Sunday, 28 November 2010

Expectation and Dedication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Jackson was correct when he sang:

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

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

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Youthful Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus taught:

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

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

Saturday, 13 November 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Be Thou My Vision

"I have set the Lord before me always; because He is at my right hand, I shall not falter...You will make known to me the path of life, the fullness of joys in Your presence, the delights that are in Your right hand for all eternity" Psalm 16:8-11

It was often thought that the non subscription of Unitarian Christians to the doctrine of the Trinity, somehow striped our faith of warmth and mystery. It is assumed that rejecting a doctrine that "humanises" God, that brings Him amoungst us in humility, results in a conception of God that is cold and distant and as far as can be, from the passionate love that results from an awareness that God became like us to feel our suffering and who died to save us. Well I could not but disagree most strongly with this. Methodists we may not be, but we need not lack the ecstasy that nearness to God can produce.

The words and tune of the beautiful Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision" (Rop tú mo Baile) is so redolent of that personal relationship to God, which is a privilege to all who happen to embrace it.

"Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light."

We live in very busy times, and often we have so very little time to spend with our loved ones let alone ourselves. How often do most of us sit quietly with no distractions and simply be alone with our thoughts? I am often struck looking back over a day, to see how every moment was filled with sound, either the radio, tv, music or conversation. As a society we have lost the love and awareness of silence, something our forebears would have found very strange and wanting about us.

"True silence ... is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment." William Penn, 1699 (I discovered this quote on the beautiful Hay Quaker blog).

But we should most certainly pause, to quietly reflect and become aware that God is constantly with us. He is never far from us. Whether we are asleep or awake, working or at rest, He who neither slumbers or sleeps is never distant. In those moments when sadness or fear overcome us, or when our hearts are bursting with happiness, we need only close our eyes and direct our thoughts to the Eternal, and there a connection is made. If only we could attain the wish expressed in the original Gaelic version of Be Thou my Vision:

"Rop tú mo scrútain i l-ló 's i n-aidche;
rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche."
(Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.)

Aled Jones in his book "Forty Favourite Hymns" likes this hymn as he feels that it personalises God, and makes us want Him in our lives. Very true, and of course He is always in our lives He is the breath that sustains our souls, but like Hagar in the wilderness, we just have to have our eyes opened.

"Be thou my wisdom, thou my true word,
I ever with thee and thou with me Lord;
Thou my great Father, I thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one."

Closeness to God, however, is a reciprocal relationship. We must be ever with Him just as He is always with us. But how is this to be accomplished? James Martineau expressed this question in the most sublime way "How should man that is born as the wild ass's colt stretch his wisdom to Thee:-to Thee, save to Thyself, Unsearchable? What connection can we possible have with He who said "as high as the heavens over the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts"Isaiah 55:9. Well I believe there is more than one answer to this question, more than one way to come close to His Majesty, but for me the prime answer can be found in the Hebrew word "Mitzvah" (commandment). This word contains the root"to be found", for it is ultimately when we follow God's commands that we find our greatest connection to Him.

Imagine that your spouse for his or her birthday, would really love a rare book. Imagine yourself arriving at the book-store to buy the gift only to discover that it is out of stock. Now you have a choice. To pop into the next store and buy a gift that you personally would like to give as you feel it is better, or traipse across town in the rain or snow on the off chance that they will have the book elsewhere. If you choose to sacrifice your comfort and your own will, in order to get the present that your spouse wants, you have bound yourself to him/her. Their will has become your will. The same is true of our relationship with the Almighty. God needs nothing, but when we obey His will we have bound ourselves up with Him and the sense of tranquillity this brings is not describable by mere words. Our teacher's brother said it better than I ever could:

"But he who looks into the perfect Law of liberty, and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does." James 1:25

"Be thou my battle shield, sword for the fight;
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight;
Thou my soul's shelter, thou my high tower:
Raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power."

At times of crisis or concern the potential to draw close to God is great. But one need not wait for tribulations to come upon one. Each and ever day offers us the opportunity to place our trust completely in the hands of our Heavenly Father. It is not an exaggeration to say that deep seated trust in God was Jesus' central teaching. In almost every page of the Gospels, Jesus calls people to the realisation that in God alone we find our welfare. The power of the Almighty to comfort us and reassure us in times of hardness or worry, is infinite. I myself have had during my life moments of complete surrender to God, where I had placed myself entirely in His hands and trusted in Him to do with me what He saw fit. The feeling of God's embrace was palpable. Sadly as always distractions come along and that level of surrender is lost. This trust is not a reason for inaction, on the contrary it places our actions in their wider and truer context.
Many of Jesus' teachings on trust, can be found echoed in the rest of the Bible and in Jewish writings for example:

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will, But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31

"Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, "Not even a sparrow perishes without the will of Heaven, how much less the son of man." Jerusalem Talmud.

Relying on God when we are challenged preserves, in the words of the hymn, our dignity. Because the knowledge of God's embrace keeps us distant from rage, from cowardice and from lashing out against others. And we need not let the immensity of God's reality, His majesty and glory serve as a barrier to our feeling His personal providence. For He Himself told us through one of His prophets;

"For thus said the exalted an uplifted One, Who abides forever and Whose Name is holy: I abide in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite." Isaiah 57:15

"Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise:
Thou mine inheritance now and always;
Thou and thou only first in my heart;
High King of Heaven, my treasure thou art."

We need no intercessor. We need no-one's permission. When we want, in the privacy of our own heart, even under the boot of a tyrant, we can turn to the King of Heaven.

"The Lord is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely" Psalm 145:18

The words of that Psalm are clear enough. God is close to ALL. Male and female, child and adult, black or white, homosexual or heterosexual. With one condition, that we call upon Him with sincerity. Nothing in our lives, not our possessions, families or the praise of friends can replicate the constant and unchanging love of our Creator for us. The Gaelic version of the the previous verse uses a beautiful expression:

"Rop tussu t' áenur m' urrann úais amra:
ní chuinngim daíne ná maíne marba."
(Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.)

Lifeless wealth! A marvellous phrase in contradistinction to that holy wealth which is animated with a life so vibrant.

So yes we Unitarians may have been, and may still be, a little bit cerebral, a little bit "bookish" but there is nothing in our faith that prevents us from securing ourselves tightly to our Rock of Ages.

I leave the final words of this post to the essayist Charles Lamb in a letter to his friend, which I believe so eloquently encapsulate what we need know about our relationship with the Divine:

"Friends fall off, they change, they go away, they die. But God is everlasting and incapable of change; and to Him we may look with cheerful, unpresumptious hope, while we discharge the duties of life. Humble yourself before God, cast out the selfish principle, wait in patience, do good in every way you can to all sorts of people, never neglect a duty though a small one, praise God for all, and see His hand in all things: and he will in time raise you up many friends - or be Himself instead an unchanging friend. God bless you." Charles Lamb 1775-1834