Monday, 31 October 2011

Facing The Night With Joy And Trust

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

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

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

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

Wishing everyone a Happy Halloween.

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

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Inquiry and Prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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