Sunday, 27 March 2011

Season of Inspiration and Blossom.

"For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds 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...Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice".
The Song of Songs 2:11-14

Everywhere one looks, especially here in the south, one sees and feels the beauty of spring as the strengthening sun streams over the landscape and in through countless windows. Trees becoming heavy with blossom, fragrant flowers appearing as if overnight in gardens and parks and the bleating of lambs and birdsong drifting over fields fill our hearts with happiness. The world is being reborn after it's winters rest. And likewise we are speedily heading towards Easter and its celebration of the resurrection, however it is understood. Now is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to our Father in heaven, to crucify our own base, negative and selfish desires and in their place embrace, to the best of our ability, the Divine Will. It is a time to refocus our attention on those around us and make our religious life, in the words of the minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, William Gaskell 1805-1884:

"Not something to cover the earth with a cloud but (instead) the light of life touching it with hues of beauty and sending gleams of sunshine into the depths of its darkest shadows".

This exiting time of year is designed to infuse us with the potential for rapid and strong growth and as with the Children of Israel all those years ago, it can suffuse us with the power to break free of the shackles with which we are imprisoned, and with which we often imprison ourselves, and to embrace the eternality of a life lived connected to the love and majesty of the Infinite One.

The challenges are huge as unfortunately our world is still mired in hatred, greed and conflict, but with God's help we can play our part, however small, to make this world a place befitting of the Divine presence. In the moving words of a hymn by William Gaskell:

"O God! The darkness roll away
Which clouds the human soul
And let Thy bright and holy day
Speed onward to its goal.

Let every hateful passion die
Which makes of brethren foes,
And war no longer raise its cry
To mar the world's repose.

How long shall glory still be found
In scenes of cruel strife,
Where misery walks, a giant crowned,
Crushing the flowers of life?

O hush, great God, the sounds of war,
And make Thy children feel
That he, with Thee, is nobler far
Who toils for human weal.

Let faith, and hope, and charity
Go forth through all the earth,
And man in holy friendship be
True to his heavenly birth.

As a new week begins I hope to keep in my mind the potential of this season and the words of my teacher Jesus:

"Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God".
Matthew 5:6-9

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Infinite Guilt vs Transcendent Kindness.

"Yet say ye, "Wherefore doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father?" When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die: The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die". Ezekiel 18:19-21

This past week the Rotary club in my home-town were appealing for donations for the people of Japan after the horrific earthquake, tsunami and nuclear troubles that they have suffered. It appeared to me that many people were contributing generously and this spirit of generosity is something that is to be celebrated. Later that day my other-half's mother while in town shopping, also came across the same scene but with a difference. An elderly couple came along and began to castigate the Rotarians for having the temerity to raise money for the Japanese, which according to their argument they did not deserve as a result of the depraved manner with which they treated British troops in Burma during the second world war. When I heard about this I was shocked and appalled, a feeling I no doubt shared with those Rotarian men and women who had given up their time to help others. However for all I know this couple may have had some personal experience of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war, which might account for their opinion and so for me to judge them negatively would be unfair.

At the heart of their argument seems to have been the contention that the Japanese nation today, over 80% of which are not old enough to have even been able to take part in ww2, are in some sense guilty of the crimes of some Japanese in the war generation, and as such should not be helped. It is unfortunately not a big step from that idea to ultimately regard the suffering of the Japanese in the recent disaster as a positive thing, a view that disturbingly I have personally seen expressed. It seems axiomatic to me that children are not to be held responsible for the sins of their fathers, or for that matter that no one is to be held responsible for the sins of others, and yet it would seem that not all would agree. In North Korea for example the children of political dissidents are punished for their parents "crimes", and on the very day of the Japanese earthquake, the world was witness to a horrific example of such twisted thinking. Palestinian terrorists broke into the house of an Israeli family in the West Bank, and brutally murdered both parents and three of their children; Yoav aged 11, Elad aged 4 and Hadas the 3 month old baby girl. Heaven only knows how anyone can consider the deliberate murder of children, for any reason whatsoever, to be acceptable. Disgracefully in Gaza the Hamas regime thought the occasion worth celebrating, and made quite a show of doing so. It is a pity that they do not follow the following sage advice:

"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth.
And let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown :
Lest the Lord see it, and it displease Him."
Proverbs 24:17-18.

The Unitarian rejection of doctrines such as original sin and vicarious atonement, partially originate in the strongly held principle, that the innocent do not bear the guilt of, and are certainly not punished for, the sins of others. (Some eastern understandings of karma, which posit that some of the sufferings of people, including children, result from sinful acts of previous lives, would presumably also be rejected by those who do not accept original sin.)

"More unreasonable than the doctrine of inherited sin is that of inherited guilt which underlies the doctrine of original sin. The guilt of any action can fall only on the person who by an act of will commits it or intends and plans it. But this doctrine places on the newly-born infant the burden of a sin committed before he was born and in which he had no part."
The Beliefs of A Unitarian by Alfred Hall.

We might also note that our teacher Jesus clearly stated;

"Forgive us our trespasses."

He did not say "Forgive us our trespasses and those of Adam etc. Whose guilt we bear". For most of us the belief that an innocent man (let alone God himself) had to die on a cross to allow God to forgive us our sins, is not one that we feel is supported by reason, morality or scripture.

"Unitarians maintain that the theory of satisfaction, which makes necessary the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as an expiation of the sins of the world, is contrary to the teaching of Jesus concerning the love and forgiveness of God. Further to inflict on the innocent, punishment due to the guilty does not satisfy any principle of justice with which we are acquainted."
The Beliefs of A Unitarian by Alfred Hall.

Our sins are our own, we are each responsible for our own transgressions, this is the price of our human freedom.

Another teaching of Jesus comes into my mind when people suggest that we should not help the Japanese as a result of their history:

"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone." John 8:7

There are very few countries in our world that do not have dark chapters in their history, especially when viewed from the vantage point of modern times. If God forbid, a tragedy on the scale of what has happened in the far-east were to occur here, I only pray that countries all around the globe would not condition their assistance of us, on our not having behaved badly in the past! While recent British history does not equate in scale to the terrible actions of other nations, we can hardly claim to be innocent of wrong doing. Our behaviour in India before partition and our disgraceful treatment of Boer women and children during the conflicts in South Africa are two of many episodes that spring to mind as severe blemishes on our national narrative. I assume that those Britons staining the Japanese with the eternal mark of guilt, do not do likewise to our nation. They might pause and consider if their hypocrisy is sustainable.

Finally, even if it were the case that the current generation of Japanese were guilty of past wrongs, does that in any way diminish the suffering visible on our screens and newspapers? Should it force us to poor the ice of vengeance onto our hearts and snuff out the embers of empathy? Of course not. We would still be obligated to open our hands and reach out to help in any way we can, for any other approach would shrivel our humanity.

"If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again." Exodus:23.

Even when we have every reason to dislike someone, even when we have genuine enemies nothing testifies to the Divine presence in the heart of humanity, than to reach out over the divide with kindness, charity and mercy.

This past Wednesday, Jewish paramedics and residents of a settlement in which surviving members of the slain Fogel family were mourning their loss, reached beyond anger, grief and hatred and struggled to save the life of a Palestinian baby that suffered life threatening complications during birth. The baby's life was saved and the happiness shared by all involved, has removed at least one drop of mistrust and hatred from that troubled land, in the same way that the efforts of a Palestinian man to search for and return an Israeli child who had become lost after wandering from the settlement in which he lived, built bridges of mutual respect and kindness.

"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...And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? For even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? For even sinners do the same...But love your enemies, and do them good and lend...Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:27-36

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Hidden Providence, Revealed Duty.

"The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 29:29

The Jewish festival of Purim (Lots) will soon be making its annual appearance. This joyous celebration commemorates the deliverance of Israel from the genocidal intentions of the Persian second-in-command, Haman. It is a day that centres on giving food parcels to friends and neighbours, giving much charity to the needy, and feasting and drinking, in fact it is the one day a year that Jews are permitted to get a tad pickled!

One of the principle observances, both during the evening and daytime of the festival, is the reading of the scroll containing the Book of Esther, the biblical book that contains the Purim story.

The Book of Esther contains a history of the most serendipitous coincidences that thwarted a tyrants plans. The story opens with the refusal of the Persian King Ahasuerus' wife to attend the royal banquet, and her subsequent execution. Feeling melancholy at this turn of events the King's advisers suggest a nation-wide search for a new, beautiful young wife for him. The king settles on a sheltered young woman called Esther, who is advised by her uncle Mordecai to hide her Jewishness from her husband-to-be and his court. Shortly after this, Mordecai "coincidently" happens to hear a plot to kill the king being forged by two royal servants. Communicating this to his niece she reveals the plot and as a result the king's life is saved. Then the whole event, and Mordecai's role in it, is written into the Persian book of chronicles. Time passes and the King selects a new prime minister, the infamous Haman. This individual filled with unlimited arrogance is enraged by Mordecai's refusal to bow down to him, and decides to ask permission from the king to have all the Jews in the Persian Empire (most of the world's Jewish population at that time) killed. The king grants his minister this wish. When the decree becomes known by the Jews they are filled with fear and Mordecai asks Esther to intervene on behalf of her people. She agrees and asks Mordecai to tell all the Jews to fast and pray as her mission is one fraught with danger. One night the king is unable to sleep and asks one of his servants to read to him from their book of chronicles. "Coincidently" the servant reads the account of Mordecai's role in having saved the king's life several years before and realising that he had never rewarded Mordecai, he asks Haman (who coincidently at that moment happens to arrive at the palace to ask the king's permission to hang Mordecai) how he should go about honouring Mordecai. Haman, believing that the king is talking about him, cooks up a very extravagant pageant, only to suffer the humiliation of having to be the one who implements it to the honour of Mordecai. Finally Esther reveals during a meal with the King and Haman, both the plot to kill the Jews, and her own identity. The king retires to the garden in anger and Haman falls on Esther pleading for his life as things are clearly not looking good for him. The king returns at that moment and misconstruing what he sees has Haman hanged on the very gallows that had been intended to be used against Mordecai. With the death of Haman the Jews are saved.

The sages of old brought to their disciples attention the interesting fact, that the book of Esther is the only biblical book that does not contain a mention of God. But this should not come as a surprise as the primary theme of Purim is the hidden nature of God's providence, so again perhaps unsurprisingly, the very name Esther has at its root the Hebrew word for "hidden".

Is there a significant difference between nature and miracle? I believe that nature is as miraculous as any miracle, the only difference being that God's face is hidden behind the mask of nature's regularity and its seeming independent existence. But the Almighty's providence works quietly in nature as much as in any splitting of seas or raising of the dead.

The well known expression "can't see the wood for the trees" conveys real truth. Many of us have experienced that reality. When in the midst of some crisis or situation, we are often unable to see the full picture, usually having to rely on a neutral advisor to help us view things as they truly are, with a broader perspective. How exponentially greater is humanity's narrow vision apparent when considering the work of the Almighty? How can we possibly presume to fathom His plans, or the purposes behind the events He brings into being? From our vantage point as limited beings dwelling within our infinitesimally small part of creation, bound as we are by the arrow of time, it is simply beyond our ability to comprehend the ways of the Only True, whose glance takes in all existence simultaneously.

We can only imagine what Esther thought as she was taken against her will into the harem of King Ahasuerus, what purpose could she have seen in her sufferings? What could the Jews have understood about the Divine intentions behind the wicked machinations of Haman? Very little. How could Mordecai have known the nation-saving significance of his having overheard the plot against the king's life? I think it is clear from the Book of Esther, and from the events of our own lives, that it is pointless to delve too much into the reasons why bad (or good for that matter) things happen to us, instead we should focus on our obligation to respond to all of life's events in a way that honours ourselves and assists our fellow man, while ever remaining obedient to the commands of our Father in heaven.

"Eternal God, who committest to us the swift and solemn trust of life; since we know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of Thy holy will; not waiting for tomorrow, but yielding today."
Home Prayers: James Martineau.

This past week we have all seen or heard about the horrific and incomprehensible tragedy suffered by the people of Japan as the result of a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami. Time spent on pointless speculation about the role of providence in this disaster is time taken away from the actions, small or large we can all engage in to provide help to those suffering. For as King Solomon instructed us:

"Withhold not good from them to whom it is due,
When it is in the power of thine hand to do it". Proverbs 3:27

But while we must offer our help and our prayers at this time, let us also give thanks for the many significant stories of survival such as this, and marvel at the strength of human beings to cling onto life in the midst of destruction. We can all also afford to learn from the Japanese strength in working together in calm, supportive and determined unity.

When I read that some people in California, thought it appropriate to use the arrival of the then thankfully diminished tsunami, as an opportunity to surf I was simply shocked. To derive pleasure, fun even, from the effects of the event that brought death and grief to thousands, is a demonstration of a lack in empathy and understanding that must be fought against. One of the lessons of Purim teaches that it is better to spend money on charity for the poor than on the festive meal, for how can one enjoy such pleasures when others go without? Minds suffused with this mindset would never have thought to make sport with the effects of this devastating earthquake.

Eventually we may come to see, in retrospect, the reasons behind the events of this world as Jesus taught:

"For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known." Matthew 10:26

But until that time comes we can only but trust that all events in this world are guided by our merciful God, and that while such events may bring pain, grief and fear, it is our divine work in God's name to struggle to alleviate, if not remove, all these effects, peacefully secure in the quiet confidence that our Father will bestow upon us that which we need to do our work.

"Be not therefore anxious, saying. What shall we eat? Or, what shall we drink? Or, wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; 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". Matthew 6:31-33

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Lenten Optimisim

"What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You consider him? For You have made him little lower than the angels and You have crowned him with honour and glory." Psalm 8:4-5

"The goodness of the best man is nothing, compared with the goodness which the worst man is capable of attaining. This is a point in Christianity which we are slow to comprehend. We overvalue present attainment; we undervalue inherent capability. The small house suited to our present convenience, and finished in a year, we value more than the vast palace, the enormous cathedral, the metropolitan city, whose great plan it will require centuries to execute. Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage, is the type of those who despise the common human nature which is in every man, and idolize the talents of this or that brilliant person, here or there. Jesus did not so. Jesus reverenced the great nature which he saw in the soul of every man. Therefore he reverenced the child whose unpolluted soul still beheld the face of God. Therefore he looked with tenderness on the sinner, —spoke words of loftiest truth to the most humble and called upon the common crowd to be perfect, as their Father in heaven was perfect. Therefore he demanded of all, as the only essential thing, to turn their faces the right way in faith, to have courage, to believe in God and in themselves. In this conception of the possibilities of man, the roots of all great Christian ideas find nourishment. Love to God is strengthened when our love is not abject, but hopeful, flowing from the consciousness of what he has made us to be. Love to man is possible only when we see in every man the capacity of goodness, beauty, and power. We can love the sinner when the actual sin appears superficial, and the possible goodness radical. We can forgive an enemy when we see that this enemy, by means of our forgiveness, may not only become our friend, but the friend of God. We can look on ourselves with humility and yet with hope, on the prosperous without envy, on the sufferer without too sickly a sorrow, on our trials with patience, and our successes without elation, when we consider how little all these things are in comparison with the universal soul which is in all, with its boundless capacities, with its glorious destiny."

These wonderful words written by James Freeman Clarke, which I found on the "Boston Unitarian blog" are so redolent of the optimism present in Unitarianism throughout its history. It is so very easy to focus on the unpleasant in man and the world and loose site of the magnificence and goodness to be found in both.

The two prevalent views of mankind throughout history can best be summed up by the phrases "Grandeur of man" and "depravity/lowliness of man". In the case of the ancient Zoroastrians these two views were to be combined within the person of man. Noticing that human beings have much in common with animals and pursue "earthly" bodily needs and pleasures, and yet have a mind that reaches for spirituality and holiness, some in the religion of ancient Persia saw man as a creation of two "deities". They saw this as an explanation of the contradiction built into human nature. An example of this thinking is mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, where a Persian Magi says to a Jewish sage "The upper half of man belongs to Ahura-Mazda (god of Goodness), the bottom half belongs to Ahriman (god/force of evil)."

Such a dualistic understanding of human kind is, I believe, also to be found in the teachings of Plato who saw a clear body-soul divide. These conceptions must have been very prevalent and influential in the ancient world for they certainly found their way into Christianity, seen clearly in the doctrine of Original Sin which often led to a conception of man as a holy soul, trapped in a sinful body, that could only be saved through the redemptive power of Jesus' death. The strong monastic presence in early Christianity which has persisted to this day is again testament to a view of man being in the grip of an evil nature that must be escaped from as much as possible through a life of asceticism.

The pinnacle denunciation of man was to be found after the Protestant reformation, especially amongst Calvinists with their doctrine of Total Depravity. Now man was to be seen as so flawed, as so caught in the grip of sin, that nothing he can do can save him, not even his belief could save him, but only the Grace of God made possible, according to this view, by God having had himself killed on a Roman cross.

Even today there are those for whom mankind is to be regarded as sinful and depraved. There is a strong stream of this thought running through many in the environmental movement who view man as a curse on an otherwise perfect world, some going as far as sterilisation to "save the world". Of course there have been many, especially since the Enlightenment who hold the opposing Rousseauesque view of man's inherent perfection, not always with happy results!

While not forgetting mankind's capacity for wrongdoing, Unitarians have approached the issue of man's nature in a more positive way, again James Freeman Clarke:

"Unitarians commonly believe that in all men there are religious capacities, by which they may come into communion with God. These are reason, conscience, freedom, love of truth, of beauty, of goodness, the sense of the infinite, the capacity of disinterested love; and the kindred sentiments of veneration, awe, aspiration etc. These are found, more or less developed in all men and where properly educated and unfolded make the true dignity and worth of human nature."

He saw in many passages of scripture, and in many of the teachings of Jesus proof that:

"That man in his natural state has the power to do right and that such right-doing is well pleasing to God"
Manual of Unitarian Belief 1884

What are the causes of our positive view of humankind? I think the strong belief in the inherent dignity of every person, in everyone having been made in the image of the Divine, has played a central part in shaping our attitude. Also an intense focus on God's Unity reinforces the notion that everything stems from Him, and that our fellow man, being His creations, are precious to Him and endowed by Him with all we need for righteousness. This was explained briefly by Alfred Hall, when he wrote:

"There is a divine element in every man, and could he only be brought to believe in its power, what aspirations he would have and what a noble life he would attain! Beloved, now are we children of God...our nature is richly endowed. God has put such inspiration into the soul, that if we will only exercise it, evil will become powerless to overcome us"
The Beliefs of A Unitarian 1947

Our rejection of the Orthodox doctrine of "Original Sin" has also played a part. Unlike Calvin who said

"Though newly-born infants have not yet produced the fruits of their iniquity, they have still the seed enclosed in them".

We prefer to follow the instruction of our teacher and guide when he said:

"Except ye become as little children, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" Matthew 18:3

Our non-acceptance of another Orthodox doctrine, that of the Trinity, has also propelled us into viewing the human condition through such positive lenses. If we were to regard Jesus as God, then there would be nothing to wonder at either in his example or his teachings, for all things are possible with God. It is only with his simple humanity, that we can see him as our guide and template. From his overcoming temptations, from his diligence in serving his and our God, from his willingness to sacrifice himself to testify to the truth, we too can learn the extent of human potential.

Ultimately reason shouts loudly at us that human beings are not born stained with the guilt of their parents or of some original transgression. We all perceive infants and children as completely innocent, which is why the harming or abuse of children rightly raises such anger and grief. The existence of morality, itself dictates that we are born with the potential for goodness, and even a type of perfection.

"According to the plainest principles of morality we maintain that a natural constitution of mind, unfailingly disposing it to evil, and to evil alone, would absolve it from guilt"
William Ellery Channing.

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits in his 1969 Rosh Hashanah broadcast on the BBC contemplated the moon landings and recalled a sermon published a decade earlier about an imaginary account of what the first man to set foot on the moon would see and experience. In this sermon the spaceman, gazing in wonderment at the overpowering solitude around him heard a message in the silence of his soul;

"You, Astronaut of Earth, are now standing upon an uncontaminated celestial body. Ac
ross these dusty plains and in these towering mountains there is not, and never has been, the slightest stain of sin or evil. No lie has been told in this silent world. These rocks are unstained by the blood of war. This is the purity of the universe as it was when it left the mighty hand of God"

The Chief Rabbi then went on to contrast this contemplation with what an astronaut suffused with a Jewish ethic would have thought. He would view the empty wastes of the moon no so much unstained by any sin or vice, but rather as wastes unsanctified by any virtue or noble deed. True no lie had yet to be told, but more to the point neither had any truth ever been told or proclaimed in that lifeless world. No stone in those barren surroundings has ever borne witness to a feat of heroism or to an act of self sacrifice, no site has been hallowed by prayer or love and no grandeur of human creativity testifiers to the partnership between God and His creatures in perfecting the universe He created. That Jewish ethic, is also the optimistic ethic of Unitarianism.

When we begin a relationship we are always so very careful to present the best of ourselves, and only after some time do we relax enough, in the confidence of our partners love, to be able to let them see our faults. Likewise, it is only when we have internalised our goodness, our nearness to God, our human grandeur, that we can then turn our attention with confidence to our flaws and sins, and work to improve ourselves.

In a sermon reaffirming the essential Unitarian beliefs of God as One not Three in One, in Christ as a real true and noble man, in the Bible as being the only creed, and reminding his listeners of our rejection of Original Sin, William Gaskell demonstrated that Unitarians are inspired with a more generous confidence in human nature and concluded with;

"We are created capable of good, and it is our duty to promote it".

As life begins to wake and emerge after its winter's rest, let us focus on broadening our view of humanity, focusing on and promoting the good, and giving thanks to the Only True for his endless gifts to us all.