Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter Renewal.

"They that sow in tears will reap in joy. Though he goeth on his way weeping, bearing forth the seed; He shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him" Psalm 126:5-6

Easter day dawns and Christians everywhere of all different denominations celebrate the resurrection, whether that is understood as a literal, historical event, or conceived of as a powerful and inspiring allegory.

With the discovery of the empty tomb a process began, which saw a remarkable strengthening of resolve in the hearts of Jesus' followers who only a few days earlier were consumed with grief, guilt and fear.

This day of Easter gives us all a priceless opportunity to begin anew,to put fear and lethargy aside, to regain our inspiration and dedicate ourselves once more, to a life lived by the lessons taught so very long ago, but still so relevant today. And what better way can there be to celebrate Easter that to cleave to the following words attributed to Jesus:

"A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you,
that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples,
if ye have love one to another."
John 13:34-35

May our Divine Father grant you all a peaceful, holy and joyful Easter.

Happy the souls who first believed,-
to Jesus and each other cleaved,-
Joined by the spirit from above,
In mystic fellowship of love.

On God they cast their every care,
Sheltered beneath the wings of prayer
They all were of one heart and soul,
And only love inspired the whole.

O what an age of golden days!
O what a choice and holy race!
Where shall we wander now to find
The faithful they have left behind?

Ye different sects, who all declare
Lo! here is christ, or christ is there!
Your claim alas! ye cannot prove;
Ye want the genuine mark of love.

Scattered, O Lord, thy servants lie,
Till Thou collect them with thine eye,-
Draw by the music of Thy name,
And charm into a beauteous frame.

Join every soul that looks to Thee
In bonds of perfect charity;
Greatest of gifts, Thy love impart,
And make us of one mind and heart.
Charles Wesley (From James Martineau's collection "Hymns of Praise and Prayer".

Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday Inspiration.

"The Lord redeemeth the soul of His servants: And none of them that trust in Him shall be condemned." Psalm 34:22

Today marks the day that Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced to a criminal's death, and died on a Roman cross, with the mocking legend "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews" nailed above his head, in order to ram home to the people the idea; "This is what happens to your Kings, so don't get any ideas". Darkness and grief descended upon his family and his disciples, it seemed as if the dream was over.

While, generally speaking, the crucifixion does not have the same meaning to Unitarian Christians as it does to our more orthodox brethren, this does not mean that the day is any less significant or that it is any less poignant.

Jesus' death is an embodiment of the literal meaning of the word martyrdom; Witness.

He witnessed with his execution, before the eyes of his brethren, that he loved God more than his life, and he demonstrated that no power was able to force him into disloyalty to his God. His death mocked the strength of an empire that would in time expire, while his message would go on to shape the world including Rome itself!

Life itself is often seen as the ultimate purpose of creation, providing its own reason for being, "I live so that I can live". But perhaps life is itself only a means to an end? Perhaps an additional purpose is what infuses life with its reason to exist? "I live in order to fulfil a purpose". If life was its own ultimate purpose then martyrdom would not only be futile, but would indeed be a horrific waste of life and a rejection of all that is good and purposeful. Jesus however believed that there is a fundamental purpose, that gives meaning to life, and his belief is affirmed by Unitarian Christians and many others. "I live to serve God by living a good and righteous life, helping my fellow man, working on improving my character and keeping God always before me".

This conception of life led to Jesus' insistent drive towards reaching out to his fellow countrymen and brining them back into a life of balance, connected with their Heavenly Father, and resulted in him guiding them to live lives of simplicity, devotion and service. This earned him enemies as is known, but his belief that the time had come for God's Kingdom to become manifested on earth and his conviction of his own special role in that Divine aim, earned him even more, and increasingly dangerous, enemies in the temporal and mighty rule of Rome, and of their lackeys in the Temple precincts. Eventually they saw the "risk" posed by him and his vision of society as too great, and ended his life. Many, especially amongst his own nation, have fallen after him, persecuted by those who will not countenance an allegiance higher than the state, or its understanding, (or abuse) of religion. By his death, willing as he was to risk his own life to bring greater purpose and happiness to the lives of others, Jesus demonstrated a powerful love for his fellow man that transcended the strength of powerful empires and the icy grip of fear, the memory and impact of which has lasted down the years even to our own times.

"Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13

His love for his fellow human beings was made shockingly apparent when despite the cruel and unjust suffering that some where heaping upon him he uttered the famous words:

"And Jesus said "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" Luke 23:34

How utterly ashamed these words must make many of us feel, and how they awaken the conscience, when we are struck by the level of forgiveness people can reach! And to think we find it hard to forgive the smallest slights! Jesus demonstrates what can be achieved when one's love for God leads not to a distance but to a love of His creations. One cannot love the Creator by trampling the creation, made in His image, underfoot.

Others throughout history have also bravely faced the challenge presented by tyrants; to give up their commitment to God, truth and faith in exchange for their lives. And in so doing have elevated themselves to beacons of that higher purpose which fills all life with meaning. The expression "if you have nothing to die for you have nothing to live for" seemingly sums this up.

Unitarians have had their share of historical martyrs who perished for affirming the Unity of God.

However, for all the majesty achieved by Jesus and other martyrs down the ages, I feel we must never relish what ultimately remains a great tragedy. After all, God created us to live and not to die for him.

"I am the Lord your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statues and my judgements: Which if a man do, he shall LIVE in them: I am the Lord." Leviticus 18:5

While in our day and age the chances of any of us actually becoming martyrs in the old sense is thankfully greatly reduced to almost nothing, we should still avoid however, placing ourselves deliberately in the path of opposition or acting provocatively, often motivated in large part by pride, in ways that are guaranteed and even designed to cause others to rise up against us. We do not have to court controversy. Those preachers both Christian and Muslim that one sometimes sees on street corners, denouncing the sinful ways of all those around them, who seem to thrive on the anger and opposition of the shoppers and walkers, are exceedingly far from the example of Jesus:

"And he keeled down and prayed saying; "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me." Luke 22:42

Life is a gift and we should not search out ways to put it in jeopardy. Peace and co-existence are precious and we should always seek to preserve them as much as possible.

There is one way however, that we can all emulate, on a daily basis, our teacher's final passion on Golgotha, and to discover how we can do so, we need only listen to the words uttered so long ago amongst the olive trees of Gethsemane, with which Jesus concluded the verse in Luke 22:42;

"Nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done."

Every day our desires clash with the morality that God has communicated to us via scripture, reason or our consciences. The moment when our tiredness and frustration urges us to scream at our children, partner, or parent can be an opportunity to reach beyond ourself. A transcendent opportunity to sanctify the name of the Divine, by instead substituting His will for our own, and speaking with words of kindness and calmness. Likewise the moment our self-regard or desire for belonging urges us to share some juicy gossip, or our inclination to vengeance goads us to make suffer they who have made us suffer a heavenly ladder descends, presenting us with the ability to bring God's light into the world by simply setting aside our will, for that of the Divine.

So if nothing else, as Friday afternoon arrives and the time of Jesus' death 20 centuries ago comes to my little corner of the world, I will pause, perhaps shed a tear, and think of the lessons of the cross, and I will pray to his Father, our Father, my Father, that by these lessons, Jesus' cross will raise me up nearer, nearer my God, to thee.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’ertake me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me,
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

When the sun of bliss is beaming
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
By the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that through all time abide.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

John Bowring 1825

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Week That Changed The World

"For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations."
Isaiah 61:11

This week the Jewish and Christian faithful celebrate the most important festivals in their calendars. The events commemorated with great love by the respective communities, were and continue to be hugely influential in creating the world that we all live in, and are largely thankful for, today. They have shaped the world view of billions of individuals and entire societies the world over.

Monday evening sees the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover, which recollects, and relives, the resurrection of the Jewish nation after centuries shackled in Egyptian bondage. Jews gather around the family table to transmit to the next generations the memory of the genesis of their nation and to give thanks to God for their spiritual freedom and for the eternal and solemn covenant between themselves and He who intervened in history and delivered them out of slavery and who led them to their own land, in which they were to create a holy and righteous society that would instruct the whole world in the meaning of a national and personal life devoted to the will of our Heavenly Father.

Today Christians celebrated Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem which begins the commemorations of Easter that recollect the events of that tumultuous week, culminating in his death and resurrection. For his whole ministry Jesus had been preaching about the imminent appearance of the Kingdom of God, in which God's will would become manifested on earth as it is in heaven. To this end he strove to reach out to those amongst his nation that had distanced their hearts from God, and to bring them back into a life of righteousness under the loving presence of the Divine. It is clear that by the time he arrived in Jerusalem he was convinced that the time had arrived for all that the prophets had announced in the past to come to fruition.

As he, his disciples and presumably many other pilgrims, made their way over the Mount of Olives towards the holy city, the following words of the prophet Zechariah were in his mind;

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt, the foal of an ass." Zechariah 9:9

Jesus asks his disciples to go and fetch for him the colt of a donkey from a nearby village, and then proceeds to ride into the city, surrounded by his followers and crowds of people rejoicing with him and reciting words from Psalm 118 that Jews to this day recite on Passover as a hymn of praise.

"Save now*, we beseech thee O Lord" (*hoshiana in Hebrew, a phrase known to Christians as hosanah). "Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord".

In addition they expressed a faith they shared with Jesus, that the time for the fulfilment of prophecy was at hand:

"Blessed is the kingdom that cometh, the kingdom of our father David" Mark 11:9

In order to stress the point that the messianic age had finally dawned Jesus went into the temple and proceeded to overturn the tables of the money changers, driving out from the temple precincts, the traders that were selling to the pilgrims the required sacrificial animals, while expounding;

"Is it not written "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations" but you have made it a den of robbers." Mark 15:17

No doubt Jesus had the words of Zechariah 14:21; "and in that day, there shall be no more a merchant in the house of the Lord of hosts" at the forefront of his mind.

The significantly symbolic entrance into the city and the disruption in the Temple did not go unnoticed by the authorities. Passover, the Jewish festival of independence, was a tense time in Roman occupied Jerusalem. The city was swollen with thousands of Jews from all over the known world on their annual pilgrimage, or as they called it in Hebrew; Chag HaPesach, think Mecca during Hajj to get some idea of the event, (Chag and Hajj incidentally stem from the same Semitic linguistic root). The Romans concerned by the sentiments of the feast were present in ever greater numbers to keep things under control, and even the Roman procurator would relocate to Jerusalem from the coast for the duration of the festival to keep his eye on the events. And now appeared a man seemingly presenting himself as the foretold King of Israel, with much support from the people, creating havoc in the Temple! For a modern parallel imagine a Jew, declaring himself the sovereign of Israel, entering the Temple mount during Ramadan and evicting the Muslim worshippers from the mosques on that site! The outcome of such an action would be disastrous. As today, also yesterday.

The Sadduceean authorities, most certainly pressured by the Romans, strove to annul what they saw as a real threat to the stability of the city, and before the week was out, a great shock gripped the city, Jesus of Nazareth was dead on a Roman cross and the prophecy of Zechariah was left unfulfilled, even to this day:

"I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off....there shall be no more curse but Jerusalem shall dwell safely"9:10-14:11

When Moses came, at God's command, to the Egyptian Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Hebrew slaves everything must have looked very positive. Moses came with the absolute conviction that God was to fulfil His promise and redeem His people. The people themselves must have held their breath in hope that finally the promise made to their ancestors was about to be fulfilled and a new life was set to begin and yet we are told:

"And the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their officers saying, ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them, ye shall not diminish aught thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God." Exodus 5:7-8

Things got worse, much worse as a result of Moses' intervention and subsequently the people lost all spirit. What followed was months of catastrophes in Egypt with seemingly no end in sight and then suddenly the nation was free! Free and finally taking their place on the stage of history. So sudden was their salvation that to this day the symbol of the festival is unleavened bread, dough given no time to rise. From great disappointment emerged great joy and hope. Likewise the horrific event on the Friday after Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem was not the end of his story. From bitter disappointment and grief emerged a speedy and meteoric spread of Jesus' teachings and faith which took the philosophy and morality and some of the theology of the nation redeemed from slavery, and delivered it to the farthest reaches of the earth and eventually to most of the world's cultures and peoples, ensuring that the world would never be the same again.

This for me will be my main meditation during this Passover and Easter. Despite how often we see our attempts to do what is right end in failure, or see our strivings to govern our lives by the righteous ordinances of the Master of creation fail before any evidence of success, we are never to give up. No matter how many times we fail to improve the society in which we live, we are never to be despondent. For our Heavenly Father is always present with us as He was with His people Israel in Egypt and as He was with our teacher Jesus, and from our assumed failures He can bring out seeds of great success. Both the spring season with its flourishing of new life and the lessons of those events that happened in those days thousands of years ago at this time, can fill us with a renewed conviction to live our lives rightly and thereby attain that salvation promised to us by the word of God, the teaching of Jesus and the conscience divinely placed within us.

"When we say we believe in "salvation by character" we affirm a truth of spiritual experience: we assert that salvation does not depend upon any external scheme, such as that of vicarious suffering, but on the moral co-operation of the human spirit with the Divine Spirit. It is the assertion that the means of grace are always present, if man will make use of them. It is a declaration that every noble aspiration, thought, wish, word and act assist in upbuilding the spirit: and it is a call to perseverance in the ways of truth and righteousness with the help and by the grace of God.
Alfred Hall "The beliefs of a Unitarian."

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Rejecting A Church of Hate

"The Lord is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works. All Thy works shall give thanks unto Thee, O Lord; and Thy saints shall bless Thee." Psalm 145:8-9

This past Friday I saw listed in my television guide, a mention of the soon to be shown programme, portraying the return visit by Louis Theroux, to the Westboro Baptist Church of hate in Kansas. I wasn't planning to watch it, as at heart I feel that the more attention this tiny group of prideful damaged souls receives, the stronger the delusions become entrenched in their minds. (In addition I just didn't fancy a session of yelling at the screen with frustration at the madness and sadness of it all.) But like in many areas of life I failed to resist temptation and I ended up watching it today on the BBC iPlayer. (And yes yelling at the screen with frustration at the madness and sadness of it all.)

While it can almost go without saying that the Westboro Baptists' behaviour is diametrically opposed to that exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth who they claim to follow, and while I think that it is accurate to say that the entirety of the Christian world rejects both them and their hatred, it can't be ignored that everything they do is rooted in Christian theology.

The fashion these days by some, is to pretend that the word's great faiths are sweet and lovely and that abhorrent behaviour by any of their followers is simply the work of people hijacking religion, sometimes denying wholesale the scriptural or theological roots of those whose expression of faith is less than agreeable. This, in addition to being a dishonest and unhelpful approach, only strengthens the equally false arguments of those who argue that religion is only a force for untruth, obscurantism and evil, whose apologists have no recourse but to resort to denial.

The Westboro Baptist church's theology is deeply rooted in an uncompromising form of Calvinism. I must stress, all other Calvinists reject Fred Phelps' church and want nothing to do with it. Their theological beliefs do not lead them to behave in the immoral and cruel way that Westboro do, and no negative judgements can be made of contemporary Calvinists as a result of the preaching or actions of the above named Kansas cult. But the reality is that Calvin's Five Points influence all that this hate-promoting church thinks and does.

This fact reminded me of something I once read in the writings of the 19th century Unitarian William Ellery Channing, himself brought up in a Calvinistic home, in his essay on Unitarian Christianity 1819.

"Now, we object to the systems of religion, which prevail among us, that they are adverse, in a greater or less degree, to these purifying, comforting, and honourable views of God; that they take from us our Father in heaven, and substitute for him a being, whom we cannot love if we would, and whom we ought not to love if we could.... This system indeed takes various shapes, but in all it casts dishonour on the Creator. According to its old and genuine form, it teaches, that God brings us into life wholly depraved, so that under the innocent features of our childhood is hidden a nature averse to all good and propense to all evil, a nature which exposes us to God's displeasure and wrath, even before we have acquired power to understand our duties, or to reflect upon our actions. According to a more modern exposition, it teaches, that we came from the hands of our Maker with such a constitution, and are placed under such influences and circumstances, as to render certain and infallible the total depravity of every human being, from the first moment of his moral agency; and it also teaches, that the offence of the child, who brings into life this ceaseless tendency to unmingled crime, exposes him to the sentence of everlasting damnation. Now, according to the plainest principles of morality, we maintain, that a natural constitution of the mind, unfailingly disposing it to evil and to evil alone, would absolve it from guilt; that to give existence under this condition would argue unspeakable cruelty; and that to punish the sin of this unhappily constituted child with endless ruin, would be a wrong unparalleled by the most merciless despotism.

This system also teaches, that God selects from this corrupt mass a number to be saved, and plucks them, by a special influence, from the common ruin; that the rest of mankind, though left without that special grace which their conversion requires, are commanded to repent, under penalty of aggravated woe; and that forgiveness is promised them, on terms which their very constitution infallibly disposes them to reject, and in rejecting which they awfully enhance the punishments of hell. These proffers of forgiveness and exhortations of amendment, to beings born under a blighting curse, fill our minds with a horror which we want words to express".

Whether or not you agree with his characterisation of and conclusions about Calvinistic theology in the next part of his essay I am certain that many will see in it a description of the Westboro Baptist Church in all but name:

"That this religious system does not produce all the effects on character, which might be anticipated, we most joyfully admit. It is often, very often, counteracted by nature, conscience, common sense, by the general strain of Scripture, by the mild example and precepts of Christ, and by the many positive declarations of God's universal kindness and perfect equity. But still we think that we see its unhappy influence. It tends to discourage the timid, to give excuses to the bad, to feed the vanity of the fanatical, and to offer shelter to the bad feelings of the malignant. By shocking, as it does, the fundamental principles of morality, and by exhibiting a severe and partial Deity, it tends strongly to pervert the moral faculty, to form a gloomy, forbidding, and servile religion, and to lead men to substitute censoriousness, bitterness, and persecution, for a tender and impartial charity. We think, too, that this system, which begins with degrading human nature, may be expected to end in pride; for pride grows out of a consciousness of high distinctions, however obtained, and no distinction is so great as that which is made between the elected and abandoned of God."

This miniscule congregation thrives on attention and opposition. Every time good people organise counter demonstrations to their desecration of funerals or to their other outrages, it only serves to further their belief in themselves as the persecuted elect of God. The best thing that can be done is to completely ignore them, no TV documentaries, no appearances on radio, no counter demonstrations, no hate-mail, simply nothing! Perhaps without the oxygen of opposition they will simply fade away and disintegrate, thereby sparing themselves and those that they harass from further pain.

How can one find the time to list the many many verses in the Bible that explicitly contradict the teachings of the "God Hates You"? However I will list a few of my favourites:

"And the Lord said, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city; wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand." Jonah 10-11

"The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life...Hatred stirreth up strifes: But love convereth all transgressions". Proverbs 10:12

"The Lord is full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy" Psalm 103:8

"Judge not lest you be judged" Matthew 7:1

"Now when he drew near to the gate of the city, behold there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow...and when the lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, "weep not". Luke 7:12-13

"He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love" 1 John 4:8

I leave the last words of this post to William Ellery Channing:

"To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. We believe that he has a father's concern for his creatures, a father's desire for their improvement, a father's equity in proportioning his commands to their powers, a father's joy in their progress, a father's readiness to receive the penitent, and a father's justice for the incorrigible. We look upon this world as a place of education, in which he is training men by prosperity and adversity, by aids and obstructions, by conflicts of reason and passion, by motives to duty and temptations to sin, by a various discipline suited to free and moral beings, for union with himself, and for a sublime and ever-growing virtue in heaven."