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.

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