Saturday, 24 December 2011

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.

"And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall thy light arise in darkness and thine obscurity be as the noonday. And the Lord shall guide thee continually and satisfy thy soul." Isaiah 58:10-11

'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens is a personal favourite of mine, and of many other people too. I enjoy reading it each year, and watching the many versions of it on television or dvd, including it has to be said, the wonderful 'Muppet Christmas Carol'. To me the story encapsulates the very essence of Christian faith, especially as understood by Unitarians. So profound are the teachings of this great faith that we, even now after two millennia, pause once a year to remember and celebrate the birth of its originator, Jesus of Nazareth.

To me the fundamentals of the Nazarene's teachings are:

Love of God,
Love of Humankind

Most of Charles Dickens' writings are rich with themes that explore these fundamentals, and 'A Christmas Carol' is perhaps the richest.

During one very beautiful exchange in the book, Scrooge's nephew while seeking to persuade his uncle of the merits of the Christmas season, and the values it embodies so eloquently deliverers a most moving of speeches:

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,' returned the nephew. 'Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

It took the visit of three spirits, four if you include the ghost of Marley to make Scrooge agree with the above passage, turn his life around, and for him always to keep at the forefront of his mind the advice, given by Marley, advice that is a relevant now as when it was written:

"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, where, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."

We may not be as miserly and bitter as Ebenezer Scrooge was before his apparitional visitations. However, many of us can perhaps identify areas of our lives or relationships where we may profoundly lack either the love of God, or the love of our neighbour that a true love of God should engender. Do we put our needs and desires ahead of all else, or do we recognise that we share this world with countless others and an existence with the Ultimate Existence? Are we like the biblical Joseph before his descent to Egyptian slavery and imprisonment saying to others "Hear I pray you this dream which I have dreamed" or do we, also like Joseph, shortly before his assent to greatness say to others about their dreams "tell it me, I pray you".

Whatever our failings we can have hope in the Good News that Jesus' brought, that change is possible, that goodness is within our grasp, and that like Scrooge we can turn away from the negativity in our lives and reach out and take hold of that which is our true life.

One man who honoured Christmas and the message that the babe in the manger would bring to the world was the cobbler and worshipper at the High Street Unitarian Chapel in old Portsmouth, John Pounds. I heard the following reading by R E Jayne, at our chapel's carol service this evening and it spoke deeply to me therefore I would like to share it:

"John Pounds always celebrated Christmas with a feast, humble in its dishes, but lavish beyond words in its spirit of love and goodwill, at which all his neighbours were welcome. He was a famous cook, but most famous as maker of Christmas puddings. Every year he would make one tremendous plum pudding; and then on Christmas day he kept open house; anyone who cared to look in could have a taste of the pudding until it had all gone. No jovial baron of olden times, or generous hearted lord of the manor, ever dispensed Christmas fare to the people on his estate with greater goodwill than this poor cobbler, when he cut and handed round to his visitors their slices of his only plum pudding. As Charles Dickens said of the converted miser Scrooge, so it may be recorded of John Pounds. "He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." He did not commemorate the birth of Christ in selfishness, but in a 'a more excellent way,' by feeding the hungry who were poorer even than himself, and by bringing happiness and laughter into the lives of the people, and especially the little children of the squalid streets and alleys of old Portsmouth."

At this time of year when lights of rededication to ancient faith blaze in the windows of those observing Hanukkah, and the sounds of carols telling the story of that humble stable in little Bethlehem all those years ago drift on the evening breeze, there is a palpable magic in the air that can remind us to re-commit to our true treasure, our true gifts, and that hopefully will inspire us to share it with others now and in the year to come.

May God bless you all, and may your Christmases be filled with happiness, health and holiness.

Monday, 21 November 2011

When Business Was Good

"In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall make straight thy paths" Proverbs 3:6

I am excitedly looking forward to Ian Hislop's programme "When Bankers were Good" this coming Tuesday evening on BBC Two, featuring as it does some wonderful, philanthropic, Victorian men and women who understood that divine service, ethics and morality apply in all areas of life including the hurly burly world of business and from whom our modern society can learn a thing or two. I believe that some of those to be featured in the programme were Unitarians which provides some added interest for me.

Reading about this programme reminded me of a biography that I have recently read, about a man who Florence Nightingale referred to as: "One of God's best and greatest sons" namely William Rathbone VI

William was born in 1819 to the prominent mercantile, banking and political Rathbone family (who had become Unitarians, albeit still valuing their Quaker heritage, since William Rathbone IV moved from Quakerism to Unitarianism). At an early age he came under the influence of the Rev J.H. Thom whose views regarding the responsibilities of the wealthy towards the poor, were to shape William's whole life thereafter. Rev J.H Thom had characteristically said:

"What we are as Christians may be judged from what we suffer the poor around us to be."

William took such teachings to heart and began a life of the greatest philanthropy and public good, the effects of which continue to be felt right down to our own age. The family's existing wealth was only augmented by William's shrewd and successful business activities opening as he did branches in Canton and Shanghai and diversifying into ship-owning. Being aware as he was, from a very early age, that people often sadly decline in generosity as their wealth increases, he set for himself a principle by which at first a tenth of his income would go to the furtherance of public good, and then at every increase of his earnings there would be a subsequent increase in the proportion of money given away, until eventually the proportion reached five-tenths, and then subsequent to this, all further increase in income should go to the service of benevolence. He himself summed up this attitude when he described surplus wealth, after a person had provided for the reasonable needs of himself and his family, as:

"a trust for which he owes an account to himself, to his fellow-men, and to God; it is not an absolute freehold which he may use solely for personal enjoyment and indulgence."

He also knew the other scourges that wealth could bring in its wake, and so he took it upon himself to continue his father's efforts to abolish bribery and corruption.

William was no stranger to the needs of Liverpool's disadvantaged citizens, and his honour and prestige did not stop him from house-to-house visits of the poor during which he saw first-hand the misery in which many of them lived, which only served to strengthen his resolve to use his affluence and influence to bring alleviation to the problems he saw.

In 1859 his life was rocked by the illness and death of his wife Lucretia. His observation of and gratitude for the care given to his wife by a nurse, Mary Robinson, led him to desire the same standard of care for the poor of Liverpool. To this end he engaged, at his own expense, a nurse to work in the most disadvantaged districts and he laboured tirelessly to establish in 1862 the Liverpool Training School and Home for Nurses which set in place a district nursing scheme which eventually spread throughout the entire country. Not yet satisfied, he investigated and became increasingly saddened by the state of care at the great infirmary at Liverpool Workhouse and successfully strove to better the nursing practices there.

In 1868 he entered Parliament as a Liberal MP where he worked at reforming local government and specifically local taxation, efforts which significantly contributed to the Local Government acts of 1888 and 1894

William's other great and generous endeavour and a central component of his lasting legacy, was his involvement in the foundation of University College Liverpool in 1882 and the University College of North Wales in 1884, now known as Liverpool University and Bangor University respectively, a natural outgrowth of his belief, a belief that was strongly held by many 19th century philanthropists and reformers, and still held today, that a good education is one of the best and most sustainable routes out of poverty.

His death in 1902 called forth many tributes from prominent people in Liverpool and led the Archdeacon Madden to refer to him as "An ideal citizen, and typical modern saint". As a result of William's devoted service to God and to his fellow human beings he became one of a dearly remembered group of people whose activities in the furtherance of civic virtue led a Baptist minister Rev. Dr. C. F. Aked to say in 1905:

"The life of Liverpool has been enriched by some Unitarians who were amongst the saintliest of God's children; the records of its public philanthropy and of its private beneficence are eloquent with stories of Unitarian goodness."

Today many in society are looking for a new way for politics and business to be conducted. Some wish to do away with the systems we currently have and replace them with something else (a 'something' which very often they find hard to articulate). However we Unitarians have past luminaries who have illuminated ways for us to conduct ourselves in our work, and in the use of our wealth. All our congregations can if we so wish, continue the legacy of our forebears, even if only in small ways, and once again join forces with those of all faiths and none to strengthen the fabric of our society, inrease opportunities for all and continue spreading a spirit of munificence throughout our land.

"For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also". Matthew 6:21

Monday, 31 October 2011

Facing The Night With Joy And Trust

"I form the light and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord, that doeth all these things." Isaiah 45:7

Halloween is upon us with all its symbols and traditions that help to brighten up this time of year and which give us all an opportunity to engage in a little frivolity. Halloween's observances stem, I believe, from the Gaelic festival of Samhain, a name which in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic has in time become applied to the whole month of November. Traditionally this day marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the night-half of the year. Animals that had been fattened over the warm summer months would be slaughtered and their meat preserved to feed the people over the lean and cold months ahead. A big feast would be held to rejoice in the face of the hardship and danger which the winter would likely bring. This danger and hardship was the cause of an uncertainty which drove people to devise and play divinatory games on the night of Samhain, or Oidhche Shamhna in Gaelic, to ascertain what the future had in store. The Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls that are observed on the first and second of November introduced a focus on the departed into the existing traditional agricultural festival. People would remember all those who had died, and would in some cases go "souling" house to house asking for gifts of money or food in exchange for praying on behalf of the souls of the departed. In time costumes would be worn and the seeds for trick-or-treating were laid down.

We now stand at the gates of winter, with the landscape painted in hues of orange, yellow and red, just as the sky is illuminated with those same colours in the moments before the sun sets and ushers in the night, therefore now more than ever is the time to recognise that we don't know what the future holds, and that life does indeed have mysteries and fearful possibilities that threaten us all. Despite this we need not be bound in chains of anxiety, or search desperately for signs to reveal to us the hidden, instead we can look the coming night, with all its dangers and difficulties in the face and laugh with a spirit of joy. For we can remember the days of light and fullness and rejoice in their fruits which now follow us into the dark night to sustain us. We can look fondly on the memories of our loved ones, and of the wise men and women of the past, especially our teacher Jesus, whose wisdom still lives for those who wish to avail themselves of it. The departed do not leave us, but through our recollections continue to inform our present and shape our future.

Above and beyond all else we can place our confidence into the hands of the Creator of light and darkness, life and death, whose presence is with us always, and whose love for us is immeasurable.

Wishing everyone a Happy Halloween.

"Among the bonny winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin' clear,
Where Bruce ance ruled the martial ranks,
And shook his Carrick spear,
Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And haud their Halloween
Fu' blithe that night".
Halloween by Robert Burns 1785

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Inquiry and Prejudice

"Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord"
Leviticus 19:18

While leafing through my copy of the Inquirer this morning I read something which I thought quite disturbing. A letter written in the magazine was expressing disappointment about the nature of previous letters by those who clearly did not share the same social/political/religious views as the author(s). A previous writer from Belfast was criticised for a letter that was entitled (by the Inquirer itself I imagine) "Islam is not as tolerant as Christianity" which calmly criticised an argument that had suggested that the atrocity committed by Aders Breivik in Norway demonstrated that Christian extremism is as significant a risk as Islamic extremism. Another writer is criticised for suggesting that; "Unitarians should be left to make their minds up" on political and social issues instead of apparently having to toe the party line as some would prefer. They also complain about those letters written over the past few months by people who feel that there could be problems with the immigration policies of our times. To top it all off the writers imply that the very appearance of such letters in the Inquirer with which they disagree could perhaps give the wrong impression about the Unitarian community, despite all those other letters that have been published challenging the above mentioned views. How very tolerant and open-minded. How committed to Inquiry the writers of this letter seem to be! But not only unsatisfied that the pages of the Inquirer contain such views, it seems that the very presence of people in Unitarianism itself, with views other than those of the authors, is cause for concern. "However we think that the fact that there appears to be such a constituency within Unitarianism is cause for concern" was the exact way they phrased their disquiet.

This to me is an example of an intolerance that is sadly not at all rare, and I have unfortunately heard from people, who while finding much of Unitarianism true and uplifting, said that they either have no desire to join a congregation or even to leave one they are already affiliated with, because of the hypocrisy they see, of a community that relishes the label of tolerance and freedom but which in practice can sometimes be as intolerant as the most closed-minded churches (who at least don't claim to be free-thinking).

I am, as perhaps can be gleaned from my blogging, a more traditionalist Unitarian, and I have deeply held (and hopefully rationally held) beliefs that don't always reflect the majoritarian view within UK Unitarianism. As an example; despite being homosexual myself, and while supporting the right of any church to conduct religious civil partnerships should they so choose, and also respecting the duty of the representatives and spokespersons of UK Unitarianism to enunciate the views of the majority of Unitarians , I don't happen to believe in same-sex marriage. I strongly feel that the issue is not one of a lack of equality at all, and I certainly do not feel that it is an issue of discrimination. (Clearly I must be part of the constituency that gives so much cause for concern). I utterly respect those that disagree with me, and always try to understand their arguments. I am not offended or upset by the GAUFCC's efforts in support of same-sex marriage, and recognise that my views are a minority amongst Unitarians. However I do expect others, while disagreeing with me, to also value my right to hold my own opinions, and not to make rash judgements about my character as a result. This is not to say that debate should be stifled or diminished in order not to offend those like myself of differing opinions, debate should be vigorous, but we should pursue the debate as friends not enemies.

Thankfully the congregation of which I am a part, happens to have people from a diverse range of social and political views, and luckily it is blessed with an abundance of genuine tolerance that creates strong friendships amongst all of us, and which does not expect us to conform to a set of preselected social or political views.

Sadly prejudice is a reality which affects us all from time to time, even the most liberal minded of people are not free from its influence. I myself learned this lesson directly at this morning's service.

Our minister is currently away and as a result we had a lay preacher from a congregation that I believe is known for its less than traditional approach to faith and social issues. (A "lefty" church would be a cheap but handy shorthand.) All week I had been somewhat less than enthused about this week's service without really having given much thought as to why. The reality on the day, however, was completely different from what I had clearly expected, and we had a service that was so traditional that it would not have been out of place in a liberal Anglican service. I have to say I was taken aback. It struck me just how easily and how unthinkingly my assumption earlier in the week had been made, and on the impact this had on the way I felt about attending worship today. I was wrong, and while ashamed of this, I shall attempt to learn from my mistake.

This is simply human nature I guess. We all pre-judge events and people, (in other words we are all prejudiced). As human beings we categorise things in our lives and assume that things that come in similar "boxes" are all going to be alike. If we meet a person and they are a little rude to us, we just assume that they will be like that the next time we meet them, despite the very strong likelihood that they might have been having a bad day when they were rude, and that normally they are a delight to know. If we have an unpleasant meal in a restaurant we may assume that all meals there will be the same. I feel the key is to be mindful of our prejudices, not pretend we don't have them, and recognising them, strive not to allow them to shape the way we feel, to think "outside the box" and with a degree of courage allow ourselves to believe that this person or this organisation or this situation might be different from what we think it might be. Those that believe they have no prejudice at all, are likely not acknowledging it, and as such may exhibit the very intolerance and bigotry they condemn others for. The words of our wise teacher Jesus spring to mind:

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but cosiderest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; and lo, the beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."
Matthew 7:3-5

It is also very natural to have a warmth of feeling towards those with whom we have much in common and with whom we think alike, and to be suspicious of those with whom we don't. But for us to be true to our Unitarian calling we must learn to see beyond differences of opinion and belief and instead cleave to the common humanity and dignity that we all share, as children of the same Divinity. Or as Jesus taught:

"For if you love those that love you, what thank have ye? For even sinners love those that love them."
Luke 6:32

Respect and regard for people who are different from us, in thought as much as in anything else, is what we as Unitarians should affirm, and not just to have respect and regard for those who we love for thinking the way we do.

So I hope that those who may conclude that my beliefs regarding marriage must mean that I am a raving, self-hating, homophobe, strive to recognise that a difference in belief does not equal a moral failure.

Likewise I hope that the writers of the letter to the Inquirer learn not to be so concerned with their fellow Unitarians whose freedom of thought and inquiry has led them to different opinions. Dissenters should not be in the business of striving to prevent dissent.

Finally I hope that my own prejudices continue to be challenged, on this blog as much as in life, so that I can grow in my appreciation of truth.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Joyous Introspection.

"I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies" Psalm 119:59

Often the emphasis during the harvest season is one of celebration, and rightfully so. It is, however, somewhat hard for our industrialised society to really appreciate this joy. For us vegetables, grain, fruit and meat are available all year round. Only a few generations ago, the harvest was vital to survival, a matter of life and death even. How appropriate therefore is joyous celebration. But this time of year, as the crops are brought in and the nights begin to lengthen, is also a time of accounting. Farmers and communities would assess what had grown well and what had failed. What could have been done differently and what had worked perfectly. It was a time of resolutions; what to plant for the following year, what practices to incorporate into the life of the farm and what animals to purchase. It was also a time for action; ploughing the fields to prepare them for the sowing of winter wheat. Is it any surprise therefore that the Hebrew calendar, deeply tied to agricultural cycles (of the Land of Israel) has the New Year at this time of year?

Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, takes all of the above themes and applies them to people. Celebration; thanking God for the year that was, and all the blessings bestowed. Self accounting; contemplation on conduct and behaviour over the previous year, with repentance for all that was done wrong. Resolutions for self-improvement over the coming year and finally action; expressed by extra punctiliousness in the performance of religious and moral obligations.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that our political parties have their annual conference during this autumnal season, maybe there is "something in the air" that lends itself to such events. (Although how much honest introspection and repentance for past wrongs goes on at these functions is anyone's guess!)

The Gospels have Jesus saying:

"For each tree is known by its own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh".
Luke 6:44-45

Our actions do testify to our true nature, especially the smallest, almost unconscious actions. For a stingey person can perform a very large, public act of charity, but when he receives a few pennies more of change than he is owed he may pocket the lot without a second thought thereby eloquently testifying to his true self. Many of us can conduct ourselves with the greatest refinement in public, giving an impression of humility, kindness and gentleness, but in the privacy of our homes speak with sharp, arrogant and hurtful words to our loved ones, again actions that more starkly reveal our true selves. This harvest season gives us ample opportunity to examine the fruits of our behaviour over the year gone by, to see if they match with the view of ourselves that we have or are aiming for. Like the farmer we can ask ourselves where and why did we go wrong, and identify how we were successful.

In honesty however I have some confusion with Jesus' words on this subject. Immediately before the verse brought above he is said to say:

"For there is no good tree that bringeth forth corrupt fruit; nor again a corrupt tree that bringeth forth good fruit."

Is this really so? If I understand the metaphor correctly (and I would appreciate correcting if I am wrong) it means that a good person does not bring forth evil deeds and an evil person does not bring forth lasting goodness. But there have certainly been good people, who have done great wrongs either in a moment of passion, out of ignorance or misguidance etc, just as there have been negative people, even some of histories tyrants, who on occasion have done kindnesses for others and left legacies of goodness from which we still benefit. But in general I agree with Jesus, we are what we do, far more that what we think or what we say. (Interestingly if that teaching of Jesus is taken literally as some denominations do, then how can they deem Judas to be wicked? For according to them his betrayal of Jesus lead to the crucifixion and resurrection which was central to the salvation of mankind. If Judas was evil then how could he have created such good fruit? But I digress.)

Even for those who do not celebrate the New Year at this time, the opportunity for new beginnings is to be found. Fresh back at work, school or the domestic routine after the summer, we can all resolve to walk again the paths of the Eternal's testimonies. To lead a life that produces a harvest of good fruits in abundance.

"I can pick cherries from a tree,
Or break the branch and let it die:
For good or ill, my hands are free.
With fingers I can soothe a brow,
Or make a fist and strike a blow,
Kindness or cruelty bestow.
Then let us now this lesson see:
Like life itself our hands can be
For evil used, or charity."
John Andrew Storey

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Perfection and Peace

"A soft answer turneth away wrath: But a grievous word stirreth up anger."
Proverbs 15:1

During the last month our television, radio and newspapers have been filled with many tales of strife. Between peoples and their governments, between rioters and the police, and many other similar stories.

One of my favourite lines in the beautiful BBC adaptation 'Lark Rise to Candleford' is delivered by the character Dorcas Lane, the postmistress played by Julia Sawalha:

"There seems to be an attitude abroad of seeking out conflict, relishing it, to feed the worst in human nature. I am often accused of being sentimental, it's true, I cannot deny it. I just find it so much more interesting to seek out forgiveness and acceptance and those so easily mocked values such as generosity and loyalty and love. I know it is considered old fashioned in these oh so modern times, but I love my community. Write about love..I dare you".

I was reminded of these words while talking to a friend of mine whose church is somewhat afflicted by a dispute between several existing members and several ex members of the congregation. I struggled to understand how people who come together deliberately to share in fellowship, and to embrace and embody the values of forgiveness and generosity can fall into the same patterns of conflict that have torn and continue to tear communities and even whole countries apart. I am saddened by how many in our own Unitarian circles are disillusioned and turned off by the lack of tolerance often exhibited by our denomination which likes to wear its broad-mindedness and liberality on its sleeve. If religious folk who preach peace and communion are seemingly not without fault in these selfsame areas, should this cause us to give up in despair? I certainly know of those who think so.

One only has to look at all the literature ever produced by the hand of man, or even in the Bible itself to see how deeply entrenched in the human heart is the idea of discord with one's fellow man. For all our advancement and modernity we still suffer from war and ill-feeling amongst people. Should we think as does Mr Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:

"If only there where a mechanism to enable us all to live together. We can bring back marmosets from Mozambique but we cannot stop man from behaving as he always has."

There is, however, an alternative way and subsequently there is hope. We were informed long ago by our teacher, his words being as relevant today, that:

"Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48

But what is this perfection of which Jesus speaks? Clearly it cannot refer to a complete absence of wrongdoing or needs. That type of perfection is only to be found in God's own unique existence, as we are told by scripture when it says that there is no righteous man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not (Ecclesiastes 7:20). We all do wrong. Jesus himself taught that there is no one, including himself, that truly merits to be called good. For only the Eternal One can ultimately be known by that description.

No, the perfection of which Jesus speaks is, in my opinion, that which comes from emulating God by pouring out our kindness and love even on those whom have caused us harm. To move beyond the wrong done to us and seek the welfare of those whose choice to upset us demonstrates their deep need for repentance, improvement and healing.

Conflict may be part of the human experience and will sadly be found even in the sanctuaries of the world's faiths, however we can aspire for better. We can aspire for better in our private and communal lives, and despite the guaranteed failures along the way, we can rejoice in knowing that each step in the right direction, each temptation for strife overcome, is an emulation of the Eternal's perfection that surrounds us and our world with glory.

Perfection is not always getting it right. Perfection is found in aspiring for the good and constantly battling forward in that direction.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God" Matthew 5:9.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Self-Restraint VS External Coercion

"A just man that walketh in his integrity, blessed are his children after him." Proverbs 20:7

"National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man's own perverted life; and though we may endeavour to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action."

These words form part of the introduction to 'Self-Help' the most celebrated work of Samuel Smiles (1812-1904); a book which contains much wisdom and down-to-earth common sense.

Over the past week we have all heard the many opinions offered to explain the causes of the inexcusable orgy of violence and theft which took hold of many of our major cities early last week. Broadly (perhaps far too broadly) these arguments can be divided into two categories; the Condemnatory and the Understanding. Those who have embraced the former have spoken for a need for greater police powers, and harsher sentences for the perpetrators coupled with the loss of benefits to punish their families. Many on this side of the argument consider themselves as completely uncontaminated by and non-responsible for the moral failings of those who engaged in the wanton violence. They exhibit an Us-and-Them mentality. Good folk vs the savage underclass.

Those who subscribe to the Understanding approach have in many cases simply and transparently projected their own political ideology and discontent onto the rioters, transforming them into their personal hired-thugs to vicariously argue in favour of their own world view. A sort of "If you don't accept and implement my social/political ideology then you can expect (and deserve) similar violence" argument. I notice how many on this side of the debate very rarely express a similar desire to understand the sins and motivations of the wealthy bankers, politicians or even Murdoch and his empire! No when it comes to these wealthy sinners, it would seem they are wickedness itself.

Of course there have been plenty of reasonable, nuanced and well thought-out arguments that have gone some way to shed light onto the events that have so starkly brought to light the problems in our society and we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss such arguments because their nuance reveals the complexity of the problem.

One motivating factor that I feel has not really been discussed enough is that of Fun. It was evident on the faces of so many looters that they were having a most exciting and amusing time. A carnival of destruction if you will. I heard many of the revellers interviewed expressing that very same motive for their acts of criminality. Why though should this come as any surprise? Anyone who has ever seen a child (and sometimes an adult) at play will know that there is great pleasure in an act of destruction. Add to this the cat-and-mouse element with the police and the sense of fun is predictably magnified. Acquisition itself produces much felicity, how many of us don't feel an increased sense of joy when we purchase an item we covet?

Problems arise when such natural, universal human instincts and desires combine with an absence or atrophy of strong moral values and self-restraint. Without these constraining bridles the worst of human kind can become unleashed, how much more so when inflamed to huge proportions in the super-charged and uninhibited atmosphere of a mob. As people we are not wholly bad or wholly good, but instead are a weave of both virtue and vice. If virtue is not placed as something to be desired and worked for, we lose the counterweight that serves to keep in check the worst in us.

While the focus of the past few days has been strongly on young people and children, it behoves all of us to realise that their behaviour during the looting was simply the extreme end of a spectrum which includes us all. Where have youngsters learned that the pursuit of fun and acquisition overcomes the verities of right and wrong? Why are notions of right and wrong themselves so abstract in the minds of many youngsters? Because that is the example that we adults have set. I could mention example after example of people (myself included) placing their own pleasure, their own wants before their duty and obligations to themselves and others. It is evident to me that we have created a society which redefines selfishness as a right and duty and restraint as repression.

How many households are in debt as a result of adults spending what they do not have? Do people really think their children don't realise what goes on? What example do adults indulging in casual drug use (and I include cigarettes in this too) give to young minds? That my moment of pleasure is far more important than the damage I do to others in my vicinity or to those in my society who may assume from my behaviour that it is OK to indulge. What lessons are we transmitting when we treat sexual intimacy as a recreational activity? That it is perfectly acceptable to reduce another human being to an unimportant vehicle of my own lustful pleasure; and then we claim to find it shocking that there are swathes of the country where young men think nothing of sleeping with girls and leaving them alone to deal with the consequences! What lesson did all those shoppers who tumbled over and crushed each other in order to grab some bargains in a Primark shop back in 2007 teach their offspring? That my desire for a new pair of shoes transcends all moral codes.

"The nation that has no higher god than pleasure, or even dollars or calico, must needs be in a poor way. It were better to revert to Homer's gods than be devoted to these; for the heathen deities at least imaged human virtues, and were something to look up to". 'Character' Samuel Smiles

Watching the news, or reading the papers last week, one could not help but be struck by the contrast of individuals throwing all decency and righteousness to the gutter in pursuit of fun and acquisition with the images of those children and adults whose lives are fading away as they succumb to the spectre of starvation and absolute poverty in the horn of Africa. What shame we should all feel at this. How demeaned has our nation become despite of its relative affluence? How unfortunately apposite are the words of scripture when they say:

"Thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art become corpulent - Then he forsook God which made him and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation." Deuteronomy 32:15

I feel that the cost in continuing along the path that Britain (and so many other countries around the world) has been travelling upon will be very high. I have no doubt that Samuel Smiles was right when he wrote about the fate of nations that are composed of people:

"Living for themselves only, and with no end but pleasure - each little self his own little god - such a nation is doomed and its decay inevitable."

It is we, collectively, who have manufactured an environment (with much assistance from governments of all stripes) where self-realisation, self-indulgence and selfishness have trumped the Divine values of self-restraint, self-respect and selflessness, and it is we again collectively who could reverse the trend; a task which everyone is, according to Samuel Smiles, equally qualified to perform and to achieve:

"Even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come."

The opportunities for us to strengthen our individual and collective character are daily given to us. For there really is no act, however trivial, that does not have its train of consequences:

"Every action, every thought, every feeling, contributes to the education of the temper, the habits, and understanding; and exercises an inevitable influence upon all the acts of our future life. Thus character is undergoing constant change, for better or for worse - either being elevated on the one hand, or degraded on the other". 'Character' Samuel Smiles

Unitarians have traditionally valued the power of individual character, and recognised that Liberty can only be created and maintained when people are governed by the ennobling qualities of self-restraint and moral integrity in place of the coercive and ultimately ineffectual power of the state. They brought to people the hopeful and life-giving gospel of Jesus, and taught that salvation is gained through good character. Let us today, following the example and instruction of our ancestors in faith and our teacher Jesus, take up the same banner and bring dignity, respect and hope to all those who are in desperate need of them, ourselves included.

"When the time arrives in any country when wealth has so corrupted, or pleasure so depraved, or faction so infatuated the people, that honour, order, obedience, virtue and loyalty have seemingly become things of the past; then, amidst the darkness, when honest men - if haply there be such left - are groping about and feeling for each other's hands, their only remaining hope will be in the restoration and elevation of Individual Character; for by that alone can a nation be saved; and if character be irrecoverably lost, then indeed there will be nothing left worth saving." 'Character' Samuel Smiles

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
Footprints that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again."
'A Psalm of Life' Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Wheel Of The Year Turns

"When thy reapest thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: It shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands."
Deuteronomy 24:19

The first of August ushers in the festival of Lammas. This festive day, the origins of which go back into perhaps ancient history, traditionally marks the beginning of the grain harvest season and autumn in general. While it was observed in many different ways around the country, a common tradition was to take a loaf of bread to church in order to give thanks to God for His beneficence and to pray for blessings upon the coming harvest. Enamoured as I am with rural life and its culture I too had the privilege today, on the eve of Lammas, of taking a freshly made loaf of bread into my chapel. Combined with some lovely jams and lemon curd brought in by a fellow member of the congregation, a delightful little repast greeted the worshippers during our fellowship time after the morning service. Inquisitive as Unitarians tend to be, there were many questions about why the bread was there, and as a result they discovered an aspect of British tradition that they might not have known about previously.

True to the season, the fields surrounding my home are now in the process of being harvested, the land stripped of its blanket of wheat which was planted earlier in the year or even last year. The wheel of the year turns and it never ceases to amaze me or fill me with an awe that is indescribable, reinforcing in my heart the awareness that our world is an ever-present witness to a profound wisdom.

This world is not chaos; it has an order inherent in every aspect of it, large or small. The seasons and all they bring are clearly purposeful, and I would go further; are clearly the work of One incomprehensible mind. The ancients regarded the many forces of nature as somewhat separate from each other, each a master of its own domain that could be petitioned, appeased and in some cases manipulated, so that the aspect of nature it was said to be responsible for could serve and not harm the interests of man. Then a new voice was heard that taught that all those apparently disparate forces, are nothing other than the expressed will of one single and Almighty God. An entirely new relationship with the Divine was born in the hearts of man, one that has utterly changed our world. The more we have discovered about the workings of the cosmos, the more the unity of the Divine has become apparent. Even those who remained uncertain as to the existence of God were not unfeeling to the mystery of creation itself:

"You find it surprising that I think of the comprehensibility of the a miracle of eternal mystery. But surely, a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way... Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by man, the success of such a procedure supposes in the objective world a high degree of order, which we are in no way entitled to expect a priori. Therein lies the 'miracle' which becomes more and more evident as our knowledge develops."
Albert Einstein.

Last week I watched a wonderful BBC programme called The Code. In it the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy reveals the mathematical code that underpins all creation. From prime numbers that guide the, critical to survival, timing of the emergence of certain species of cicadas, to Pi which is to be found within all circles both man-made and natural. This great mystery, the nature of the spectacularly ordered, mathematically regulated laws of the Universe is outdone only by the even greater miracle, that our limited human brains are made in such a way that they too recognise the fundamental pattern of creation and can utilise it to create all the technology and know-how that has contributed so much to our collective knowledge and success:

"There is one qualitative aspect of reality that sticks out from all others in both profundity and mystery. It is the consistent success of mathematics as a description of the workings of reality and the ability of the human mind to discover and invent mathematical truths"
John Barrow, Theories of Everything.

Keeping our minds on the rationality of our universe can also help us to have trust in a future of which we do not know. We can, if we so choose, walk simply with God. For He who orders our world, who sustains all and whose wisdom lays behind the changing seasons, the ripening grain, and the harvest bounty, will also guide us along our journey, leading us on the paths we must tread. Free in the embrace of this trust we can turn our attention to our duty towards our Maker and His creations, or as our teacher Jesus taught:

"For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first His kingdom and His righteousness: and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow; for the morrow will be anxious for itself."
Matthew 6:32-34

Children are now off school, families are spending greater amounts of time together, perhaps on holidays in which much money has been invested. This is an opportune time to harvest as much happiness and joy from this season of togetherness, and convert them into lasting memories that will sustain us through the winter months until the sun's warmth returns next spring. Just as the farmer is bidden, during the harvest season of abundance, to remember strangers and the disadvantaged, so too we should share our late summer happiness with those who could benefit. Perhaps some holiday money could be set aside to provide for those who lack. Perhaps an acquaintance or even an estranged family member can be invited to join a family celebration, outing or even barbecue!

May this coming month fill all our lives with happiness, peace and success, and may we make proper use of the blessings bestowed upon us, and by so doing walk our journey's road in the guiding embrace of creation's Author.

"The Lord my pasture shall prepare, and feed me with a shepherd's care;
His presence shall my wants supply, and guard me with a watchful eye;
My noon-day walks He shall attend, and all my midnight hours defend."
Joseph Addison 1712

Monday, 25 July 2011

Extinguishing the Flames of Hatred.

"And let them make unto Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them."
Exodus 25:8

Norway is in deep mourning after the terrible atrocity that took place there only a few short days ago. Much of the world looks on with immense sympathy and shock, as people struggle to understand how a human being can behave with such wanton cruelty towards innocent people.

Much of the religious Jewish world is also in mourning at the moment, at least symbolically, as the annual cycle once again arrives at the period of commemoration and mourning for the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and their subsequent exile, years of wandering and suffering. All too apposite is the ancient sages attribution of the cause of that destruction to one terrible sin: sinas chinam or in English: baseless hatred, as it would appear that baseless hatred was what most likely led to the loss of lives in Norway and which so often underlies the rifts in our own society which are always there in the background threatening to tear down our own temple of liberty, co-existence and tolerance.

Anders Behring Breivik, seemingly motivated by loathing and what can only be described as monumental vanity, claims to have been defending a Christian Europe and specifically a Norway, under threat from Islam and immigration. Like all totalitarians he claims that those who disagree with him are facilitators and conspirators of this threat and that they must be destroyed. How ironic that a man who claims that Islamic jihadists are the biggest threat to Norway, himself carries out the biggest act of violence on that soil since the Second World War. How telling that a man who rails against Marxists, reflects the very worst of their excesses by he himself seeking a revolution to snuff out liberty and acting towards that goal by ending the lives of those who disagree with him. Also this defender of Christendom most certainly did not have Christ's teachings in mind while he was plotting and carrying out his nefarious actions upon those whom, in his distorted mind, were his enemies. For was it not Jesus who said:

"But I say unto you which hear, love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloke withhold not thy coat also...
But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing: And your reward shall be great and you shall be sons of the Most High; for He is kind towards the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful even as your Father is merciful. And judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned." Luke 6:27-29 35-37

But while the events of last week were the work of one man, embracing the most extreme of ideologies, elements of his thinking are to be found throughout society and similar arguments are to be found directed at different "enemies" throughout the political spectrum. It behoves everyone to think carefully about how they express their views and beliefs and to conduct themselves with the greatest caution lest their words and ideas feed into a mindset that, at its most extreme, rationalises cruelty and hatred. In this regard I am reminded of the words of the first century Jewish sage Avtalyon:

Scholars, be very careful with your words for you may be exiled (drift) to a place of evil-waters (dangerous teachings) and students will come after you and drink (learn from you) and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
Pirkei Avos 1:3

Nothing however, should preclude the necessary debates on subjects that concern people, and neither should people rush to label as "extremist" or "bigoted" views with which they disagree or the people who hold them. Discourse that inflames or increases the often distorted view held by sadly far too many people on a variety of issues must however be challenged and revealed for what it is. The views one sometimes hears from otherwise good and decent people, about immigration for example or about those seeking asylum are frequently dispiriting to say the least, and very far from the compassionate, and humane spirit which, I believe, should characterise our nation and which I find embodied in the following words:

"Take the stranger. Trustful does he enter your country, your city, your community, confident of finding people who will respect him as their fellow-man and not begrudge him a place among themselves where he can live, and live like a human being; he has no other letter of recommendation than his human countenance, nobody to introduce him but God, Who presents him to you as His child, and says: 'He is like you, may he do as you do - grant him equal rights- he is My child, My earth is his home; I have called on him, just as I called on you, joyfully to fulfil his task as a human being; do not curtail that right of his do not spoil his joy of life, do not abuse his helplessness; show that you feel that your soil is God's soil, and that man is God's child."
Horeb Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch 1837

There are of course issues that surround immigration that must be resolved in the interests of both those that have chosen or been forced by circumstances to settle here, and the host nation. These should be debated without fear or recrimination, in a calm and rational fashion free from passion or zeal. I myself am personally delighted and heartened to hear that the sentiments, so eloquently expressed by Rabbi Hirsch, are alive and well in the work that Reverend Bob Pounder of Oldham Unitarians, is doing in assisting asylum seekers. May his efforts be blessed with much success.

Sorrowfully it would seem that the temptation to engage in vituperation against anyone that does not share the same beliefs, be they political, social or religious is very strong. It can be seen in the way that bankers are regarded and spoken of routinely as the epitome of greed, selfishness and wickedness. It can also be seen in the language and conduct on display during protests against President Bush or Tony Blair. It is graphically manifested in the contorted faces and rage filled cries of participants of English Defence League protests and most tragically it was displayed in the ravings of Anders Breivik who regarded young people associated with the Norwegian Labour party as traitors. And it can often be seen in the snide remarks, put-downs and gossip which we all engage in. It would seem that we have all much to learn about the true meaning of human dignity and liberty and that an argument is lost the very moment it becomes about the person/people instead of the issue.

As Unitarians we often pride ourselves, and certainly present ourselves, as the paradigm of tolerance and liberal thought. This is certainly a good goal for us to aim for and one that is worked hard at, but we are still I feel, far from achieving it. Indeed this very claim is often used by us to wrap ourselves in a mantel of self-righteousness in order to pour scorn on others whose faiths or attitudes are not (on paper) as magnanimous as our own. I know of one congregation that is on the verge of collapse due to the inability of its members to accommodate each other's ideas and beliefs. I also know a person who was an avid contributor (and still wishes to be) to the musical life of her congregation until a controversy arose because several people found her use of "He" in reference to God, to be unacceptable! I am sure many Unitarians have experienced or know of those who have experienced a degree of intolerance from their fellows in the faith. It is relatively easy to argue for tolerance on the big political and social issues of the day, but much less, so it would seem, to embody tolerance in the mundane life of our communities.

Now, as always, our world is riddled with divisions and hatreds, some bigger and more violent others smaller and parochial but both ultimately destructive. We whose name speaks of unity, which testifies to the unity of humankind under the unity of God, must truly exemplify it in everything we do and in how our chapels, churches, meeting-houses and denomination conduct themselves internally and externally. With endeavour, co-operation with others and God's help, we can surely play a part in softening the edges of human interaction, creating a society of kindness, benevolence, grace and liberty. A society which will be a shining temple, a sanctified abode in which the Almighty may dwell forever in our midst.

"Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!.....For there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore."
Psalm 133

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Men Who Stare At Goats

"And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a man that is in readiness into the wilderness." Leviticus 16:21

There has always been present in human nature a desire to project all its negative aspects onto some external, usually powerful, other. By so doing it allows the individual or the group to comfortably express anger and rage at the very aspects of their own nature that they find troublesome, and also helps to remove the shackles of personal responsibility. Ambrose Bierce in his "Devil's Dictionary" succinctly expressed this reality in the following way:

"Responsibility: A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbour. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star."

Traditionally, Christianity shifted such burdens onto the devil, a character that in order to gain some scriptural legitimacy was grafted somewhat clumsily and unconvincingly onto the Hebrew Bible's Satan. Ironically that same Hebrew Bible is very aware of this predilection of human psychology and in page after page it refutes this manner of thinking. The issue is clearly of some significance as the Bible refers to it very early on; Adam seeks to blame Eve (and God) and Eve blames the serpent for their sin. Cain goes even further and famously denies the very concept of moral responsibility altogether:

"Am I my brother's keeper?" Genesis 4:9

In the New Testament our teacher's brother in addressing this very subject, has the following words attributed to him:

"Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempteth no man: But each man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then the lust when it hath conceived beareth sin." James 1:13-15

Very often the figure that is held responsible for the wrongdoing inherent in each of us, is often endowed with incredible power, and in the case of the devil, traditional Christianity came close to creating a dualistic theology! All evil actions and harmful events are seen to have the hand of the evil-one behind them, either directly or through the armies of its wicked servants. In the last century this self-serving irrationality was clearly evident in the demonisation of the Jews by Nazi Germany, in which the very victims of Nazi racism and oppression were accused of wilful corruption of the German "race", oppressing Germany and subsequently blamed for all that nation's difficulties.

And now yet again we see this growth-stunting mindset in action in the response to the Phone-Hacking scandal. Having read and heard much commentary on this subject (which apparently is of greater importance, to judge by the attention given, than the crisis in the horn of Africa or any other event) it would appear that Mr Murdoch and his News International are the new Beelzebub! If we are to believe what many would have us believe Mr Murdoch has some truly Voldemort-like powers of sorcery often deployed which enslave politicians and which successfully control the collective mind of our nation! As a result politicians suddenly (and conveniently) finding their courage are taking upon themselves the role of exorcists as they seek to "break the spell" of the media mogul's satanic influence and have him cast into the outer darkness. This is in my opinion all tosh!

No one forced politicians of all parties to flatter, fawn and entertain Mr Murdoch and co (or for that matter the BBC, Guardian etc). They chose to do so as they thought that it might help them advance their careers. They were quite happy to set aside or adapt their principles if they thought that the newspapers would promote them and their policies in a favourable light. Not all politicians however were willing to do that, and those dissenters (such as John Mann (Labour) and Ann Widdecombe (Conservative) for example are a living reproach against all those that did, if your pardon the phrase, "dance with the devil". Neither was it Murdoch's fabled power that led many MP's to behave with less than perfect propriety in regards to their expenses. (Oh I'm terribly sorry, that was if I remember correctly the fault of "The System").

Nor did anyone cast an enchantment onto the police that stripped them of their free will and forced them, if the allegations are true, to accept many thousands of pounds in exchange for information and then seek to obstruct (?) this reality from becoming known.

And what of us, the Great British Public, what about our outrage at the wrongdoings of the media set. Was it not we who hungered after more gossip and more scandal and stripped the shelves clean of newspapers that provided it? Did we not collectively derive pleasure at the revelations of the sordidness in the private lives of those that we ourselves have elevated to the heights of celebrity status. Have we not filled cyberspace with speculations and disclosures? Is it not us that fuel the popularity of television shows that derive their fame from presenting human misery and degradation for public entertainment? Would we be right to blame the mythic powers of News International for all this or might we look inwards at ourselves? I feel that we could certainly benefit at this moment from heeding the words of Jesus:

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Matthew 7:3

The disturbing allegations of phone hacking that began this drama are appalling, however not that surprising, and anyone truly responsible for this law breaking should be dealt with appropriately. Beyond that, this is an opportunity for us all to look at the nature of the society that we have created and specifically our individual role in it. We should not allow any individual or organisation to be scapegoated for aspects of our culture that we find distasteful and the same is also true on the micro scale, in our families, in our chapels and churches and in our workplaces.

The media scandal and the underlying issues it exposes will not I feel be fundamentally resolved by the passing of more laws or with expression of synthetic outrage. It can only be remedied if our nation and we as individuals come to realise and work actively towards a truth so beautifully expressed by Samuel Smiles:

"That which raises a country, that which strengthens a country, and that which dignifies a country - that which spreads her power, creates her moral influence, and makes her respected and submitted to, bends the heart of millions and bows down the pride of nations to her - the instrument of obedience, the fountain of supremacy, the true throne, crown, and sceptre of a nation; this aristocracy is not an aristocracy of blood, not an aristocracy of fashion, not an aristocracy of talent only; it is an aristocracy of Character. That is the true heraldry of man. The crown and glory of life is Character.
"Self Help" Samuel Smiles 1859

This is something that with God's grace and assistance we can all work at and hopefully achieve some measure of success in our own lives.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Nature's Song

"The flowers appear on the earth; the time of song is come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripeneth her green figs, and the vines are in blossom, they give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the steep place. Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice. For sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely." Song of Songs 2:12-14

There are moments when the majesty and beauty of nature simply take your breath away and the awesomeness of creation envelops you. Moments where all the pomp and spectacle of humanity seem as nothing in comparison. Or as Jesus put it:

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one these". Matthew 6:28-29

Yesterday I had one such moment

After a very long, tiring and trying day (except for the beautiful couple of hours in chapel during the morning) I finally had time to sit in peace for a little while, and enjoy the sunshine and that special tranquillity that only a summer evening can bring. After watching a little cricket on the village green I started across the fields heading home. Walking along cool wooded hedgerows, views of a wide, gently rolling landscape framed by brambles and trees, I approached a flat area, nestled gently in the valley of a stream. The fields that stretched out in all directions, their golden/green colour illuminated by the golden warmth of the sun, were stained with multiple patches of red from the many poppies scattered amongst the grain. The heavens, the wide, cloudless, deep blue sky was magnificent in its scale and colour, a huge canopy-like expanse providing as much space as needed for the swifts to weave and dive. The sounds of crickets and birdsong were the musical accompaniment to this symphony of nature. I was transfixed to the spot, my eyes drinking every sight and my heart bursting with joy, awe and gratitude as the past and future disappeared leaving me only in the present. In moments such as these God is seemingly never as close and the sweet voice and comely countenance of our Divine beloved are there to be experienced.

This went on to remind me of something I once heard from the Chief Rabbi, who pointed out that such an experience is only one of several ways in which we encounter God. The sound of someone crying out in pain or fear, the sight of someone in need or more accurately our response to these things, are also encounters with the Divine and no less significant. These are clarion calls summoning us to take an active role, to be partners with Him in creation.

In a world as immense and complex as ours, surely the inquisitiveness of our own minds, authored by the same Designer of nature, cannot be artificially limited without negative consequences. Those that feel that they can protect what they regard as true, by shackling and stifling the minds of others, commit what can only be termed an atrocity against the human spirit, and perhaps even a degree of blasphemy. For truth needs no supports, requires no underhand methods to maintain itself. It is its own justification. The overwhelming magnitude, complexity and beauty of our world, should be matched only by our willingness to expand our minds, deepen our understanding and to grace our lives with the beauty of a life lived always ready to hear and respond lovingly to the still small voice of God.

The earth, and all the heavenly frame, their great Creator's love proclaim.
He gives the sun his genial power, and sends the soft refreshing shower.
The ground with plenty blooms again, and yields its various fruits to men;
To men, who from his bounteous hand. Receive the gifts of every land.
Nor to the human race alone; is His paternal goodness shown.
The tribes of earth, and sea, and air, enjoy His universal care.
Thomas Gibbons 1720-1785

Monday, 20 June 2011

A Nightingale Gives Pause For Thought

"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: But woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up." Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Last week the issue of assisted suicide made the news, after the BBC broadcast a programme on the subject. The issues surrounding this controversial subject are far too important and far too complex to be given adequate attention in a small blog such as this. However during the week while listening to the discussions of friends and acquaintances, one principle thought entered my mind and persisted there, and I have decided to articulate it here. If it contributes anything to the discussion in any way whatsoever then I will feel that I have achieved something worthwhile.

Before I begin I feel that it is important, for the sake of honesty, to elucidate my own position regarding this subject. For a variety of reasons I myself am not in favour, and not supportive of assisted suicide. This unquestionably influences what I will subsequently write. However I feel I understand the reasons why its advocates support it, and I strongly believe that those in favour are genuinely motivated by mercy, compassion and empathy. I only hope that those who disagree with my position also recognise that I too am motivated by these same values.

Amongst the arguments in favour of assisted suicide I heard this week, one strongly perturbed me. Several people said that they would wish if possible to end their lives, or have their lives ended, in order to spare their children or others the burden of caring for them in their infirmity, a situation they dreaded. Some were very frightened of being in a situation where they would have to be cared for in such a way. In both cases it was clear that fear was a strong motivator, a fear of what they might inflict upon their loved ones, and a fear of having to be cared for. This fear was significantly greater than their fear of illness and even of death itself. This put me in mind of something that Florence Nightingale once said:

"How very little can be done under the spirit of fear."

I remain deeply concerned by what effect on our society assisted suicide might have, when that selfsame society more often views care as a burden and not a blessing. The appalling and heartbreaking manner in which some frail and elderly people had been treated in some of our nation's hospitals, nursing homes and homes, an abomination so graphically revealed over the past several weeks, including a damning report just out today, testifies to a profound chasm in the ethic of care even amongst some of those professionally charged with its fulfilment. Many elderly and vulnerable people, and we may all know personally at least some of them, are rarely visited even by their own families let alone strangers, and I would be unsurprised if some are left in no doubt that they and their needs are viewed as a burden or inconvenience. It is soul-destroying to imagine that instead of remedying this sorry state of affairs, we may instead acquiesce to the sadness and sometimes despair and fear it creates and bring to an early end, lives which could have grown in purpose and happiness even as they reached their end. Hopelessness and purposelessness are surely some of the darkest emotions and should be healed not reinforced.

Modernity has brought us many gifts. So much has been invented and developed to make life easier for all of us; labour saving devices are present in every home, and the hardships and efforts that were the daily lot of our ancestors in the not so distant past, now only exist in memories and history books. For these advances and for this blessed progress we should sing paeans of praise to the Most High, who implanted in our minds the wisdom to accomplish all of this. However even blessings can have their darker sides. We are now so accustomed to ease that difficulty is seen as a curse to be avoided at all costs. Just as Jesus taught that one cannot serve God and Mammon, likewise the same can probably be said of serving God and Ease! No one can doubt that caring for others, especially those who are in the most need of it, can be very arduous on both mind and body. People who care for the most disabled and distressed people often have to struggle with exhaustion, stress and unsparing hardship. Who would not wish to spare someone, especially their loved ones, from this?

But what is often not appreciated and certainly not championed enough, is that ministering to the needs of others can be the greatest of life's blessings. To know that you have used your strength, your whole self, to improve the life of another, to diminish their pain and suffering and to lift their spirits, can be the greatest of all possible joys. Many mothers and fathers could testify to this. And while we may all wish to avoid being placed in such a situation, if it should sadly occur then the option to perceive it as a privilege and a sacred entrustment should always be seen as possible.

Caring and its ultimate realisation in the nursing of the sick and dying is a precious art, a sacred task that deserves the highest acclaim, or as Florence Nightingale said:

"Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter's or sculptor's work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God's spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts. "

Can we honestly say that our culture, our commonwealth, has elevated care, support and nursing onto the pedestal they deserve? Are our youth inflamed with a passionate desire to extend themselves, to sacrifice their personal physical and emotional comfort, for the sake of those most at need? Are those professionals who dedicate their lives to the care of others, sometimes in the most unpleasant circumstances, duly honoured and acknowledged? Do we vigorously chase the opportunities to bestow care and support? If the answer is no, then is this the correct atmosphere the correct time in which to introduce the concept of assisted suicide?

I feel that it is not. Others will conclude otherwise and the debate will have to be had, appropriately, sensitively, honestly and carefully before true conclusions can be made.

Florence Nightingale has left us with yet another pearl of wisdom:

"You ask me why I do not write something... I think one's feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results."

She was right, and those who feel as I do have an added duty to work actively to strengthen the care-ethic in society. To put into action our doctrine, and to draw as many people as possible into a work so universally relevant that all considerations of creed, colour and culture are set aside. As the words of Holy Scripture with which I began this post make clear, all such efforts can only succeed, when we support one another and lift each other when we fall.

Whatever position the wider Unitarian denomination adopts on the issue of assisted suicide I hope and pray that despite any differences, we will be at the forefront of resurrecting the sacred virtue of care for others. And remove the need for anyone to contemplate ending their precious life, for fear that they may be any sort of burden. I pray that we play a leading part in transforming the attitude of society, so that caring will be seen as a privilege and those who are in receipt of it will be in no way diminished as a result. And I pray that we do all we can to celebrate, support and encourage those who devote themselves to care for others.

"If your soul, with power uplifted, yearn for glorious deed,
Give your strength to serve your neighbour's every need.
Have you borne a secret sorrow in your lonely breast?
Take to you your sorrowing neighbour for a guest.
Share in full your bread of blessing, sorrow's burden share;
When your heart enfolds a neighbour, God is there".
Theodore Chickering Williams 1885-1915