Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Excellence of Serving.

"The servant ran towards her and said, "let me sip, if you please, a little water from your jug". She said, "Drink my lord", and quickly she lowered her jug to her hand and gave him to drink. When she finished giving him to drink, she said, "I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking" So she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water and she drew for all his camels. The man was astonished at her, reflecting silently to know whether The Lord had made his journey successful or not." Genesis 24:17-21

I am always terribly moved when hearing or reading about people whose devotion to others burns with a passionate flame that is not extinguished by any opposition and which leads them to help others to a greater extent that is warranted. This week I was reading about William Thomas, otherwise known as Gwilym Marles. Born in 1834 in the village of Brechfa in south-west Wales, this intelligent and broad spirited man studied at Carmarthen's Presbyterian College before continuing his studies at the University of Glasgow. Eventually he became minister of the Unitarian Chapel in Llwynrhydowen. This was a man of some considerable literary abilities, and his pen produced poetry, many stories and hymns. Clearly this creative energy ran in his family because his descendent was none other than the celebrated Dylan Thomas.

But above all these things he was a faithful and dedicated servant of his flock and the wider community. He dedicated himself to the education of local children and opened a grammar school for their benefit. One issue that was pressing in those days was the issue of tithes. The established Church used to collect tithes from the tenant farmers and small holders. This was generally resented, especially by the growing numbers of non-conformists who did not feel that they should have to fund the established Church. This resentment was deepened during times of hardship, because while people struggled to make ends meet the Church still collected its tithes. William steadfastly supported the farmers of Rhyd Owen, in their dispute. Eventually the law was changed so that it was the landlords who paid the tithes not their tenant farmers, a solution which was not perfect as people still questioned why anyone should be forced to fund the Anglican church.

This was not his only involvement in politics, he played a central role in supporting the Liberal Party in the parliamentary elections, against the Tories who derived their overwhelming support from the landowners. The power that such people wielded in nineteenth century Wales should not be underestimated, it took considerable courage combined with a selfless service to his flock, to take the stance he did. It did not come without repercussions. He and his congregation were turfed out of their chapel. In response to this he uttered his famous words; "They can take away the building but they will never take away the flame of our faith."

William Thomas was one of many who took to heart the teaching of our master;

"But Jesus called them to himself and said to them "you know that those who are considered leaders over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whomsoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" Mark 10:42-45

Today the concept of service, and certainly sacrifice, has fallen out of fashion. There is a scene in Barbara Streisand's Yentl (my favourite film) in which Yentl (a girl disguised as a boy in order to study) is observing Hadas, the daughter of the family she is eating with. Hadas who is in love with Yentl's friend Avigdor spends the whole scene serving her fiancée. She lays his napkin on his lap, she serves him his food, she pours his drinks and all the while Streisand sings Yentl's thoughts:

"No wonder he loves her, no wonder at all
The moment she sees him, her thought is to please him.
Before he even knows that he's hungry, she's already there with his plate.
Before his glass is even half empty she's filling it up God forbid he should wait.
Before he has the chance to tell her he's chilly, she'll go put a log on the fire.
Fulfilling his every desire.

There can be no mistake, Hadas' attitude illustrated by and clearly disliked by Streisand was expected from all women towards their husbands and in our day it is not. Have we improved? Yes and no.

When devoted service is predicated on notions of superiority then it is wrong and immoral as all were made in the divine image "male and female he created them". In our past women were viewed as inferior to men and so were expected to serve their more "important" menfolk. This attitude is regretfully still present today, although it is focused in smaller and smaller pockets. However service that is predicated on love and humility is to my mind positive. If women serve their husbands like Hadas does, and if men serve their wives in an equally devoted fashion then imagine what a spirit of harmony would fill their home. When each partner is concerned only with the happiness and desire of the other, then a home is built on the wellspring of genuine love. For to give is to love. I once heard someone point out that when Joseph focused on telling others (his brothers) about his dreams, things went very bad for him, and he ended up as an imprisoned slave. But while in prison he asked his two fellow prisoners to tell him their dreams and shortly after things went very well for him and he ended up as second only to Pharaoh. The lesson? If you want to succeed in life then make sure you focus on the dreams and needs of others, and not focus on getting them to address yours. Today so many people are far more interested in what they get out of their marriage than what they can contribute. Is there any wonder there is so much marital disharmony and divorce these days?

It was because Rebecca not only gave Abraham's servant Eliezer water to drink, but also because she went far beyond the call of duty and gave his camels to drink (quite some achievement when one considers how much camels drink) that led to her inclusion in the holy Abrahamic family. It was Ruth's devotion to her mother in law, her refusal to abandon her, that allowed her to be the originator of the Davidic line, which culminates in the King Messiah. Rebecca could have said "I am not your slave, do it yourself" but thankfully for her and for history she did not.

We must do away with the idea that to serve is demeaning. The opposite is true. To serve is elevating.

Once upon a time it was seen as a privilege and a vocation to work in this country's public sector. One would forgo the higher wages and pensions and other benefits of private sector work, in order to devote one's working life to others. How sad it is that such an ethic has vanished from many who still go by the name public servants. How dispiriting it is to read that fire fighters are planning to go on strike, on Guy Fawkes night of all nights, over a dispute concerning a small change in shift patterns. How can people think that it is correct to endanger lives as a bargaining tool? And how can such people call themselves servants of the public? There are other ways that must be tried to resolve these conflicts. It is not the population of London, many thousands of whom have worse employment terms and conditions than fire fighters, that are to blame for any grievance that exists, and their well-being must not be put at risk. Thankfully there are, according to the Telegraph at least 300 fire fighters filled with true public spirit, who will work during the strike. May the Almighty bless them and keep everybody safe.

Western individualism has been one of the greatest blessings in the history of mankind. Deriving as they do form the Judeo-Christian insistence on the worth and unique role of every human being, it has freed those societies that have embraced it, from the tyranny of oppression. It is taken as axiomatic in many countries that each citizen has the freedom to live their lives, to think for themselves, to believe what they will. But like anything else, there is a downside. We have begun to focus on self realisation to the detriment of others, a trend that can be seen in the flourishing of modern spiritualities and self help books. Spiritualities that focus almost exclusively on self discovery and personal happiness. But the truth that many religions and cultures testify, is that to find oneself one must loose oneself in devotion to others. On our own we are nothing. An infinitesimally small dot on the face of an existence too vast for us to conceptualise, and infinitely nothing before the Majesty of the Holy One. But when we extend ourselves to others, when we humble ourselves before others, setting aside our needs and desires to maximise theirs, we become part of something larger. And what we do, no one else in the world can do. A single millimetre of wire is worth nothing, but that same millimetre as part of a circuit in a defibrillator can save a life, for despite its smallness, the machine would not work without it. The same is true for us.

Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, otherwise known as Mother Teresa, a woman who's whole life was an act of total service said; "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonley and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work".

Not many can achieve what she achieved but let us remember she also taught; "There are no great things, only small things with great love. Happy are those." Daily life provides many occasions for humble servitude to others. I myself struggle to be forbearing with others. Occasions in which I am very busy and people call on me for favours, or simply those occasions when I am pestered by people, offer abundant obligations to learn patient devotion. Only this week just after such an incident I sat down and read the words of the Gospel:

"And he said to them" come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while" for there were many coming and going and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed to a deserted place in a boat by themselves. But they saw him departing and many knew him and ran there on foot from all the cities.....And Jesus when he came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, for they were like sheep having no shepherd. So he began to teach them many things." Mark 6:31-34

Clearly Jesus and his disciples wished to be alone with each other and share a private meal. They had returned from missions of preaching and healing and wished to catch up. They rowed themselves across the sea of Galilee to find a private and secluded spot. It would have been more than understandable if Jesus had asked the people to leave them alone for a while. (That is what I probably would have done). But instead he feels great compassion and love for them, and his desire to serve their needs overtakes, and he preaches to them late into the evening. And not only that, when the multitudes begin to hunger, instead of accepting the very reasonable suggestion of his disciples to send them away he said; "You give them something to eat". Beautiful, a lesson I shall try to absorb.

While I can sadly see a growth in selfishness in our society slowly damaging the bastions of service that once flourished, my feelings of sadness are much ameliorated by countless examples of selfless devotion still visible. To this end I look forward to the Pride of Britain awards soon to grace our screens.

As a new week arrives full of potential let us seek to set our own desires and needs aside, humble ourselves before others and serve them. Then we too can be a brick in the edifice of the family of Abraham.

"A commonweal of brothers,
United, great and small,
Upon our banner blazoned be
The Charter, “Each for all!”
Nor let us cease from battle,
Nor weary sheathe the sword,
Until this city is become
The city of the Lord."
William George Tarrant 1890

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Welfare Reform. Time to Celebrate?

"They sell the righteous for money, and the poor man for shoes. They trample like dust of the earth the head of the poor and they twist the judgement of the humbled" Amos 2:7

I was very happy this week to hear that The Moral Maze was back. This Radio 4 programme is a bit of a favourite of mine, for while sadly it does not delve too deeply into the issues it is discussing (and how could it, with a time slot of less than an hour) it does, however, give a good flavour of the arguments on both sides of a debate. This week the chosen subject was about the welfare cuts proposed by our coalition government, specifically the issue of universality in the provision of benefits. This combined with my reading about the 19th century Unitarian social reformer and MP John Fielden of Todmorden, got me thinking about this subject which has animated many over the past few weeks.

Firstly I have no choice but to stress that I am no economist, my mathematical skills are simply shocking as my previous teachers (and anyone who goes shopping with me) can attest. What I think is clear to all however, is that something has to be done about the large budget deficit and about the incomprehensible situation of government spending necessitating billions of pounds of borrowing to maintain. Any system in which outgoings are bigger than income is doomed to failure.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen and heard, practically on a daily basis, group after group coming out and warning of the terrible repercussions, if not an actual catastrophe, that will befall us all if their funding is cut. The impression that springs to my mind is of a nation addicted to government money. The picture is conjured of a dealer withdrawing addictive narcotics from a desperate and pleading addict, who threatens to turn nasty if he does not get what he wants. We have seen in some European countries this anger boil over into actual violence, and earlier this year innocent people died as a result of the national "fix" being taken away. Clearly cold turkey is not a method to take lightly, Cameron and Clegg be warned!!

I am also somewhat perturbed by the level of hostility (verging on open hatred) towards all who work in the banking profession who may also happen to be very wealthy. (Not helped by the continued large bonuses still present in what does not seem to be a very contrite industry). In my local paper a letter cautions against what he or she terms an "ideological divisive vendetta against the poor". Amen to that, but we also don't need an ideological divisive vendetta against the rich, after all according to our teacher Jesus they have a sufficiently tricky situation as he said "where a man's treasure is there his heart is also" Luke 12:34.

The unfortunate reality is that most of us are like those bankers! So many of us spent more than we really knew we should, often money ultimately belonging to others, that we were given on credit by banks and other providers. The solution to this problem will have to be faced by all of us. It is a collective problem and must have a collective solution. Ultimately the question comes down to this: have the Lib-Con's Con-Dem'ed the poor to a harsher future or are they taking steps that will better the lot of all in our country?

Should benefits be universal? I suppose the answer to this question depends on what you think welfare is all about. Can any society call itself civilized if it does not believe itself to have a duty of care to all within its orbit? Can justice feature in the vocabulary of a people that reject the need for the collective to ensure that all have the basic requirements of life? I think that the answer to these questions is no. Our faith in the Kingship of God should if nothing else demonstrate to us that we are only custodians of His creation. That our wealth is not truly our own but belongs to Him and that it is His will that we should use the gifts he has bestowed upon us to provide for the less fortunate the basic requirements of an honourable life. Our faith in the Fatherhood of God, should if nothing else lead us to love our fellow brothers and sisters with that active love which seeks out their well being. For what Father is happy at the indifference of His children to each-other? It was The Heavenly Father Himself, who informed us "do not stand idly by the blood of your brother" Leviticus 19:16.

But these duties devolve on us as moral individuals in reciprocal and free relationships with our fellow citizens (and the larger world) and not on the state, which is ideally only in place to protect us from the criminality within and the aggression from without. I personally regard state benefits as a necessary safety net. A way of the state ensuring that no one lacks their basic needs through no fault of their own. I believe that the state's involvement in securing this safety net is an unfortunate product of societies that fail to live up to, or are unable to live up to, their eternal missions, as it seems to me that in a perfect world, society should support the needs of those who have become unable to provide for themselves not the state. State provision erodes, even if only slightly, an essential human aspect of coexistence, those mutual bonds of kindness and responsibility that dignify us collectively and individually. Therefore it seems clear to me that government involvement in providing the needs of freely choosing human adults should be kept at a minimum. Better that obstacles that stand between people and the ability to be self supporting be removed. The many wonderful social reformers that Unitarianism has produced such as the inspiring MP John Fielden had the removal of these obstacles firmly in mind when pursuing their social reforms. He battled to prevent industrialists from exploiting their workers, for example by arguing for the introduction of a minimum wage and and he championed the restricting of hours that workers could be forced to work. His efforts culminated in the 1847 Factory Act. During the difficult times caused by the Cotton Riots, he paid workers who had lost their jobs, to build roads and public buildings. In these ways and more he ensured that work was a viable path to a better and more prosperous life. Could we in the 21st century not learn from his endeavours?

So what are the problems with universal benefits? The following spring to my mind as being the main drawbacks of such an approach:

1) Universal benefits deplete the finite resources of money/help available, by offering them to people who simply do not require them. In most other walks of life, people would distribute their money by considering the greatest need of the potential recipient. This universalism is seemingly not interested in practicality or utility but on exclusively ideological grounds. Extremely wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, or countries with small populations like Sweden and Finland, better still, small countries that are also very wealthy like Kuwait or UAE, can afford to have practical and highly effecient universal benefits and services. Countries like ours that are wealthy but not excessively so and who have large populations simply can not have universal provision. This strikes me as logical but I am no economist and would welcome an informed refutation from those who disagree.

2) Making benefits universal sends out the message that it is the state that has the prime obligation to provide for the needs of the people, and not the people themselves. This leads to both an entitlement culture that infantilizes people and a selfish culture were people are concerned only about their needs and feel that the needs of others should be taken care of by the state. In such a society people can neglect the neighbour next door in the mistaken belief that "it has nothing to do with me". Does anyone else see the irony of a country that believes it is the personal duty of its citizens to provide money to ease the plight of the poor abroad but who feel it is the duty of the state to look after the unfortunate of its own land? Even the coalition has said it will maintain the same budget for overseas aid, while cutting the funding for its own poor. Is this not a national portrayal of Dickens' Mrs Jellyby?

Some of the arguments against the removal of the universal principle that need to be considered and I believe refuted, are as follows:

Services exclusively for poor people will be poor services! This is non-sequitur. There are many charitable services for the exclusive benefit of the poor, that do a fantastic job, and put the state sector for shame. All that is needed is resolve and a genuinely committed group of people. People who see public service as a vocation and not a career.

That services for the exclusive use of the unfortunate would stigmatise them. This is simply a failure of imagination. There are many ways to provide for the needs of people and at the same time maintain their self respect and innate dignity. A beautiful scene from the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford leaps to mind. The ladies of Cranford come up with a scheme to provide the finances that are needed by their dear friend Miss Matty. They each give money which is then presented to the lady in question by a third party who claims that it is rightfully hers as there was an error in the bank! (See even in those days banks still made mistakes). In this way they support their friend and neighbour while doing nothing to damage her pride and dignity. A modern example is the huge markets in Jerusalem before the expensive festival of Passover, that give away free food, wine, shoes, clothes to the poor of the Holy City, but which looks like any other market. People are given vouchers so that they can "purchase" their products like anyone else.

The removal of the universal principle would make people too individualistic and lead them to have no regard for the wider society or so the argument goes. I think the opposite is true. If a benefit is for everyone then it is simply something owed to us all by virtue of being citizens. Just like the provision of electricity, gas and water to all our homes does not make us feel like we are somehow responsible for all our neighbours and neither does the provision of any welfare payments. However if the provision was exclusively for those in need, then those who's taxes pay for it but who do not benefit directly from it, would have a clearer sense that we all have a duty of care to all our fellow human beings. The benefits themselves would proclaim the duty of the affluent for the poor.

On the other hand I do recognise the value of state funding in certain aspects of national life. There are things which are fundamental to the success and survival of the whole country which therfore are best provided by central funding (if not central control), such as basic education. There are also national resources which all can benefit from, and which extend throughout the length and breadth of the realm such as railways, roads which would benefit from central funding. Which is why I am not supportive of the governments plans, mentioned in the Sunday Telegraph, to sell state owned forests. This is a retrograde step that will in time lead to a loss of a precious natural and national resource. I also see some benefit in the state, acting as the public voice of our society, funding institutions to a lesser or greater degree, which are communally viewed as valuable, such as marriage.

I just can't help feeling that the greater solution to our problems lies in the reinvigoration of society and community in the horizontal bonds of nationhood. I mean there is something wrong with us all when we prevent those who, for all sorts of reasons, are reduced to total poverty, from begging, while feeling little aversion to grown men earning millions of pounds for being good at the game of football!! And yes while there are people who are in reduced circumstances because of their own incorrect choices and behaviour or because the moral framework of their lives have been dissolved through the post-modern privatisation of morality, this is not an excuse for us to wash our hands of them and blindly continue to horde up our treasure in a place that moth and rust destroy and theives break in and steal" Matthew 6:19 (Babylonian Talmud Bava Basra 11a). Instead we should remember the teachings of he who had not a place to rest his head who taught "those who are healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I do not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" Mark 2:17

Hard times are most certainly coming for many people, even if it is only for a short time, let us stand in the breach and work to create that benevolent society that is in our power to do.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Compartmentalising Ethics & Morals.

"Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One. You shall love The Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and will all your strength (resources). And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart, You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise." Deuteronomy 6:4-8

There is a particular prayer in James Martineau's "Home Prayers with Two Services for Public Worship" 1891, that always stirs my emotions:

"Eternal God, who committest to us the swift and solemn trust of life; since we know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of Thy Holy will; not waiting for to-morrow but yielding to-day. Lay to rest, by the persuasion of thy Spirit, the resistance of our passion, indolence or fear. Consecrate with thy presence the way our feet may go; and the humblest work will shine, and the roughest places be made plain. Lift us above unrighteous anger and mistrust into faith and hope and charity, by a simple and steadfast reliance on thy sure will: and so may we be modest in our time of wealth , patient under disappointment, ready for danger, serene in death. "

This prayer speaks to me of the need to see our religious life as completely part of, and wholly intertwined with, the whole of our life. It speaks against the tendency to compartmentalise our religious duties. To limit our duties of faith to both God and man, to a box marked "religion" to be opened one day in seven whilst inside a Church.

This attitude, which I think must be a product of a modern society which feels that it has to make appointments for everything, undermines what I think is the entire purpose of religion, to elevate and sanctify the human person and society, through connection with, and obedience to, God.

I came across an example of this while watching a debate on Youtube entitled "Is Islam a Religion of Peace". One of the supporters of that motion Zeba Khan argued that the many moderate Muslims in the world who were completely opposed to both extremism and terrorism, were just as "pious" as those in extremist organisations as demonstrated by the fact that they prayed the same number of prayers, attended the same number of services. Now while I accept that the majority moderate Muslims are indeed as pious as the minority of extremists, I took issue with her suggestion that in Islam religiosity can me measured specifically by ritual observances. This is generally speaking not the case. Islam like Judaism measure piety and religiosity primarily by submission to an entire body of religious law that encompasses all of life. One may find it hard to call oneself a practising Jew or Muslim if one observes the ritual food laws but neglects to give charity to the poor. Or if one fasts at the appropriate times but does not refrain from lending money on interest. One can see a criticism of this in the words of Jesus to some of the Pharisaic scholars of his day, who were meticulous in their devotion to the commandments between man and God, but were negligent of the equally sacred duty to their neighbours.

Can the same be said of Christianity? And Unitarian Christianity specifically? Is a Christian's piety to be measured by how often he or she goes to church? I think not. I don't think that I am exaggerating when I say that some of the most decent, Godly Christians I have known are not regular church goers, and sadly some of the meanest Christians I have known, were never to be found missing from the pews of their place of worship. And for Unitarians specifically, who's devotion to God comes primarily from living correctly, and not correct belief, a life in which faith is lived holistically is of central importance.

James Martineau saw it as the duty of every person from the highest in the land to the lowest, to live their faith. To have their duties to man and God define the purpose of their lives. In a prayer for the monarch of his day he summed up his view in the following way:

"The world and its fullness are thine: our portion thereof may we hold, not in wanton self-will, but reverently, as of thee; making it the strong-hold of right, the refuge of the oppressed, and the moderator of lawless ambition. Crown thy servant Victoria, our Queen, with every personal and princely blessing. Higher than the eminence of her station raise her by the braces of Thy Spirit: and may the glory of her rule be in the simplicity of her obedience, Enrich the members of her house with inward and outward good. Make all who speak or act for this nation true organs of thine equity. that through their wisdom and faithfulness thou mayest be our Lawgiver and Judge. And let it be that, as with the people so with the chiefs, as with the servant so with the master as with the buyer so with the seller, all may know thee as weighing the path of the just; that righteousness may be the girdle of our power.

In our day our own Queen is defined by what she sees is her solemn duty, promised before God, to lead our nation righteously. Can our politicians say the same? I hope so.

A realm of life were people of faith sometimes feel permitted to set aside or adapt their moral principles is the workplace. There is a common beleif in this area, that ends justify the means. Dishonest or crafty measures are seen as acceptable, even by people who would never consider such an attitude in any other walk of life. They seem to follow the maxim expressed by Mr Thornton to Mr Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South;

"Sound business sense Mr Hale, and I can't operate under any other moral law. I am not running a charitable institution".

I myself have witnessed this attitude first hand. The University I have worked in for the past 14 years has recently decided that it must save money. To do this it contracted the cleaning to a company that offered the lowest tender. Sadly despite going for the cheap solution the university still demands the highest standards of cleaning, and as a result the company is putting unbearable pressure on the cleaning staff, making threats and taking away their breaks and using disciplinaries instead of making any necessary redundancies. The staff, many of them Polish, are united together in fighting these abuses despite being paid no more than the minimum wage. And yet the university which prides itself on having a Christian ethos, seemingly turns a blind eye to the exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable staff in its orbit. No doubt like Mr Thornton they only care about "sound business sense".

Another area where moral values often become neglected in the pursuit of potentially valuable ends is science. It is often assumed that if the ends are usefull, then we should all turn a blind eye to the wrong that is done to achieve it. The same can sadly be said to be a common philosophy in the world of politics.

But other than knowing that we are obeying our Father in heaven, what advantage is there in living our faith in every area of our life? Is their a, I hesitate to use the word, practical benefit to doing so? I think that there is. When we live our lives with the constant awareness that each moment provides us an opportunity to serve the Lord of the Universe, we gain two prime advantages.

1) We suffuse our daily lives with purpose and meaning.
2) We experience the exhilaration and satisfaction of constant challenge and potential for growth.

The first is beautifully expressed in the words of the hymn, "Teach me my God and King"

"Teach me my God and King
In all things thee to see.
And what I do in anything
to do it as for Thee.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine.
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold
For that which God does touch and own
Cannot for less be told"

So next time one is ironing a pile of laundry for the family, include God! Thank Him for having a family for whom to iron, and reflect his love by ironing with the intent to bring the pleasure of freshly pressed clothes to your loved ones. Ironing can be an act of worship and not an unpleasant chore. Of course while one will without doubt feel a great happiness and satisfaction by constantly serving God one must not fall into the trap of pride but instead follow the teaching of our master Jesus when he taught:

"So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded say "we are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do" Luke 17:10

The advantage of constant challenge, means that in every moment of every day, at home or at play, we can make a free willed choice to do what is right, what our conscience tells us is right. If you failed in the morning, you have more opportunities in the afternoon. It is possible that at the end of each day, you can look back and feel a warmth of satisfaction knowing that you "passed" many of the tests that came your way during the day. And what ever happens in your life this ability to grow is not taken away from you.

I for one will try and take these lessons away with me for this coming week. I shall try and make my faith a seamless garment to accompany me in the privacy of my home, on the street and the workplace. At times I will fail, but I relish the challenge.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Songs of Praise

"Give thanks to the Lord, declare His Name; make His acts known among the nations. Sing to Him, make music to Him, speak of all His wonders. Glory in His holy Name; may the heart of those who seek the Lord be glad." 1 Chronicles 16:8-10

I have to say I am a great enthusiast for hymns. And despite what might be a crime against music and human ears, I receive great joy by singing them. (Luckily God gave me my voice, and so surely He can't complain!) And I have a particular soft spot for a good old traditional English hymn sung by an awe inspiring traditional choir. I like the upbeat ones that blow the feelings of melancholy away but also the quiet moving ones that take the breath away as they flood one with feelings of deep spirituality. And who can doubt the joy that comes from people singing together? I am sure some evolutionary reason has been offered for why human beings derive such pleasure from communal singing, but I personally believe that it is the soul of man yearning to be part of something bigger than itself that is the ultimate reason for that sublime pleasure. And the power of voices united together as one, in praise of the Only One, does not fail to reduce me to tears of spiritual ecstasy. One of my favourite hymns is "Come Down, O Love Divine".

"Come down O love divine
Seek thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing:
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing."

How unutterably amazing it is, that the Creator of the cosmos, the Author of existence itself, is knowable to us. That we can bind our lives to Him. He who sustains the nucleus of an atom in a star millions of light years away, is at this moment sustaining our lives, comforting us and listening to our thoughts and prayers. How he seeks to bind our souls to His ultimate reality and set them ablaze with a passion to emulate His goodness, and draw ever closer to him. There can be little doubt about the power of a human heart inflamed with religious passion. Like all "fire" however, this can either bring warmth and illumination to millions or ignite conflagrations that destroy almost without control. This danger is ever present and must be mitigated against.

"O let it freely burn.
Till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light,
Shine ever on my sight
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming"

If one has ever been blessed to spend time in the presence of a person who has devoted their life to God, who's relationship to The Holy One is passionate and deep, the more one realises that the pleasures of this world (as beautiful and important as they are) can never create that inner satisfaction that only comes when one's life is lived illuminated by the awareness of God's presence. Happiness, tranquillity and some ethereal quality seems to shine from their face in a minor reflection of what was reported in the Bible concerning Moses and Jesus:

"When the Children of Israel saw Moses' face, that Moses' face had become radiant" Exodus 34:35. "And he (Jesus) was transfigured before them, his face shone like the son"Matthew 17:2.

Could such a person demean him or herself as can so often be seen on reality TV, for the sake of transitory fame, money or a celebrity lifestyle? Let alone violate the will of their Father in Heaven to chase after what is ultimately meaningless?

"Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become my inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart
Which takes the humbler part,
And o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing"

Are humility and charity related? It is often the case that the most charitable people are also the most humble but is this cause and effect or simply coincidence? What is the prime motivation behind loving kindness? In my opinion it is a focus on the needs of others and a desire to help them. The charitable person gives less thought to himself and his needs and dedicates himself to his fellow man as a result. He or she is willing to suffer the discomfort and occasional unpleasantness that serving others can induce. She is willing to get up out of a warm and cosy bed early on a freezing winter morning, to go and help an irritable elderly neighbour. A person who is focused on him or herself, on his needs and comforts, who feels others should be serving him will find it difficult to be charitable. Someone who believes herself too important to lower herself to having to suffer the ingratitude of others will not excel in charity. So yes true lowliness of heart is absolutely vital to an outward vesture of charity. But what prevents someone from feeling that he is worth more than someone else? To recognise and be cognizant of one's shortcomings and to never forget that as individuals we each have a unique set of influences and inherent traits, and that God does not compare us to each other, but demands from us only the best we can do, would go along way to help diminish that sense of arrogant self importance. Who am I to judge another as being less that me? Perhaps my neighbour, despite his flaws, is living up to what God expects from him while I might be failing to do what God expects from me. A beautiful Jewish law illustrates the inherent, equal value of us all. Murder is one of three cardinal sins that a person is required to die before transgressing. So even if a King is asked to save his life by taking the life of a reprehensible peasant, he should die before doing so. To judge others as less than ourselves is to deny the Fatherhood of God.

"And so the yearning strong,
With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
Till we become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling."

Let us make ourselves into temples of the Eternal Living God. What would we call our world if the Divine traits of compassion, mercy, love, fairness, justice, lovingkindness shone bright in the hearts of humankind? Well let us let our master Jesus teach 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 17:21.

The Kingdom of God that is what we would call it, and it is within us, it is up to us to allow Him to rule in our hearts.

"God be in my head, and in my understanding
God be in my eyes and in my looking
God be in my mouth and in my speaking
God be in my heart and in my thinking
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

As Hillel said: "If not now when". Let us start from this moment to live with the full awareness of God's presence in our life and brick by brick we will build a holy edifice a "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land".

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Courage to Stand Alone.

"The Lord said to Abram, "Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse' and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" Genesis 12:1-4

Abraham was the iconic lonely man of faith. Known as the Hebrew, from the word "Ivri" the other-sider. He was steadfast in maintaining that there is but One God. And that it is to this God alone that it is correct to direct prayers and worship. He left his home and family, his country and birthplace to follow the command of the Holy One. Ultimately a nation grew from his offspring and the faith that he uniquely maintained grew, and now hundreds of millions of people have their lives shaped and nourished by it.

Many followed in Abraham's footsteps throughout the millennia and maintained their faith in the face of overwhelming opposition, and like Abraham, often served as a blessing to all those around them. Many such as Jesus of Nazareth, Rabbi Akiva, Michael Servetus and Ferenc David were murdered as a result of their convictions. But one person who's life strikes a particular resonance for me, is the wonderful Maria Popple.

This courageous woman was born in Welton, a small village in Yorkshire to a well respected family. Her father was the local Vicar, and was held in good esteem. As a young girl Maria was a pious attendee in her father's church. The entire family was a picture of what was later in Victorian times, to be considered the ideal. But things were not quite so perfect as Maria harboured doubts. Doubts that came about as a result of reading that pillar of UK Unitarian thought, Thomas Belsham's "Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey".

In her words this book had the effect such that "I could not avoid being struck with the arguments drawn both from reason and Scripture, though prejudice did not then allow them their due weight. An impression was made never to be erased; though perhaps at first, in proportion as the force of truth sank deeper, the more fearful and reluctant I was to acknowledge it"

Like many people who begin to lose faith in the received wisdom of their society or family, Maria faced the internal wrestling which has the power to make one feel that one's world is falling apart. How much more so if these doubts occur in societies which view nonconformity as a deplorable heresy! But where many people simply out of fear refuse to be lead where their conscience leads, and revert to a cognitive dissonance and denial, Maria kept on investigating and questioning as she described;

"I met with other works on the same subject. As I read these I began to take a delight in them. They seemed to speak the simple language of the Gospel; and they taught me to consider the importance of truth, and the obligation all are under to examine the Scriptures and think for themselves. I thank God that my attention was thus early led to this important subject. Whatever anxiety I may have experienced in the inquiry has been fully compensated by the result. My persuasion of the truth of Christianity, my admiration of its beauty and simplicity, are such, that as a Unitarian Christian, I could wish that all were as I am. Make me ever grateful to Thee, O my Heavenly Father, that in my early years, through the appointment of Thy guiding hand, I was disentangled from inextricable and perplexing mazes, and led to the simple faith of Jesus as it is delivered in the Scriptures, to the acknowledgement of Thee, the only true God, and of Jesus whom Thou hast send."

It was around 1817 that Maria embraced such unpopular beliefs, and for years she kept them completely to herself. For 10 years she had no one with which to share her faith, no one with whom she could worship in like fashion. As such she can serve as an inspiration for those who find themselves far from a suitable place of worship. Like Joseph in Egypt or Esther in the palace of Susa, she was alone with God. But she had her ways to find comfort;

"Having been long accustomed to dwell with admiration on the exalted piety and usefulness of Lindsey, Priestley, and other eminent Unitarians, whose biographies we possess, I have formed within my own mind a little world of my own, within which (when oppressed by the consciousness of knowing no human being with whom I can hold a perfect communion of sentiment on important religious subjects) I can retire for awhile and escape the feeling of solitariness. I have sympathised in all their researches after truth, in their sufferings for its sake, and in the unspeakable happiness they derived from that simple and despised form of Christianity which they embraced. One glorious consolation indeed remains, that if I emulate their virtues, if their God be indeed my God, if my life and my death be like theirs, I shall meet them thereafter and taste with them that communion of spirit which can not be portion here"

I do not think that such a sentiment is so alien from the hearts of many a Unitarian Christian in our own generation, who often struggle to find a congregation to which to belong. But despair is out of the question. God can be accessed by all, and in any place. Nevertheless the beautiful words of Maria Popple are particularly relevant;

"Great God! if it should not be permitted me ever to associate with those who believe as I believe, or to share in the privileges of Christian worship possessed by them, grant that I may at least profit by the trial thus allotted me, and, meekly bowing to Thy decrees, may confess and adore Thee, without constraint, as the only God over all, blessed for ever!"

But courage would not allow any fears from restricting Maria from living a life true to her beliefs. And in 1827 she publicly declared herself a Unitarian, and in an even braver move, gave up attending her father's place of worship, the parish church, and then despite risking the ire of her fellow village folk, she stove to establish a place of worship. If there was no congregation, then she would build one! For as they say in the classics "If you build it, he will come":-) And so in 1837 a room was designated as Welton's Unitarian Chapel and every Sunday a small congregation would gather to pray and sing praises to the Only Holy. Not content to rest with that, she then set up a school, and commissioned a teacher. Like Abraham, her fortitude in standing alone in the defence of truth, brought blessings to those around her.

In our day, adhering to almost any religious belief, does not exclude one from society and as such, the fears that where so prevalent to Maria Popple may no longer be common. But while specifics change, general situations do not.

Today there are received wisdoms as much as then, mostly of a secular kind, but no less intolerant than those of history. And it often requires a great deal of courage to dissent from them let alone challenge them. There are the petty orthodoxies that one comes across in environments such as workplaces, and then there are those which are spread throughout society. Now like then, one can face vilification and rejection for not assenting to the majority view. Today I read about David Hallam, a Methodist preacher in Birmingham, who has taken a stand against what he believes is the injustice of the Methodist Church's decision to boycott Israeli goods. To take up such an unfashionable cause, let alone to do so by challenging his own church, is no small thing, and whatever one thinks of his stance, his courage and principle is admirable, and I wish him well.

But the courage to stand alone, can and I believe should, feature in one's everyday life. For example our master Jesus teaches us "And whoever says to his brother "raca"shall be in danger of the council, but whoever says "you fool"shall be in danger of Gehenna" Matthew 5:22. And his brother taught "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law, But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge" James 4:11. This is echoed in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; "Thou shalt not speak evil; thou shalt not bear malice, thou shalt not be double-minded or double-tongued, for to be double tongued is the snare of death" Didache 2:4-5. And of course all of this is an exhortation to obey God's command to; "Thou shall not go as a gossiper amongst thy people" Leviticus 19:16.

But we all know that on a daily basis when gathered with our friends, family or colleagues conversations often steer themselves to discussing the flaws and faults of others. And if my readers are anything like me, an unstoppable chatterbox, it can be so hard to resit the temptation to join in and offer a negative opinion about the unfortunate subject of the discussion. But we should know, and most of us know in our hearts, that this is wrong and our God does not appreciate our demeaning, even in speech, the honour of our fellow man. And so one should hold his tongue. This might offer us the opportunity to exercise the courage to stand alone. To keep silent or to leave a gathering that has descended to such conversation, despite perhaps the embarrassment or mockery that can ensue. Think of it as a challenge. For me it is not an easy one, and I am not yet too successful at living up to it.

Finally I finish with another brave act of lone courage. In my town a few months back a local jeweller's shop was attacked on several occasions, brazenly by the light of day. One lady working in a health food shop across the street, seeing this disgraceful violation of the peace of a small town and the livelihood of a hard working jeweller, decided to take action. Launching a bottle of cod-liver oil capsules at the head of the thief, thereby disrupting their robbery, she then proceeded to give chase waving a broom! She was not one to wait for others to act, or to absolve herself of our common responsibility to our community. And without doubt she was the correct subject of praise.

Let us all exercise the courage to follow our convictions, to be honest with others and most importantly with ourselves and not just follow the crowd, and perhaps then we too can be a vector of blessings in our own small way.