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

Friday, 10 June 2011

True Worship.

"Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: what manner of house will ye build unto me? And what place shall be my rest? For all these things hath mine hand made, and so all these things came to be, saith the Lord: But to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth in awe at my word."
Isaiah 66:1-2

This week I came across an essay written by the 19th century champion of German Jewish Orthodoxy; Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch 1808-1888, which has impressed me considerably. These are his words:

"Houses of God, Divine Services, are of secondary importance; for what is generally known as Divine Worship has in the sphere of (God's) Teaching neither the same meaning nor the same aim. The Divine Service of (God's) Teaching, is life itself, and to worship God means to obey the laws of God. Not by the manner in which you build His House, decorate His Temple, chant hymns and pray unto Him will God recognise you as belonging to Him, but by the manner in which you build and sanctify your own homes, serve Him in your everyday life, in your marriage, in the education of your children, in your family, your whole social relationship; whether and how you serve Him with your thoughts and feelings, your speech and your actions, your business life and your enjoyment; whether you fulfil in all these spheres the revealed Will of God - that is how God will judge you to see whether or not you are His servant. Temples, Houses of God, Divine Service do not testify anything to God, they exist in order to act as witnesses for you, to remind you of your God, to declare to you your task, to save you from the vicissitudes of life, to collect your thoughts as you appear before your God, to make you reflect upon your own self, to re-create for you again and again a true conception of your own self, your destiny and your whole relationship to God. The....houses of worship exist in order that (man) should prepare himself within them for the service of God in life. They are thus not for God but for man. For God is only there - and He is always there - where you allow Him to be Master and Father; where you submit yourself with a joyful heart to His rule, leadership, and teaching; where you are His servant, His disciple and His child."
Collected Writings Sivan 1

These compelling, reasoned and well written words remind us that the religious and spiritual life is to be lived holistically, and should not be confined solely to the house of worship.

Chaya Sara Kramer, a survivor of the Holocaust, when asked if she had been angry with God while in Auschwitz replied that she had not. "About the Holy One, Blessed be He, I didn't think anything except good, He created man and He sustains him. How can anyone doubt His goodness?" She then went on to reveal that in Auschwitz she, with The Eternal always in mind, strove to exercise the only power she had; the power to choose good, in her case by observing as many Jewish laws as she could, and assisting her fellow prisoners in all their needs as much as she could. With the perspective of this amazing women every theatre of life can be seen to contain opportunities to engage in worship. According to her biographer and friend, Sara Yoheved Rigler, Chaya Sara's world-view held that "a person reclining in the luxury spa of a five-star hotel who insults the waitress who brings her a glass of iced tea is in a far worse place than a girl keeping the Sabbath in Auschwitz".

How strongly all this reminds me of the words of our teacher's brother:

"What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? Can that faith save him?.....Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.
James 2:14-17

There is nothing at all wrong, or so it seems to me, in working to craft beautiful and uplifting services, to relish our shared times of worship, or to beautify our churches. All these things are important. But our relationship with the Divine does not begin when we enter through the doors of our chapels and churches, nor does it end when we leave. Rousing hymns, elegant music and candle/chalice lightings are of no value if our behaviour at home or at work fails to sanctify the name of God, or fails to honour His image in those around us. For as Jesus taught:

"But go ye and learn what this meaneth, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice."
Matthew 9:13

I shall certainly try to keep in mind these lessons as I journey to chapel on Sunday, and will try to use the time in shared worship to rededicate myself to and remind myself of, my task and responsibilities as a child of God, to both my Maker and all His creations.

"Dearly beloved brethren, God, in whom we live and move and have our being, never leaves us, day or night. But the very nearness and custom of His presence hide Him from our infirm and sinful hearts; and under cover of this darkness, our inner discernment becomes dim, temptations gain a shameful power, and the good that is in us droops and fades. To clear such blindness away, and recover the pure wisdom of a Christian mind, we are called to this day of remembrance and this house of prayer."
James Martineau Home Prayers With Two Services for Public Worship

Monday, 6 June 2011

Pentecost Reflections: Courage and Commitment

"It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to take refuge." Ruth 2:11-12

This week sees the arrival of the Jewish festival of Shavuos, or "Weeks" in English. It is the culmination of the festival of Passover that occurred 7 weeks or 50 days previously. The number of days also reveals a link to the Christian feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, which is celebrated this coming Sunday. Shavuos is one of Israel's harvest festivals, which Jews have piously observed even when distanced from the agricultural cycles of their Holy Land. Additionally and more importantly the festival marks the date which tradition claims as the anniversary of God presenting his revelation to Israel on Mount Sinai. Over one thousand years later and on the same date, according to Christian tradition, occurred the revelation and descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus, infusing them with renewed inspiration and commencing their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. Just as fire descended on Mount Sinai so flames were said to descend upon the heads of the disciples. Both these festivals are pregnant with meaning and merit greater study and respect.

For me one of the nicest observances of Shavuos, (other than the consumption of lots of yummy cheesecakes and other assorted dairy products) is the reading of the Book of Ruth, perhaps one of my favourite books in the Bible. Not only is it a beautiful and moving story, I find it inspires me to emulate its core themes of commitment, kindness and devotion (even if I am not always so successful in putting these themes into practice.)

The story is replete with many selfless acts of kindness. Naomi, a stranger in a strange land, who having lost her husband and her two sons and resolving herself to return to Bethlehem, pleads with her daughters-in-law (her last connection with her sons) not to accompany her into a life of poverty and loneliness but to return back into the bosom of their families and societies. Thoughts of her own loneliness and vulnerability are set aside in the interest of others. Boaz, whose words of praise opened this post, was willing to set aside his own love and admiration for the titular heroine, in order to observe God's will, and to honour the rights of others.

But above all, the greatest sacrificial kindness on display is that of Ruth herself. She sets aside her own heritage, future and comfort in devotion to Naomi, her mother-in-law and utters her famous words:

"Intreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" Ruth 1:16

While the trait of loving-kindness is perhaps the most obvious aspect of Ruth's character (so much so that people not exhibiting this trait are held to be ruthless) I feel that another of her virtues is often overlooked; Courage. It may seem that Ruth is a victim of circumstance, a lone women lost in a world dominated by men, forced to labour tirelessly in the fields, gleaning for survival and at the mercy of the goodwill of others. But of course it did not have to be this way. She chose to give up her life in her homeland and embrace life with Naomi, whatever the consequences. Placing her trust in God she, like Abraham before her, walked bravely forward into an uncertain life. She made a commitment to Naomi and to God, and all commitment requires a good dose of courage.

Every relationship and every endeavour has risk, nothing in life is guaranteed and despite all the methods which people have invented for prognostication, the future remains uncharted territory. So when we commit ourselves to someone or something we too act with courage.

Ruth could not be dissuaded, she knew what she had to do, she knew what was right and she set herself on the path necessary to fulfil it. Like all of us, she no doubt heard that familiar inner, incredulous voice that questioned the sanity of her decision. Naomi herself was pleading with her to stay among her people, and yet her moral fortitude won out. Can it be any wonder that royalty would in time descend from her?

It is not always easy to stand by our decisions or our beliefs. Sometimes self-doubt or external criticism forces us to veer off the path we believe to be true. In the interest of an "easy life" we conform to peer pressure and expectation, and in so doing we sacrifice an aspect of our human dignity for as Ruth demonstrated it is exceedingly more noble to gather scraps of grain in a foreign field and be committed to that which you know to be true, than to sit in luxury knowing that you have betrayed your conscience.

A couple of weeks ago in chapel, I heard a Hindu story which illustrates the danger of relinquishing the courage of conviction. I shall broadly outline it:

Some thieves notice a wealthy man returning from the market with a grand sheep. They decide amongst themselves to steal it and eat it, but are divided as to how to go about it. Two of the thieves suggest various ways of physically attacking and disabling the man in order to make off with the animal. The third brigand suggests that they trick the man into handing the sheep over, a suggestion that is accepted by the others. As the man walks along he comes across the first thief who asks him if he is going hunting. When the man replies that he isn't, the thief questions him as to why he has brought a hunting dog with him! "A hunting dog" replies the man "What are you talking about this is a sheep!" The thief continuing his act insists that it is a dog. Convinced that he is talking to a person devoid of sanity, the wealthy man walks on. Soon he comes across the second thief, "Please please sir, keep that dog away from me, I'm terrified of dogs" he yells. Struck by the madness of the situation the sheep's owner insists that the "dog" is in fact a sheep, but to no avail. Finally he comes across the third thief who begs to be allowed to pet the "dog" as he loves them so. At this point the man questions himself. "I thought this was a sheep, but it seems I must have been wrong. It looks as if I must have been deceived in the market, and sold a worthless dog for the price of a sheep. What do I need a dog for, I have five at home?" And with that he releases the sheep and storms off back to the market. The criminals set upon the sheep, kill it and eat it.

The message of Shavuos and Pentecost presents us with challenges. To embrace God and to walk trustingly in His ways is not always easy, just as it is not always easy to sustain a relationship in the face of difficulties. But if we are confident that this way is true (with the humility to always be open to the wisdom of others and to the possibility that we might be wrong) we must courageously walk that path even if the whole world stands against us, safe in the knowledge that it is a blessing in itself to do so.

"Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." Matthew 5:10-11

Many have risen to such a challenge, and one day I will have to dedicate a post to the story of one such individual: Emily Hobhouse, who suffered accusations of treachery and disloyalty for her advocacy of Boer women and children, victims of the brutal British policy of that time, and her staunch opposition to the First World War. She knew the truth that she had to pursue. She, like Ruth, was committed to it and would not be dissuaded.

These upcoming holy days can reinvigorate our resolve and convictions and strengthen us to continue our journeys, faithful to God and to the service of our fellow human beings, always aware that commitment is very much like Shakespeare describes love:

"Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds.
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh no! It is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken."
Sonnet 116