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.