Sunday, 19 December 2010

Two Songs, One Christmas Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That too is the message of Unitarian Christianity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Liberty of Choice

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

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

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

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

"not of this world" John 18:36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John White Chadwick 1814-1904

Sunday, 5 December 2010

External Image, Inner Truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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