Saturday, 23 June 2012

Midsummer's Future Dream.

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven". Ecclesiastes 3:1

Something that many people, across the divisions of culture, race and creed, have in common is a distrust if not a fear of change. The majority of us like things to run smoothly and to a certain extent predictably with a minimum of rapid or significant alteration. Religious communities themselves are some of the most resistant to change, fearing that even a small amount may rapidly undo the very foundations of their faith. Some of us may have even been familiar with groups or congregations who resisted change even as they realised that without it they would certainly cease to flourish or even exist. And this verity of human nature is not new, but reaches far back into the mists of human history. Our ancestors were perhaps even more aware of, and fearful of, change and it is therefore not surprising that during those times in the year when one season begins to change into another they created rituals to ward off danger or to secure good fortune for the times to come. Midsummer was one such occasion.

Midsummer festivals are found in many countries and testify to the power this time of year had on the imagination of countless peoples throughout history. In many European countries these traditions continue to this day, and are perhaps one of a small number of rituals that originate in the times before Christianity inspired the imagination of millions of Europeans, profoundly altering their ways of life. There are many customs associated with this day some unique to individual places and others shared across many borders. Two traditions seem to be widespread, one being the gathering of certain medicinal (magical) flowers and plants (in Galicia where my family originates, the custom is to collect rue, mallow, foxglove, rosemary, St John's Wort and elder, leave them outside in a bowl of water overnight and wash with that water on Midsummer day itself, 24th June) and the other to light bonfires. Fire, believed to purify and destroy evil, was presumably believed to be at its most powerful when its kin, the Sun was at its zenith, and hence fires were lit at this time, to banish away any harm from the growing crops.

Such customs and observances, and the beliefs that underpinned them, may seem a world away from the lives of many modern, and especially urban people, but I think that Midsummer contains a valuable lesson all can benefit from. At this time of year the sun is at its highest point in the sky, the days are at their longest, and from now on, almost imperceptibly at first, the days get ever shorter as we begin the journey back to the darkness of winter. And yet the bounty of the harvest is yet to come. The warmest weather of the year, the warmest sea temperatures of the year are yet to be felt. Indeed what we think of as quintessentially 'summer' is to be found mostly after the sun's strongest point. (The Cornish say it wonderfully in a proverb of theirs: "Gwave en Have tereha Goluan". Winter in Summer until Midsummer.)  The customs of this time testify to the need to "strike while the iron is hot", to utilise periods of blessing wisely to benefit times when things may not be so good.

Life is not a smooth journey, but like nature itself, has its cycles and seasons. The Bible in Numbers 33 enumerates the 42 encampments of the children of Israel's journey through the wilderness. Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter, the founder of the Gerrer Hassidic dynasty pointed out that the names of these encampments allude to journeys and experiences we undergo in our lives. Sometimes we camp at 'Marah' bitterness, sometimes we are in 'Miskan' sweetness. At times we are in 'Makheloth' to congregate, surrounded by friends, and at times we feel that we are at 'B'Kitzei HaMidbar' edge of the wilderness, lonely and isolated. We sometimes reach 'Har Sinai' mount Sinai, where it is easy to grow spiritually and at other times we find ourselves in 'Kibroth-HaTaavah' graves of desire, where we struggle with some of our desires. Each of us walks a journey through the spectrum of moods and emotions.

 There are days in our lives when everything seems to go perfectly. We wake up nice and early, get ready for work with plenty of time, have a delicious breakfast and glide to work without traffic problems or delays in transport. All our efforts succeed and our relationships with people are filled with laughter, happiness and kindness. Then there are those other days, when we wake up late, immediately stub our toes getting out of bed, hampered in getting ready when the children are in an uncooperative mood. We miss our bus or get stuck in traffic. We are reprimanded by our boss or end up losing our purse. Our relationships with people are fraught and tense and we just long for the sanctuary of our beds and sleep. Sometimes these good or bad streaks can last days or even longer, this is the stuff of life; alternating cycles of success and frustration.

The message of midsummer is to grab hold of those times when things are going well, when the sun of fortune is at its highest and one's life is flooded with the light of success and happiness and to invest effort at these special times for the sake of a better future. During these opportune moments, these auspicious times when life feels blessed, don't squander them, use the positive energy to inspire your personal and spiritual growth. Give more charity, undertake a new study course, burn away the malevolent powers of hatred by reaching out to someone you dislike or whom dislikes you.

The majority of european Midsummer observances happen on the traditional anniversary of the birth of John the baptist; 24 June. It is quite likely that John was for a while (even during the life of Jesus) an even greater and influential figure than Jesus himself. Josephus says about him:

"Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism......[many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words"

The Gospels themselves paint a picture of a hugely influential figure. Even our teacher Jesus is said to have said about John:

"I say unto you, among them that are born of women there is none greater than John" Luke 7:28

A comment so troubling to later Christians that, in the opinion of scholars, they had to add the qualifying phrase "yet he that is but little in the kingdom of God is greater than he".

John made the most of the unique times and circumstances in which he lived. A time in history whose circumstances would not be repeated again. And he struck while the iron was hot, and those sparks are still felt today. There is little doubt to me that it was John's message,  proclaimed with such passion, that ignited roaring fires of inspiration and spirituality in Jesus' heart, and which after John died, shone from Jesus during both his short but sacred ministry and horrific death and which continued to burn in the resurrected hearts of his disciples and followers long afterwards, fires which have continued to illuminate the world to this very day.

Nothing lasts forever, for all, but God, is finite.Yet properly utilised there are moments that can be almost alchemistically converted into eternal good for oneself and for the world entire.

A Blessed Midsummer to you all.

The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo's light,
While siren-like the pollen-stained bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo's voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer's boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade.

And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing.
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses split on youth's red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.
'June' by Francis Ledwidge

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Jubilee Reflections

"Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and  you shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family...And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me, and in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land." Leviticus 25:10. 23

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend has finally arrived. The streets of our towns and villages, many of our homes and public buildings are festooned with bunting, flags and images of our monarch. There is a genuinely joyful air of excitement as communities make their final preparations for eagerly anticipated street parties and gatherings. Even our recession-gripped economy and the usual rainy threat of our temperamental weather does not seem to be limiting the festive atmosphere. The considerable warmth of regard in which the Queen is held by the British people is evident and as we review the past 60 years of her reign we are reminded of the splendid job she has done.

It is safe to say that people will only ever see one Diamond Jubilee in their lifetimes. The last one to be held (indeed I believe it was also the first to be held) was Queen Victoria's in 1897. This idea, of a national event occurring only once in the lifetime of people, brings to my mind that other famous Jubilee, the one mentioned in the Biblical text with which I opened. There are I believe some interesting lessons that can be drawn from both.

So much has changed over the past 60 years in which our Queen has been on the throne! Countries have come and gone. Technology has touched almost every aspect of our lives and has played a large part in reshaping our society. Successive governments have arisen and struggled with the economy, with circumstances and with the opposition, then disappeared into history leaving behind legacies both good and not-so-good. Countless events of the most exquisite joy and the deepest grief have made their presence felt in the lives of millions. And the Queen herself has aged, gained in experience and witnessed both felicity and tragedy in the life of her family and her nation. Those whose own lives have encompassed this span of time can, like the Queen, contemplate the changes they too have seen. Those of us for whom Queen Elizabeth II has been a constant presence in our life, can be made powerfully aware of a time before we existed. What a lesson in impermanence, and what a lesson in humility.

The Yovel (Jubilee) year of the Bible, which was to be observed in the Land of Israel every 50 years would have carried several lessons. The weekly Sabbath rest, the once every 7 year sabbatical rest of the land together with the effectively once in a lifetime Jubilee observance would explicitly illustrate the words "the land is mine, you are strangers and sojourners with me". This world and everything in it, excepting the choices we make, belong to the Eternal. It is not unreasonable to see ourselves, including queens and presidents, as characters (deeply important ones however) in a single chapter in a very long book held in Divine hands. The Owner of this Book of Life is also its Author and can be found in every page and every character. The humility this should engender extends unto the monarch who is as much a stranger and sojourner in this world as the citizens over which he/she rules. This particular idea embodies the radical and revolutionary power of monotheism, which challenged the ancient pagan deification of the status quo. It forces, in the words of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "a radical split between God and the people, the God of the Israelites is not only the God of the Israelites but of everyone. His power extends not only over their territory, but everywhere". The monotheistic idea takes a stand against all absolute rulers who claim to be god, child of the gods or chief intercessor with the gods. It demythologises and secularises power. In time with this vision monarchies were toppled or in the case of our own, reformed and restricted.

The Yovel also teaches us of our position vis-a-vis the earth itself. The Bible, unlike the Code of Hammurabi or the legal works of other ancient middle-eastern societies, is unique in containing laws regarding animal welfare or regarding the welfare of land and flora. (Those other ancient law codes did contain similar legislation but in every case it was only about the financial loss to owners such damage would cause, not about the animal or plant itself.) To the Near Eastern pagan religions in which the gods are the forces in nature, nature and its forces are seen as separate from humans, on a different plane of existence to be appeased and appealed to. In Biblical religion nature and humanity, both equally created by one Divine mind, are all on the same plane of existence, and being part of nature, we become responsible for it to the Being that created it. What will our world be like when the next Diamond Jubilee occurs? Would we have discharged our obligation to the land and to our environment?

No one can have failed to notice the community aspect of our current celebrations. Even those thoughtful people who are opposed to monarchy and who wish our country to be a republic, do generally appreciate the 'coming together' such an event is bringing about. I happen to think this is one of the prime values of our monarchy; that our head of state, who symbolises the history and splendour of our nation, is above the divisive nature of our inestimable democratic politics. A divisiveness that even that ancient lover of democracy; Demosthenes, noted when; "speakers (of the Athenian assembly) do not offer advice about the business before you, but accuse and revile one another."
People and churches are working with each other in their neighbourhoods to ensure that a good time is had by all. Race, creed, gender and age and sexuality are being transcended, even if only momentarily, for the sake of a common celebration. The Biblical Jubilee, with the declaration of liberty throughout the land, and the command that land be returned  to its original owners, slaves be released and people be redeemed from debts, had at the centre a concern for the restoration of social and economic stability and the common good. Over time wealth and land can become concentrated in the hands on one small sector of society, with injustices, building upon themselves and being passed on to following generations. The Yovel year, remarkably non-judgemental as to the causes of an individual's troubles, allows for a periodic correction of the system, granting a fresh start to society. We ourselves have a rare opportunity to take this national spirit of unity and goodwill  that surrounds us and together, translate it into a real attempt to make the necessary changes that will ensure that the generation to follow, the next chapter, is not fettered by the cords of our own error and unfairness. Let us now take action to release the most vulnerable in our society, the poor, from the cords that bind them and instead give them fresh starts to be able to build up their lives with dignity. Let us all truly see ourselves as all in this together.  As individuals let us consider the words, both their literal and the figurative meanings, that were uttered by our master Jesus that we often say in prayer:

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us" Matthew 6:12

I once heard some beautiful words that were said at the funeral of a man who had lived a very long life. The speaker suggested that, on occasion, people are given very long lives in order that they may serve as a witness to the values of a previous age; sacred values that are in danger of being overshadowed or rejected. At this wonderful time, I am reminded of the words of our Queen, spoken at the first ever televised Christmas Broadcast in 1957, only a few years after her coronation. Words which serve as a reminder to us all over 6 decades later:

"The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless. Honesty counted as foolishness and self interest set up in place of self restraint. At this critical moment in our history we will certainly lose the trust and respect of the world, if we just abandon those fundamental principles which guided the men and women who built the greatness of this country and commonwealth."

May these Jubilee celebrations be filled with great joy, weaving a beautiful tapestry of memory for all involved in them. And may Queen Elizabeth II be blessed with continuing good health and many more years of wise rule over our beloved country.

"Almighty Lord, of whose righteous will all things are, and were created; who liftest the islands out of the deep, and preparest not in vain the habitable world; Thou hast gathered our people into a great nation, and sent them to sow beside all waters, and multiply sure dwellings on the earth. Deepen the root of our life in everlasting righteousness; and let not the crown of our pride be as a fading flower. Make us equal to our high trusts; reverent in the use of freedom, just in the exercise  of power, generous in the protection of weakness. With all thy blessings bless Thy servant, our Queen; and every member of the Royal House. Fill her heart and theirs with such loyalty to Thee, that her people may be exalted by their loyalty to  her. To our legislators and counsellors give insight and faithfulness, that our laws may clearly speak the right, and our judges purely interpret it. Let it be known among us how Thou hatest robbery for burnt-offering; that the gains of industry may be all upright, and the use of wealth considerate. May wisdom and knowledge be the stability of our times: and our deepest trust be in Thee, the Lord of nations and the King of kings."
From the Unitarian Orders of Worship.