candles in Jewish windows during the festive days. The outcome of all this was the survival of the Jewish nation which has continued over the past 2000 years to enlighten and teach the world about God. This victory also made possible the birth of a Galilean Jewish child, deeply committed to his ancestral faith, who's teachings would eventually bring the light of God to the furthest reaches of the earth.

Chanukah is Hebrew for dedication. Advent is Latin for coming. But can Advent not be a dedication too? Chanukah is a time to give thanks to God for the survival of His holy teaching, the recognition of which should lead towards a desire to rededicate oneself to observing His instructions, confident that in so doing, He will ensure that the flames of His divine presence will never depart from our world, but will instead continue to illuminate the darkness. For as Desmond Tutu said:

"Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loves us."

I believe that Advent can also be such a time. It is a time to evaluate our lives to see whether or not we are truly living by the teachings of Jesus. In a few short weeks we will be celebrating the birth and life of our great teacher, but how often do we pause to consider how much of our behaviour is consistent with the teachings of his Good News? Do we really take them to heart or simply pay lip service to them?

For the majority of Christians, Advent both commemorates the expectation of the birth of Jesus all those years ago and the Parousia, his expected second coming. As such it carries the connotation and hope for God's intervention in the affairs of mankind to finally bring about that perfected world in which the mourners will be comforted, the hungry satisfied and the peacemakers known by all, as the sons of God. Many such as the Reverend Bill Darlison, however have correctly pointed out that the expected Kingdom of Heaven is to be found here and now. After all Jesus himself told us:

"The Kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say "see here or see there". For indeed the Kingdom of God is within you." Luke 17:20-21

But at the same time Jesus clearly did expect that the Kingdom would also come at some future time as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the words of the prayer he taught, make clear "Thy kingdom come". I don't see any contradiction. The words of Jesus are echoed in the teachings of the Hebrew sages who also both talk about the coming of God's future kingdom and it's existence here and now. They were want to say:

"take upon yourself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven" Talmud Bavli.

God's rule is in our heart, because we have been given the free-will to choose to obey Him or cast off from ourselves his divine rule. A person who serves God is already living in that blessed Kingdom.

"Not everybody who says to me "Master, Master" shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven." Matthew 7:21

The expected future Kingdom, is simply that era in history when God will assist all in taking upon themselves the duties of its citizenship. May that time speedily come.

Therefore Advent is a perfect season for assessing how much of the Kingdom we have taken upon ourselves, how much of it is alive in our heart.

Another interesting parallel between Chanukah and Advent is the humble nature of the central character or event in each story. Who would have thought that an untrained rag-tag group of priests could lead a poor and divided nation against the might of one of the ancient world's most powerful empires and emerge victorious? Who could have imagined the success of a group of devout Jews in preserving their faith in the teeth of growing numbers of hellenized Jews who passionately strove to "modernise" Judaism and synthesise it to the prevailing mores of Greek society? And who would have imagined that one insignificant cruise of oil could burn for 8 days? Even the humble olive on the shrubby olive tree, who's oil was central to the miracle, reveals nothing of the immense power to illuminate that it contains within itself.

Likewise who would have thought that the birth of a little boy, to simple rural parents would have had such world changing ramifications? For Jesus, during his life, was not a figure of major note. Born quietly in Bethlehem (or as I personally think Nazareth) he grew up far from the lens of history. Even his ministry was short in duration lasting most likely less than a year, before culminating in a criminal's death. And yet from this humble, olive like, life rose a light that has shone powerfully for centuries, despite the often clouded lamps that have surrounded it and obscured it. External appearances are so very often deceptive, how tragic that we so often fall for them. Samuel Longfellow 1819-1892 put it so elloqently in his hymn 'Tis Winter Now:

"Tis winter now; the fallen snow
has left the heavens all coldly clear,
Through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow.
and all the earth lies dead and drear:

And yet God's love is not withdrawn;
for life within the keen air breathes,
A beauty paints the crimson dawn,
and clothes the boughs with glittering wreaths"

From this we must all learn that the potential for greatness lies dormant in all of us. If we are here it is because God has faith in us and despite what up till now might have been a life barren of divine service and spirituality, with an awareness of Him we can grow beyond our assumed limitations, and ultimately we too can become yet another shining candle bringing joy to all around us.

"A man's soul is the lamp of God" Proverbs 20:27

All of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, and even those who just recognise the value of his message, have been given an opportunity during these days of advent to reacquaint ourselves with his teachings and example and by so doing merit to be called his brothers and sisters, for he himself taught that those who do the will of his Father in heaven shall be considered his family. Hopefully people will be able to see in us a reflection of his example. And I for one will also be praying that the spirit of Chanukah fills the hearts of the Children of Israel so that they as one re-embrace their covenant with God, and hold fast to His revelation so that ultimately the time will come when they shall all be gathered to their land, dwell in it peacefully with God's temple acting as a beacon to all the nations and bringing peace and harmony to all the nations finally resolving the conflicts that have plagued us for so long. But that shining future is for God to bring about, in the meantime I hope that we will all do what we can to better our troubled world, and the best way to do this is to start close to home.

Michael Jackson was correct when he sang:

"And no message could have
been any clearer
If you wanna make the world
a better place
take a look at yourself, and
then make a change.

I for one during Advent and Chanukah will be starting with the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Youthful Faith

"And these words that I command you today, shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way,when you arise and when you retire". "Teach the youth according to his way, even when he grows old, he will not swerve from it". Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Proverbs 22:6

I had the greatest pleasure in spending a few hours in wonderful company during the "A Taste Of Taizé" workshop organised by the Unitarian Christian Association, at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel Hampstead, this past Saturday. There was plenty for us to learn about regarding the ecumenical community of Taizé, their ethos and their particular form of worship. For me one of the most interesting aspects of this unique community is its great popularity with the young. In particular what surprised me the most was that despite what one might assume, the incredible simplicity of Taizé was not an obstacle to the inspiration of the young but actually seems to be the prime draw. Clearly gimmicks and patronising attempts to be "cool" are not necessary.

Modern day Unitarian congregations seem in some regards, to find it difficult to attract young people. This is also the same in many other denominations who's congregations also lack many young adults. Often it is just assumed that children and teenagers are not particularly interested in all things religious and would rather spend time with their friends (or tucked up warm in bed) than sitting in a draughty chapel on a Sunday morning. Taizé disproves this, as does the presence of many enthusiastic and pious youngsters in evangelical congregations and in many a mosque or orthodox Jewish synagogue. Young people can "do" religion and often with a great deal more honestly than adults.

For me the idea that youngsters can love religion and spirituality does not come as any surprise. Firstly and importantly young adults are often idealists and visionary in their outlooks. They yearn to make a mark on the world and improve it where possible. Christianity (and other faiths) are also strongly motivated by a profound vision and desire to improve the world we all live in. Teenagers are also searching for fellowship and while they yearn to be individuals, they also need to share membership with something larger than themselves. Religion also creates fellowships and communities often based on deeply worthwhile foundations. Adolescents are also searching to define themselves, to find their purpose and role in the world. For the first time they begin to see themselves as separate from their parents and strive to create a distinctive identity. Religion speaks to our notions of purpose, it guides us in knowing who we are, and how we as individuals, fit into the broad tapestry that is God's creation.

So if religion speaks so eloquently to the soul of youngsters why are so many religious institutions devoid of the young? Why do so many young people turn their back on all sorts of faith and embrace often harmful faith substitutes? And why does Taizé succeed where so many others fail?

The most obvious answer to the success of Taizé has to be peer group reinforcement. This small French community is very much focused on the young. In the main large groups of young people from many countries are its main pilgrims. They spend several days together, either camping together or dwelling in very basic accommodation which in itself is great fun, far from parents and family. From the time they wake up, to the time they lay down to sleep, they are in the company of their age group and everything they experience is experienced together with people who understand them implicitly. Surely we can all remember when we were that age, and the importance that our friends played in our lives. Very often a group of friends have almost as much, if not more, importance to a young person than their actual family. This is also visible in a sadly negative way, in the phenomena of gangs. I believe that this is because at a time when a person is attempting to define him or herself, a degree of separation from family, which has solely defined one until this time, is natural and yet humans are social beings and we are at our happiest in the company of others, so the surrogacy of a family of friends is always needed. If a religious congregation has few young adults then the likelihood of other youngsters wishing to take part becomes less and less. I would suggest that Unitarian congregations actively work at creating projects specifically for young adults, spaces in which Unitarian youth can learn, pray and celebrate together.

In Taizé everyone is expected to roll up their sleeves and help in the day-to-day running of the village. From washing floors to helping cook and serve the food, all have their part to play. The stereotype of lazy teenagers who would rather languish in bed for days on end is only partly true. The majority are itching to be active, and so many are hugely active in those areas in which they are interested. Indolence rarely makes anyone happy not even the young. Working with one's peers as they do in Taizé satisfies youngsters' need to be active, and gives them a sense of purpose, a part to play. It is always heartening to see the genuine joy that volunteering never fails to engender in young people, and communities that foster this attitude are doing well by their youth. Religious Jewish youth are frequently involved in volunteering for projects designed to assist the poor or infirm. They visit hospitals and nursing homes, they create raffles and Chinese auctions to raise money for good causes and their connection to their faith is deepened as a result. I think it is axiomatic that a faith lived in practice engraves itself on the heart and not faith that lives only in the mind or only on the lips. As the brother of our master is said to have taught:

" Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" James 2:17

In every town and city of our country there are many poor and lonely people. Unitarian congregations and parents should encourage and assist their teens to engage in projects to help and bring happiness where it is lacking. They may not jump at the chance if they have never experienced it, but once they are involved, their hearts will be captured by the joy of feeling God's presence in the act of helping another, and not only that but it will deepen their empathy for others and boost their confidence. The great Unitarian philanthropists and worthies of the past should be made known to our young, to serve as role models. And the example of Jesus should also serve as inspiration. This concept is beautifully expressed in the words of one of William G Tarrant's hymns:

My master was a helper,
The woes of life he knew,
And he who would be like him
Must be a helper, too.
The burden will grow lighter,
If each will take a share,
And where there is a helper,
The master’s man is there.

At the centre of the Taizé experience is a simple, yet heartfelt faith. The services observed 3 times a day starting at 8:30 (who said teenagers can't get up early!) are based around a short bible reading and many chants. The chants are most often centred on one sentence from psalms, that are sung over and over again. This repetitive nature, is quite hypnotic and very moving, and gives you a great opportunity to focus deeply on the words you are singing. The community is not focused on complex theological discussions or on sectarian controversy. Instead people are united by an amazingly peaceful devotion to the Almighty. The subdued lighting and the use of many candles help to maximise the aura of peace that floods though the church. Young men and women share the same need as many adults, to cleave to God and to express praises and devotion to their Father in heaven, perhaps even more so, as they have yet to have their eyes and minds closed and jaded to the majestic and magical in life. We are informed that our teacher Jesus of Nazareth was himself passionately involved with his faith as a young boy of 12 years, and even left his parents side to go and sit at the feet of God's teachers in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem:

"Why did you seek me? (He asked his parents.) Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" Luke 2:49

Religious communities do not as Taizé demonstrates, have to shy away from faith, from God or from scripture, to be appealing to youngsters. All that is required is honesty and the ability to demonstrate how faith is relevant to everyday life. And let no one think that a lack of sermons and fiery preaching is evidence of a lacklustre commitment to faith. Rev Jeffrey Gould explained to me that when Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, was stabbed to death during a service by a mentally ill woman, the other brothers were determined to finish the service, and first thing the next morning they continued creating that otherworldly atmosphere of peace always evident with their worship, in the midst of such a huge tragedy.

Teaching is best done by example. One can preach to one's children day in and day out, but it will be almost worthless if your example fails to live up to your exalted words. One can give endless sermons about the value of charity, but if you cross the street to avoid walking near a beggar, do not expect your children to exalt in charitable giving. Parents and other adults in children's lives, who shine with a love of God, are likely to pass that love onto their children. As the opening verse of this post makes clear, only when the words of heaven are in your heart can you even think of transmitting them to anyone else. Unitarians, who put such a heavy importance on the centrality of personal conscience and individuality, often fail to transmit their faith to their children. They feel as if they must let their children discover for themselves what to believe. I feel this is an error, that eventually will lead to the almost total destruction of our community. There is nothing wrong in teaching your children what you believe to be true, what you regard as central to your life. To involve your children in the joy of fellowship and worship is not to diminish their freedom of thought. Because while you transmit the heritage of your faith to them, you can make it clear that your love and regard towards them is not predicated on their beliefs and that should they, in conscience, feel that they can not subscribe to your beliefs, your relationship with them would not be damaged. The community in Taizé places a great emphasis on discussion. The brothers discuss many issues of religion with the youngsters and then they themselves divide up into smaller groups and continue the discussions amoungst themselves. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that adolescents in general very much dislike being told what do do. Their growing independence does not sit comfortably with commands from authority, but this does not mean that they are not willing to learn. And in my view, it dramatically helps if those who are teaching demonstrate that they too are willing to learn. As the sages of Israel taught; students "increase the wisdom of their teachers" Pirkei Avos.

Our society here in Britain lets young people down. I agree wholeheartedly with the views of Katharine Birbalsingh on our education system, specifically her understanding that there is a climate of low expectations. I myself have seen this during my work in a University. Acts of petty violence and debauchery are dismissed because apparently "they are only kids" as if it is acceptable and predetermined that young adults must act that way.The same attitude can also be seen in the almost dogmatically held belief that young people WILL experiment with drugs and sex. All of us, young or old, should be aware that we can do better and not constantly be told otherwise. Young adults crave independence, by taking away their responsibility we take away their independence and make them more and more likely to become slaves to peer pressure.

Encapsulating everything in Taizé is love. A genuine and expressed love for all people. This acceptance and regard is perhaps one of the biggest attractions for the young. Brother Roger himself radiated this love which was rooted in the love of God, as he wrote:

"If you knew that God always comes to you…What matters most is discovering that God loves you, even if you think that you do not love God."

I am very grateful for the small taste of Taizé that I was privileged to experience and hope that I can continue to learn and be inspired by their message and their example. This small little community founded as an act of loving kindness towards Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution, has grown into a fountain of love and light.

Jesus taught:

"For a good tree does not produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the great treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man brings forth evil for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks" Luke 6:43-45

Brother Roger certainly has produced many good fruits, and his work continues despite his death. Clearly by Jesus' own definition this man was good, and we can all afford to learn from him how to serve God and care for our fellow man.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


"Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you. When the Supreme One gave the nations their inheritance" Deuteronomy 32:7-8

There are to my mind, 3 principle outlooks which shape many societies and individuals, one of them focuses on the past, on past golden ages, one focuses on the present, and one is future orientated.

Past orientated world-views tend to encourage a wallowing in nostalgia and very often lead to an embrace of a stifling victim mentality if the present does not, as is almost always the case, live up to the mythical perfection of a past era. The discomfort caused by such a mismatch in past glory and present misery, is often transferred onto the other, who then is demonised as the cause of all woes. And as the cause of the problems is now seen as outside, then nothing of any value can be done to fix it. A society in the grip of this outlook diminishes and contributes very little to the world. The Hebrew biblical commentators found much cause to condemn Noah for planting a vineyard when he left the ark (for reasons of nostalgia they claimed) instead of a useful crop such as wheat which could be used to build for the future. The lesson is clear, dwelling too much on the past can lead to our debasement. As King Solomon said: Do not say, "How was it that former times were better than these?" For that is not a question prompted by wisdom. Ecclesiastes 7:10

Present orientated vistas often lead to a wallowing in hedonistic shallowness. Pleasure begins to take the place of happiness and selfishness becomes the rule of the day. The very idea of deferring pleasure to a future time becomes anathema. What makes me feel good must be right, must be seen as my right and that is that, to hell with what people think or so goes the dialogue. People repeat the mistakes of a past they do not and will not recognise and plan nothing for a future they rarely consider. Children, the living representatives of our futures, are devalued as obstacles to happiness and if present are sidelined.

An ever present risk in future orientated world views is often a sympathy with, if not an actual pursual of totalitarianism. The past is considered as some fossilised relic to be expunged from memory and the present can, it is thought, be harmed in the pursuit of building a glorious future utopia. A small example of this was illustrated by the disgusting behaviour of so many middle class, wannabe revolutionaries this past week in London. Like past orientated ideologies this mentality feeds off a discontent of the present and magnifies the faults of today and promises to be rid of them, whatever the cost, in the perfection of a tomorrow upon which the sun will never set. Religious folk have often fallen into this trap and have wreaked mayhem in trying to bring about God's kingdom on earth. Secular utopianists, who believe that they too can bring about a perfected world, have also trampled all underfoot in their futile pursuits, and many persons in striving for personal success at work, have allowed themselves to raise themselves by climbing on the doubled-over backs of their colleagues.

It strikes me that what is needed is a mixture of all three viewpoints.

"O God of ages, help us,
Such citizens to be,
That children’s children here may sing
The songs of liberty."

"Send out Thy light to banish
The shadows of the shame,
Till all the civic virtues shine
Around our city’s name." William G Tarrant (1842-1928)

The arrow of time points in one direction. The sages of Israel see significance in the very first letter of the Bible. The Bet (ב), they say is closed in on three sides, only the side facing forward is open, this teaches us that we must always go forward, we can never go back. Rabbi Hirsch, that hero of German Jewish Orthodoxy said brilliantly, that the strong words against making oaths in Judaism, and expressed so beautifully and powerfully by our master Jesus, "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made. But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from evil" Matthew 5:33-36, stems from a belief that we are always moving forward, we are always changing and that in making an oath prohibiting us something or committing us to something, we fail to take into account that we and our lives may change, and we run the great risk of failing in our word and desecrating the holy name of the Divine. Change is implicit in our existence and like it or not the future is on the way. Taking this into consideration we must always have in the forefront of our mind, the world as it should be and work towards that goal. (While never loosing the awareness that a perfect society will come about only by the work of God, when His Kingdom comes and His will is done).

In our desire to work towards a better future we must not lose site of the present. We must always be genuinely aware and thankful of the liberty we have, and seek to preserve that which has been bequeathed to us. In striving to improve on this inheritance we must not embrace the idea that the ends justify the means which is a scourge that has brought bitter tears to our world. As we are told by our Maker; "righteousness righteousness shall you pursue" Deuteronomy 16:20, in other words, with righteousness shall you pursue righteousness. The needs of people as they exist now have to be considered and attended to. It is only by dealing with the problems of now, that a better tomorrow can be forged. We must live lives suffused with the happiness of the moment, we are to celebrate the pleasures that God has bestowed upon us within the parameters that He Himself has set. We must rejoice in the here and now, and be constantly cognisant of it. And while working towards the future we must entrust ourselves to God, and realise that only He can bring about our success and survival. Let us not fall into the trap of "my strength and the might of my hand made me this wealth" Deuteronomy 8:17, or as William G Tarrant put it:

"Let all the people praise Thee,
Give all Thy saving health,
Or vain the labourer strong right arm
And vain the merchant’s wealth".

We need to be aware of, and honour our past. We must see the past, and especially that of our own community, our own country, not as history but as memory. As Jonathan Sacks explains in his wonderful book "The home we build together" history is someone else's story, memory is my story". There is very little in our lives as individuals or nations, that is not shaped by the events and choices of the past. Every novel scientific discovery made today is only possible due to the cumulative discoveries and theories of preceding generations right back to the dawn of man. The authors, jurists, monarchs, priests, poets and common people of the past, created the fabric of nationhood that provides the stage on which we live our lives. Our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers shape our present not only by the genes that they passed on to us, but by their choices, actions and beliefs. That is why we should remember the fallen in past wars. When this nation was threatened by forces hostile, these brave individuals gave up their present so that we might have a future. Without their sacrifices we would be living in a very different reality, this is most certainly the case regarding those who died defending Britain from the Nazi menace. Our past is our heritage, and just like any other valuable heritage it is our duty to care for it, to maintain it and if possible to repair its imperfections and polish it to bring out its lustre. How can we so arrogantly junk that which took centuries or millennia to build? Our debt of gratitude to those brave men and women who died in the service of our nation, is greater than a moment of silence one day a year. We must ensure that we honour their sacrifice by preserving that which they died for. Our freedom. Every time we try to silence those with whom we disagree, every time we try to force people to act against their conscience we lose faith with the sacrifices of old. It saddens me to see a growing intolerance in our society coupled with a growing lack of genuine democratic accountability. This does not bode well.

We do not have to agree with the conflicts of the past to honour the sacrifice of our ancestors. I myself believe that the First World War was an abhorrent aberration, and have yet to be convinced that this country should have involved itself in that quagmire of nation against nation. I reject utterly the disgusting jingoistic propaganda that made people view their fellow man as aliens worthy of death, of vermin in need of destruction. This was a war that stripped the image of God from the face of man, and diminished our nation's faith in that selfsame God and contributed to the creation of that second even more terrible conflict. Despite this I have no doubt that those who fought did so with an absolute conviction that it was our freedom they were defending, and for their sacrifice I must, and shall, honour and remember them. And who knows, without their sacrifice we may never have had the spirit to fight that just battle against the devilish depravity of Hitler.

When we commemorate those who gave up everything so that we could have the freedoms we do, we realise that we too will be a future generation's past. Our collective decisions today will shape the lives of those in times to come. Let us look around us and see what we are doing now. Will our future descendants thank us for what we are doing? Are we taking the legacy of freedom that so many struggled to pass to us, conserving and developing it to pass on to the generations still to come? Or are we chipping away at it, leaving the future denizens of Britain in a worse place?

Each of us has a part to play, for after all one person can change the course of history. Gavrilo Princip thought his actions were important and would bring about improvements for his people, but instead his actions lead to a conflict that destroyed empires, changed the borders of nations, irrevocably changed cultures and led to the deaths of an estimated 37 million people!! Obviously the actions and choices the majority of us make have repercussions far less world-shaking than those of Gavrillo Princip, but they do, nevertheless, have effects far beyond what we may realise. Let us venture on a thought experiment: Have you ever been rude to someone on the bus, or someone on the end of a phone who you had little time for or been nasty to a work colleague who was irritating you? Imagine if you will that this person was going through some personal crisis, perhaps your rudeness worsened their mood and led them to argue with their spouse. Imagine that during that row things were said that led to the seeds of resentment being sowed, eventually the damage germinated and grew ultimately leading to the destruction of that relationship with all the subsequent problems that can give rise to. Can you really wash your hands of the consequences of your actions? Can you really salve your conscience by regarding your rudeness or nasty quip as small and insignificant? This scenario might sound farfetched but as far as I can see, it is simply one of many many possible negative outcomes that can follow a simple act of unkindness to our neighbour.

There is one constant in both past, present and future and that is He "who changest not". He who was there when Franz Ferdinand rode into Sarajevo and who was with the Franks in an annex in Amsterdam and was overseeing the events of Dunkirk, is with us now! And He will be there with those who live long after every single one of us alive today has become a memory. As Libera so spectacularly sing:

"I rise with the spark of life the dawn of all time, I call to the worlds yet to be, the music is everywhere in life in the sea and air to join in the perfect song of all eternity."

In Him we see the span of infinity and we too when joined with Him join in with that eternity. If we are faithful to Him, and cleave to His guidance, then we can rest confident in the knowledge that our actions will bring only goodness and happiness to our lives and the lives yet to be lived, while honouring and connecting with all His children who came before us.

Above all our remembrance of conflicts past should ignite in our souls a passionate desire to rid the world of war. For while we recognise the bravery and heroism of those men and women, and the salvations that with God's help, their actions brought to our nation, we must never forget that their deaths were also a terrible and irreplaceable loss. Our world is diminished with loss, and every life taken through these conflicts leaves the edifice of humanity damaged and wanting. War is not a glory, our nation is not sanctified or honoured by war. May God make better our losses and lead us all to an acceptance and commitment to the words of the prince of peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9. To stand in silence in remembrance, but not work towards the cessation of war, is a betrayal of those who fought so that we would not have to ever again.

So let us all pause to dwell on the memory of those whom we commemorate today. Let us mourn their loss. Let us yearn to embody even a little of their courage so that we can face the challenges in our life with the same determination. Let us educate ourselves in the achievements of our forefathers and ask God to lead us as we refuse to give up "that mental fight, until we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." And above all let us pray for the day when humanity will be united under the Kingship of the Creator, and "nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more" Micah 4:3