Sunday, 29 August 2010

Female Luminaries continued.

"You are blessed of the Lord, my daughter; you have made your latest act of kindness greater than the not fear, whatever you say I will do for you; for all those in the gate of my people know that you are a worthy woman" Ruth 3:10-12

Following on from my previous post on Dorothea Dix, I think it only correct to write about an English Unitarian heroine. And I can think of no better subject than Miss Mary Carpenter. This woman was simply amazing, and it was said of her that no other female had a greater role in the social legislation of the 19th century. It is not easy to label this remarkable woman. Some of her views and approaches would label her by today's polarised arguments as a lefty "hug a hoody" advocate. On the other hand some of her views would cause people in other political quarters to label her as a reactionary right winger. But this was not a person of contradictions, quite the opposite, her views and achievements were a natural outgrowth of her intense devotion to her Unitarian Christian faith.

Mary Carpenter was born in Exeter on April 3rd 1807. Her enlightened father instructed her in subjects such as Latin, Greek and Mathematics, very rarely taught to girls in that era. Her passion for the education of the poor began in the Sunday School that she taught in from very early on. She soon realised that parental involvement and co-operation prove vital to the success of a child's education, and as a result began to visit the homes of her students. This gave her first hand experience and knowledge of the lives lived by her charges. She continued her involvement in the Sunday School and in her home visits, long after she had taken on the additional responsibilities, in 1830, of teaching and running a Ladies School alongside her mother and sister. A visit to England by the inspirational and charismatic Indian reformer Ram Mohan Roy, and later by Dr Tuckerman the Boston Unitarian philanthropist, made a powerful impression on her, and she and the other Unitarian women of Bristol initiated the Working and Visiting Society, which led them into Bristol's most crime and poverty ridden neighbourhoods. This also deepened her understanding of a section of society often neglected and almost always ignored and maligned. She saw children effectively abandoned to the streets, with at best a lack of parental love and guidance and at worst parental abuse and abandonment as the backdrop to their lives. In the midst of all this were trapped many decent parents at a loss to know how to save their children from a future of crime and misery. Mary could not rest having seen this situation, and she set up a Ragged School to provide free education, food and clothing to these unfortunate children.

Bristol and the UK in general was becoming rapidly concerned by the rise of young criminals, who were, in ratio, far exceeding the general population. Naturally Miss Carpenter turned her attention to this phenomena, and therefore she assisted a Mr Russel Scott in establishing in 1852, a Reformatory school for boys. Not content just with this, she sought the assistance of Lady Byron to purchase a building in Bristol (Red Lodge) for use as a Reformatory school for girls.

Right from the beginning, following in the footsteps of Jesus, she declared that "Love must be the ruling sentiment of all who attempt to influence and guide these children", and stated that punishment must be kept to a minimum. She saw the value of every child in her care and understood that there is "a holy spot in every child's heart".

The school proved popular and from a starting group of 10 girls it is estimated that approximately 450 girls were educated in that school. 450 girls who were saved from a life of hopelessness and misery. This is no small achievement. But Mary could not rest. Realising that Reformatory schools were only possible for those children who had been convicted of crimes, Mary wished to reach out and prevent street children from falling into a life of crime in the first place. To this end she, with the help of other decent people, helped to bring about the Industrial Schools Act. And in 1857 the first Industrial School was established in Bristol. This school allowed children from neglectful and destitute homes to be taken out of their squalid environments, and to receive a good, practical and moral education. For this was a key understanding of hers. She viewed a prime cause of juvenile criminality as a lack of moral education, clearly she was no moral relativist. She held parents responsible for the behaviour of their children and felt that often children, especially lower class children, were being blamed for behaviour that should rightfully have been attributed to parental failure. She had no qualms in stating that the state should take away parental rights from parents who refused to live up to their responsibilities. This derived from her clear understanding, born of experience, that the family is the prime influence in the life of the child. As a result she organised her charges into small family sized and family styled groups. Flooding the children with love and discipline.

She permeated her school with Christian values which she viewed as essential to successful character reform, but did not attempt to impose her Unitarian views on the children. She valued their freedom of thought and encouraged them to think for themselves, to have ownership of their own property and to learn responsibility. And of course she never failed to argue that prison was never the right solution to the problem of juvenile crime.

An average person would find all their time and energies consumed by even a small amount of the work she was involved in, but not Mary. Despite all her work she was also a committed abolitionist. And despite not being a wealthy woman she contributed her talents and her money into this sacred cause. Sadly she was disheartened when the US Fugitive Slave Law 1850, allowed a former slave to be sent back to slavery in the Southern States from Boston. Her heart and mind motivated by God's teaching; "You shall not turn over to his master a slave who is rescued from his master to you. He shall dwell with you in your midst in whatever place he will choose in one of your cities which is beneficial to him, you shall not taunt him" Deuteronomy 23:16 simply could not countenance this legal atrocity and she said that the United States had "committed an atrocious act..against humanity against itself, against God.

She visited India, a place she had longed to see since the visit of Ram Mohan Roy, and established schools there for the education of girls as well as Reformatories and Industrial schools. She also visited Europe were she also tried to bring about her reforms that had proved so successful in England and India. Sadly not everybody could see the value of her work, and she was condemned by no less a personality than Pope Pius IX! No doubt she took comfort in the words of Jesus when he taught "Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves...And you will be hated by all for my name's sake but he who endures to the end will be saved". Happily her kindness, humility and charm endeared most people to her, and as Robert Spears wrote regarding her "those who at first shrank from co-operation with a Unitarian, found themselves compelled at last to recognise in her a devoted disciple whom Jesus himself would have loved"

She wrote many devotional books, books that shine with her bright love of her heavenly Father. And it is clear to me that God poured his blessings upon her, and strengthened her hand to bring improvement and assistance to so many of His prodigal sons and daughters.

Today sadly youth crime in Bristol is above the UK average which itself is nothing to be proud about. For the sake of our nation's lost youth and damaged families, let us look into the life of the admirable Miss Mary Carpenter and follow her teaching and example.

Both Mary Carpenter and Dorothea Dix, and the many other wonderful women of all denominations should serve as role models for the young women and even men of Britain. It saddens me that they are not even known, and that in their place vacuous and often negative exemplars of the most shallow and hollow femininity are held up as role models.

Miss Mary Carpenter died peacefully in her sleep on June 14th 1877. Her life summed up in her own words "I am a worker with a purpose... and having dedicated my heart and soul and strength to God's work, I have never begun anything but from a clear conviction of its necessity."

"Many women have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all" Proverbs 31:29

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The corrosive power of scorn.

"Happy is the man who walked not in the counsel of the wicked and stood not in the path of the sinful and sat not in the session of scorners" Psalm 1:1

This past week we saw Tony Blair declaring that he is to donate the reported £4 million advance payment of his new book and also any profits it might make, to the Royal British Legion in order to "honour the courage and sacrifice" of British Soldiers.

Mr Chris Simpkins on behalf of the British Legion, has happily and gratefully accepted this offer and has stated that they intend to use his donation, the biggest single donation to that organisation ever, to create a sports centre for injured servicemen and women. I think all of us can be assured that when Mr Simpkins says that the donation will "make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of injured personnel" he speaks the truth. May God bestow His blessings upon this project and may it truly bring assistance and happiness to our troops. And may the need for all such endeavours be removed speedily, when swords are beaten into ploughshares and nations never again learn to make war.

Sadly almost immediately after Mr Blair's declaration, voices of public protest and condemnation began to be heard. One such group of voices originated among some of the loved ones of soldiers killed in service. Those of us who have not suffered what they have suffered dare not express any criticism or judgement of these people or what they have said.

But there were and are other voices, both in the media and amidst the general public, that are passionately critical of Mr Blair, his motivations and his donation. So often this criticism seems to be fuelled by an irrational and quite vicious dislike of Mr Blair and his record in office.

Let me nail my colours (certainly not socialistic red!) to the mast. I have never liked Mr Blair's policies or approach to government. I believe that despite some good done, he and his government damaged our fragile society and changed for the worse our political life. I have had and retain a distaste for the persona he projects and could quite happily have done without either the Blair years or New Labour in general. I also understand many of the arguments and concerns expressed about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and feel that the lack of resources our army had to contend with, will remain a horrible stain on the history of our governing class. But I also wish to make it clear that I equally dislike the total abject irrationality evident in the facile arguments suggesting oil as Mr Blair's motive for war, not to mention the nonsensical conspiracy theories, sadly so often heard in polite conversation these days, and too silly to repeat here. I am also appalled by the blatant party politics that allows opposition parties (now the government) to conveniently wash their hands of all responsibility in either opposing and preventing a war they now declare illegal, or in the insuring that those sent to fight had all they needed to protect themselves.

But what in heaven's name do all the contrary opinions about Mr Blair and his policies, have to do with this charitable gift? Do we have a shortage of evil in the world that we have to mock and pour scorn on acts of goodness, even those that might fall short of perfection? Why must we allow personal dislike or even naked hatred prevent recognition of goodness?

I have seen comments suggesting that this donation will not succeed in buying forgiveness for Tony Blair, and some have suggested that he will find that this donation fails to open any heavenly gates for him. What sort of talk is this? How arrogant of us to assume that we know the inner motivations, the thoughts within the heart, of a man that the overwhelming majority of us do not know personally? I simply don't care if he is only trying to rehabilitate his public image and secure a legacy, or if he has found motivation in the words of King Solomon in Proverbs 11:4 when he says "wealth will not avail in the day of wrath, but charity will rescue from death". These are the types of occasions when we should take to heart the words of our teacher Jesus, who tells us "Judge not lest you be judged" and "let him who is without sin cast the first stone". (Incidentally the only evidence we do have would seem to indicate that his motivation was a simple desire to show respect to our service men and women). These inner reasons are between himself and God, who ultimately he will have to stand before in judgement just as we all will.

And I would ask of those who have poured the ice-cold waters of scorn on this donation, how much have you given or how much do you propose to give? The British Legion can't provide for those in need with donations of cynicism and criticism can they.

My personal opinions of Mr Blair and his legacy in office have not changed, and there is no need for the opinions of others to change either. However let us value an act of charity, let us raise up the voice of giving in our society and strengthen the hand of those who are most in need of it.

Those of us who are Unitarian, and also those in the wider Christian and religious world, let us maintain our positive view of life and man, and not fall victim to the negativity of scornful words. Let us not forget that the brother of our teacher is claimed to have said "Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things, See how great a forest a little fire kindles!... With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in the image of God... My brethren, these things ought not to be so" James 3:5-10

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Pakistan, the mystery of suffering and our response.

"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell, if you know understanding!...Did you ever in your life command the morning or teach the dawn its place... Who fashioned a channel for the torrent or a path for thunder clouds that it may rain upon a land.." Job 38:4-29

What are we to think of the unfolding catastrophe in Pakistan? What answers can we offer to explain the depth of suffering etched onto the faces of men, women and children every time we switch on the TV News or read the Papers? The only thing we can be certain of, is that we are not to respond as Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar the friends of Job did. We cannot say that the suffering we are witnessing is a punishment for the sins of those individual people. If we use this argument to assuage in ourselves the discomfort of the pain we see, we too will be told by God "My wrath anger burns against you". In truth we can offer no answers or reasons, and it would be wrong for us to try.

God's majesty is immense. What does not find its existence in His will? He is the source of existence itself. He is the unchanging permanent, infinite reality upon which everything is based. His knowledge encompasses everything. Chaos theory, popularly summed up with the analogy of a hurricane being the ultimate result of many interconnected causes originating in the beating of a butterfly's wings, gives us a sense of the myriad upon myriads of causes and effects constantly taking place. And the magnificent Architect is aware of them all and infusing them with reality. What possible knowledge or awareness of God's mind and plans can we really have? In effect almost nothing. His thoughts are truly above our thoughts. How beautiful and breathtakingly true are the words sung by Libera "How can I sing that Majesty, which angels do admire. Let dust in dust and silence lie, sing sing ye heavenly choir!"

Understanding this we must conclude that it is not our place to "accept" as God's will the suffering we see around us whether in Pakistan, our neighbourhood or in our own houses. From our human vantage point,(the only one we can possibly have and the only one God wishes us to live up to) we see injustice and needless suffering in such miseries. And it is our Heavenly Father who bids us, no demands of us, to alleviate that suffering.

Responsibility,the ability to respond. If any of us have any ability to help lessen the suffering in Pakistan I hope that we have already done so, or will do so soon. There are of course concerns as to whether or not the money will be used properly and effectively. These and other concerns should not be ignored but they should not prevent us from giving. Find a different way to contribute if necessary, if you are unsure of the main charities. I personally recommend the wonderful charity World Jewish Relief, who have a Pakistan appeal.

These events should give us cause to stop and contemplate our own lives and the use of the blessings God has given us. Are we thankful? Do we use our wealth and possessions to serve God or to glorify ourselves instead. We should think about Jesus' comment that "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also". Personally speaking the answers to these questions are not often pleasant, but as Elizabeth Gaskel said "identifying a problem is the first step to resolving it".

I would hope that the Vatican think about the mounting costs of the UK Papal visit estimated now at nearly £12 million. And ask whether or not these expenses are necessary. Perhaps the approximate £7 million being raised by the Catholic faithful would be better directed to providing clean water or shelter to some of the nearly 20 million people who's homes have been destroyed by the floods, or even put to use among the poor of our own country. Do not misunderstand me, I am not against the Pope's visit, it is only right that Catholics in this country be paid a visit by their spiritual leader and no doubt he has much of great wisdom and importance to say. I only ask if the manner in which this visit is to be conducted follows the spirit of Jesus' instruction to his disciples when he sent them out to "preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick" and instructed them to "take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money".

It is so easy when hearing of suffering and unfairness to loose sight of the immensity of God's kindness and blessings. Each and every day, each and every moment of every day we are suffused with kindness and we should heed the words of King David (who certainly knew suffering):

"Call out to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyous song. Know that the Lord, He is God; He made us and we are His, His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving, His courts with praise; give thanks to Him bless His Name. For the Lord is good, His kindness endures forever, and from generation to generation is His faithfulness" Psalm 100

The happiness we feel in our heart when we become aware of God's love and His kindness to us, should spur us to share it with those who have less than ourselves. And to help others appreciate the good that exists in their lives.

I finish this post with the uplifting words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth when he said:

"Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask for bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask for a fish will he give him a serpent? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Matthew 7:9-11.

Thank God for your blessings and then share them with others.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Female Luminaries

"A virtuous woman who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls...She spreads out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute...She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue..Grace is false, and beauty vain; a woman who fears the Lord, she should be praised. Give her the fruits of her hands; and let her be praised in the gates by her very own deeds" Proverbs 31:10-31

The achievements of Unitarians over the years in many spheres of life is well known, and it is pleasing to see how many of these worthies have been women. Over the last few days I have been studying the life of one such woman, who's achievements are simply staggering.

I refer to Dorothea Lynde Dix. The "Florence Nightingale of America". This lady's life is not only an inspiration but is a reproof for those of us who have allowed excuses and rationalisations to get in the way of our ability to help others, and to stifle to voice of our conscience.

Dorothea was born in Maine on the 4th April 1802 and "raised" in Massachusetts. I use inverted commas because she herself said "I never knew childhood". Her home-life, marred by alcoholism and abuse caused her to end up leaving at the age of 12 to move in with her grandmother in Boston. Did Dorothea use this damaged upbringing to make excuses for herself? Did she use it to excuse negative behaviour or selfishness? Not at all, if anything it helped propel her into a life of service, duty and goodness. Very soon she set up a School and soon after that began to educate and care for the children of the poor, her attention always focused on those less fortunate.

In time she began to visit prisons, and was shocked and horrified by what she saw. Abandoned people, suffering from severe mental illnesses were caged like animals alongside hardened criminals. She described the conditions as follows "in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience". These human beings, already suffering from illnesses of the mind were suffering the cruelty and indignity of being treated like beasts. Dorothea could not in conscience ignore this, and she set about an indefatigable mission of lobbying, persuading and striving for the creation and expansion of special hospitals designated to help and heal these suffering souls. To this end she travelled all over the United States without the luxury of modern day transport, despite her severely weakened physical health. But she did not end there, instead she travelled to Scotland, England and Europe to bring alleviation to the most needy. In Scotland she secured a government Commission to look into the state of that country's facilities for the mentally ill. Her activities did not go unnoticed and were commented on by Robert Chambers when he wrote;

"it is a disgrace that the existence of such evils was overlooked by the clergy and officials of my native country; and brought to light by a fragile woman of such weakly constitution that she can scarcely walk half a mile, an American by birth, a Unitarian by creed."

Again how many people today make the claim that they are incapacitated from the ability to work? How often have we used fatigue or discomfort as an excuse to not do that which we know we should do? The example of Dorothea should give us much cause to think.

Returning to America in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, she turned her attention to nursing. Utilising the knowledge she acquired in Scutari, she cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike. Her care and love was not limited by political or ideological considerations. Her nurses were often the only ones available to provide care for the enemy Confederate injured and sick troops. How they, at her example, followed Jesus' teaching to "love thine good to those that hate you..therefore you shall be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect".

From where did this amazing woman derive her strength to keep going? She herself claimed it was from her constant faith in her Creator. She would arise early every day in order to secure an hour of prayer, and this alongside her passionate love of hymns filled her with a love of God, that flooded over into a love for all His children.

In our day too, we have seen examples of spectacular women of different faiths and backgrounds, reaching out to others including enemies, to bring healing,compassion and love. Sadly in the last few days we have heard the tragic news of the murder in Afghanistan of Dr Karen Woo, a woman who gave up her well remunerated career and comfortable life in London, to go and heal the poor and sick of that benighted country. Blind hatred led to this sanctified life being ended, and how true are the words of her cousin Lorraine Nugent when she said; "killing Karen is like killing thousands, because of all the people she saved". One life is like a world entire, say the sages of Israel, how clearly this truth has become manifested these past few days.

Those who killed her no doubt did so because they could not conceive of goodness or worth in those who do not share the same beliefs as them. They spared the life of a co-religionist of theirs, but they could not see humanity in the eyes of a woman, devoted to the care of their people. How tragic and frightening is the power of hatred to blind the eyes and heart, and how stark a contrast between those murderers and the attitude of their victim. May God keep her in His eternal embrace, and may He bring comfort for all those that grieve her loss.

These women of valour exist all around us. Some like Irena Sendler (a Polish Catholic who despite arrest, torture and death threats, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children in the Holocaust) are rightly famed for their decency, others go unknown by all except those in their circle, but all, in the words of Peter Hitchens describing his aunt "hold up the sky".

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Forgiveness, Reconciliation & Hope

"Who is a God like you, Who pardons iniquity and overlooks transgressions for the remnant of His heritage? He does not maintain His wrath forever, for He desires kindness. He will once again show us mercy, He will suppress our iniquities" Micah 7:18-19

"To err is human to forgive is divine" said Alexander Pope. Thankfully having been created in the Divine image, we can emulate this celestial trait of forgiveness in our own lives.

Forgiveness is a testimony of human freedom. We are not doomed to endlessly react to the harm done to us by causing more harm. We are not slaves to our often understandable desire to make those who harm us suffer. We can rise above this, and forge a future free of the chains of vengeance and resentment. Forgiveness is a foundation of hope.

The two types of forgiveness I wish to explore, are God's forgiveness of our sins, and our forgiveness of the sins of our neighbours.

As Unitarians, we have historically not subscribed to the doctrine of "Original Sin", and the subsequently argued necessity of vicarious atonement, that is central to the theologies of many of our Trinitarian friends. We have instead been happy to accept the view that sincere repentance, a commitment to obeying God's commands and God's merciful grace, are more than sufficient for a person to restore any distance between ourselves and God, caused by our own sins.

Scriptural teachings such as the following, combined with reason, are strong enough supports for our understanding:

"And if My people, upon who My name is proclaimed, humble themselves and pray and seek My presence and repent of their evil ways - I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin." 2 Chronicles 7:13-14

"With charity will you remove your sin, and your iniquity by showing mercy to the poor" Daniel 4:27

"Through kindness and truth, iniquity will be forgiven, if through awe of the Lord one turns from evil" Proverbs 6

"But if you want to enter into life keep the commandments" Matthew 19:17

"And the tax collector standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying "God be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you this man went down to his house justified" Luke 18:13-14

This knowledge fills us with both a deep and enduring love of our Merciful Father, but also gives us much hope. That no matter how deep we might have fallen, no matter how distant we feel we are from God, He is there awaiting our return. Calling to us like a loving parent to turn back into His arms. Who can not be moved by Jesus' description of the joy a father feels when his wayward son returns? We shall always live with the elation, that comes with the knowledge that we can always improve.

"We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy" so says Shakespeare, and so now we must consider our obligation to forgive our fellow man.

It is my understanding that we have an obligation to forgive those who have harmed us, if they repent and seek our forgiveness. ("if your brother sins against you..if he repents, forgive him". Luke 17:3) In addition we should try and forgive even if no apology has been delivered and no repentance manifested.

What does this forgiveness entail? Clearly just saying the words "I forgive you" while harbouring resentment and dislike in your heart is not forgiveness. And if you find yourself saying "I forgive her but she can forget about me helping her in the future" or "I forgive him but if he ever asks for help, I will help, but I will remind him how he failed to help me" then you have not forgiven. To forgive is to remove all animosity and resentment towards he who harmed you, from your heart. If possible you should extend kindness and love towards the person you are forgiving. Is any of this easy? Very often it is anything but easy.

But during these times when you find it hard to forgive, remind yourself of all the times you have done wrong, all the times that you have failed to live up to your Creator's expectations, and then remember the forgiveness and blessings that God has poured upon you, and appreciate your deeply valued relationships that were maintained by your friends forgiveness of your wrongdoings. This may help you to find the strength to forgive. And if nothing else try and see the value to yourself of forgiveness. The value of removing the weight of resentment from off your shoulders.
Look at the example of others who have excelled in forgiveness. There are many famous examples of forgiveness. Learn of them and find inspiration.

We must all be future orientated, to work towards something better, and not to hold onto the grievances of the past. Life is far too short to waste precious time in reliving the animosities of the past. A determination to be unforgiving is likely to destroy the happiness of your future.

I am sure there are times and circumstances in which people feel that they can't forgive. We must not judge these people negatively, even if the person they refuse to forgive is ourselves. And I am sure that He who "knows the heart of man" will be understanding to a heart torn by pain that is not willing to forgive.

Societies in the ancient world, as well as many in our own time, have destroyed themselves through a refusal to grasp with both hands the legacy of human freedom that is manifested in the power to forgive. They have refused to see the value of mercy, the quality of which "is not strained, it dropeth as the gentle rain of heaven upon the place beneath". Many people and nations have plunged themselves and worse their children and grandchildren, into the same miseries that may have been afflicted upon them because they refuse to forgive and move into a happier future. Sadly in our day, we have seen the appalling spectacle of families torn by conflict, unwilling to forgive, being turned into "entertainment" in talk-shows that seem to revel in human misery.

May we all struggle day by day, to forgive those who wrong us or who we believe have wronged us. And may the Master of the Universe forgive His human creations for the wrongs that we have done.