Wednesday, 12 September 2012


"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament relates His handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night after night sheweth knowledge. 
 There is no speech nor language; Their voice cannot be heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." Psalm 19:1-4

It has certainly been some while since I last posted something, as life has become increasingly busy over the past few months. I have recently extended my working hours which have necessitated a very early start. As can be imagined this certainly has some downsides but it also has given me opportunities for reflection. There is something quite unique about the pre-dawn and immediately post-dawn time of day. The peace and tranquillity so very evident, and the stirring of life with a sense of excitement and anticipation steadily growing. All of this is often framed by beautiful vistas as the sun begins to light up the heavens, and the landscape accepts its first tentative rays, whilst gentle mists hug the fields and trees like the most ethereal of blankets. The soul is elevated and filled with an awe at seeing this, which drives one to express gratitude to the Divine for the gift of simply being alive.

Popular monotheism and classical physics have shaped the way we view the world quite profoundly. On viewing the beauty of the night sky; a sunrise/sunset; the immense power of a thunderstorm or the destructive violence of a tornado, hurricane or earthquake, we tend to think of ourselves as observers looking at a scene, whose Artist is also thought of as a creative observer. It is as if we and God are outside the cosmos looking in. Both ourselves and God removed from the subject observed. Classical physics has contributed to this with its view of creation as consisting of separate and individual 'bits' interacting with each other to produce all the effects of nature, with humanity being able to observe it without affecting it. Popular monotheism, with its single God, 'up there somewhere' views God as the architect who gazes down on His creation from a lofty vantage point, and who, in orthodox Christianity, even had to become literally flesh and blood in order to dwell here amongst us in the world. This has and will continue to satisfy many, but it does not speak well to me.

While classical physics has proven to be one of the most successful conceptual models in human history, it does not really tell the whole story. Quantum physics (a subject on which I openly admit to being a complete novice) has been steadily revealing a new way to understand the fundamental nature of reality. In the book 'Wholeness and the Implicate Order', by the late quantum physicist David Bohm, and in the lectures of the British quantum physicist Basil Hiley you find a view of reality that is rooted in wholeness, in unity, where all phenomena are manifestations of an underlying unified movement. Separation, distance, subject vs object are useful at a certain level, but are ultimately illusory. The main analogy used is that of a stream of water, in which there are many ripples and eddies in the movement of the water. These ripples and eddies are not at all separate from the water that surrounds them, but are born from, intrinsic to, and shaped by, the collective flow of the river. They are an expression of the overall flow.

With that understanding in mind, we can look at the world quite differently. When I experience the exquisiteness of dawn, I am not viewing a scene that is separate from myself. Both myself and the sky glowing with the sun's warming light; both myself and the mist-enfolded landscape; both myself and the stirring life are not separate or distant, but are manifestations of a greater wholeness, and closer to each other than is imaginable. Just as with the holographic image, in which every part of the image is encoded in every part of the photographic plate, so I and that which I view are at a fundamental level rooted in the underlying unity. Existence is a process of unfolding and manifesting that concealed flowing unity and both ourselves and that which we view are part of that stream of movement.

This way of perceiving has practical benefits. When I view the gentleness and beauty of the landscape, I know that I too can find gentleness and beauty within me for we come from the same source. When I see the strength of the wild beasts, I too know that such notions of strength are within me. We can learn so much about ourselves and the path we should walk from studying everything we see and experience. Nature and experience as well as Scripture and the example of Jesus are revelations. Indeed Jesus himself taught that people should consider the lily of the field or the birds of the air to better know how to live.

And what of God? Do we continue to view the Eternal One as the artist or designer who stands apart from Her creation? To maintain that the Omnipresent is limited to 'out there' in some way? For me this is impossible. For me the Implicate Order, the underlying unity, is the first manifestation of the infinite and eternal Unity that is God. To me the cosmos is theophany, an appearance of God. We exist, so to speak, in the mind of God and there is no distance between us and Her. While the essence of the Divine cannot be contained in any part of our world, or even in the whole of it, there is no part devoid of His holy presence. When I view the sunrise I am not looking at a painting separate from myself and created by a distant Artist. I am seeing the presence of God, and in that presence I am seeing myself and everyone, and everything else. A true symphony of Unity.

"We live in succession, in division in parts in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul." Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Love In The Face Of Difference.

"And if I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.      

Now I know in part, but then shall I know fully, even as also I have been fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three. But the greatest of these is love." 1Corinthians 13:2-12-13

A phrase that we Unitarians like to use in order to describe our religious approach is; "We need not think alike to love alike." This is often attributed (very likely, incorrectly) to Francis David the 16th century founder of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. This attitude has been present in Unitarianism from the beginning and has been given ample opportunity for testing. From the differences between the Arian and Humanitarian Christologies of our forebears to the doctrinally Unitarian vs Free-Christian philosophies of our mid to late 19th century co-religionists we have always had a variety of beliefs and thoughts in our movement and yet have always valued mutual regard and love. In our contemporary movement we have an even greater spectrum of beliefs and approaches, from those who faithfully strive to keep burning the light of classical Unitarian Christianity, to those who find their spiritual sustenance and nourishment in beliefs and ideas drawn from outside Christianity or even theism altogether. The challenge to love alike despite not thinking alike continues, perhaps not always smoothly, but I believe it is being met by us in ways that can serve as an education to a world unfortunately still divided by animosities brought about by differences in religious, political and social perspectives.

It is, of course, only natural that most of us gravitate towards, and prefer the company of, people who think like ourselves, all the more so is this true amongst those who harbour doubts about our their own beliefs. It is comforting to have your opinions reinforced by those who share them and to not have to listen, too much, to those views which throw your own into doubt. It is far easier to find unity of purpose and a common direction when you share certain basic assumptions and ideas. Even amongst ourselves, a fellowship of religious seekers and dissenters who are amazingly open to new thinking and who usually relish debate and conversation with those who differ from us spiritually, we still enjoy the company of the like-minded and always have. Forming little societies or publications within our wider movement that focus on a particular approach is just one way we have done this.

Some religions even base their regulations regarding marriage partly on this aspect of human nature. Frowning upon any marriage conducted between a member of their faith and someone of a differing religion, and very often finding a scriptural support for their stance.

We, however, are fortunate to have a couple in our Unitarian history, whose lives and affection can serve as an education in how love can transcend differences in even the most deeply held and important beliefs. That couple is Charles and Emma Darwin.

Emma Darwin was a scion of the famous Wedgwood family, and had inherited Josiah Wedgwood's pious Unitarian faith. A free-thinking, intelligent and independently minded woman, who loved her family very much, became, after the death of her sister, even more attached to the beloved teachings and beliefs of our religion. Over time she became enamoured with Charles Darwin, himself of Unitarian stock, and gradually began to admit to herself and to others the feelings she had for him.

Charles differed in many ways from Emma; he was very organised and ordered, she more relaxed and happy with clutter. She was optimistic and carefree; he filled with anxieties and concerns. He was sentimental while she was much less so as illustrated by their respective descriptions in letters to family at the birth of their first child William Erasmus Darwin, whom they called Doddy. Charles wrote that his son was "a prodigy of beauty and intellect", while Emma wrote "a very nice looking one (baby) it is, I assure you. He has very dark blue eyes and a pretty, small mouth, his nose I will not boast of, but it is very harmless as long as he is a baby." Their differences were the perfect example of complementarity, each providing what the other lacked, each becoming whole only once they found the other. This stood them in good stead during the tragedy of their daughter Annie's death in 1851. Emma's love for Charles shines through in the words she wrote in a letter to him on the day Annie died.

'You must remember that you are my prime treasure (and always have been) my only hope of consolation is to have you safe home, and weep together.'

But there was one difference which was far less complementary and which has driven and continues to drive many others apart. Her and Charles' differences in matters of religion. Charles, although having once considered a position as minister of religion, had over the years and partly as a result of his scientific studies began to have serious doubts as to the existence of God and the truth of the Christian religion. As he grew close to Emma, and despite the advice of his father, he revealed some of these doubts to her, but happily, this did not prevent he and Emma from getting increasingly enamoured and when he proposed to her by the fire in the library of her country home, Maer, she said yes without hesitation. (Indeed the shock of that lack of hesitation was felt and recorded by both Charles and Emma long after the event). The potential difficulties created by their difference in the core facet of their beliefs was, however, evident to each of them, and Emma in writing tried to remedy it:

"When I am with you I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important subjects should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain. It is perhaps foolish of me to say this much but my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you. Will you do me a favour? Yes I am sure you will, it is to read our saviour's farewell discourse to his disciples which begins at the end of the 13th Chap of John. It is so full of love to them & devotion & every beautiful feeling... This is a whim of mine, it would give me great pleasure, though."

Charles for his part did as his wife asked and strove to be open to the beliefs he now found so difficult to accept. He was so moved and touched by one letter written by his wife, a letter I might add which encapsulates both the tolerance and the reason that are the hallmarks of the Unitarian approach to faith, that he wrote on it; 'When I am dead, know how many times I have kissed and cried over this.'  These are some excerpts from that letter:

"The state of mind that I wish to preserve with respect to you, is to feel that while you are acting conscientiously, and sincerely wishing and trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong....It seems to me also that the line of your pursuits may have led you to view chiefly the difficulties on one side, and that you have not had time to consider and study the chain of difficulties on the other, but I believe you do not consider your opinion is formed. May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way and which if true are likely to be above our comprehension... I do not know whether this is arguing as if one side were true and the other false, which I meant to avoid, but I think not. I do not quite agree with you in what you once said that luckily there were no doubts as to how one ought to act. I think prayer is an instance to the contrary, in one case it is a positive duty and perhaps not in the other. But I daresay you meant in actions which concern others and then I agree with you almost if not quite....I am rather afraid. my own dear (Charles) will think I have forgotten my promise not to bother him, but I am sure he loves me, and I cannot tell him how happy he makes me and how dearly I love him and thank him for all his affections which makes the happiness of my life more and more every day." And from another letter: "I do hope that though our opinions may not agree upon all points of religion we may sympathise a good deal in our feelings on the subject".

Charles and Emma went on to live an exemplary life together at their home in the (then) small Kent village of Down, supporting each other through life, raising their children in an atmosphere of love and joviality (despite Charles' chronic health problems) and being the greatest comfort to each other when life's difficulties came their way. It was this secure love-filled home that gave Charles Darwin the strength to write and publish his 'On the Origin of Species' that forever changed our understanding of human development, and to cope with the criticisms that followed. Their theological differences never drove a wedge between them and never even came close to straining the bonds of love and respect that bound them together. They are truly worthy of admiration by us all. By individuals learning how to relate to those who disagree with them, by couples who are building a life and family together and who may not see eye to eye on fundamental issues, and for our special religious community that strives to build an edifice of faith and goodness with the contributions of people of many differing opinions.

"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

"God bless these hands united,
God bless these hearts made one:
Unsevered and unblighted
May they through life go on;
Here, in earth's home, preparing
For the bright home above;
And there, forever sharing
Its joy, where "God is love".
J.S.B Monsell.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

God-Given Moments of Opportunity

"For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place but thou and thy father's house shall perish: and who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
Esther 4:14

The message contained in the words spoken by Mordechai to Esther in ancient Persia with which this post begins, still have deep relevance to our lives today. Those familiar with the biblical Book of Esther will know the story well; the Jewish girl Esther is chosen to be part of King Ahasuerus' harem after his execution of one of his previous wives, and is told by her uncle Mordechai to keep her Jewish identity hidden. After some time Ahasuerus' wicked vizier Haman, decides to slaughter the Jews of Persia and receives royal approval to do so. Esther is confronted by Mordechai who asks her to approach the king and appeal for the salvation of her people. She expresses some hesitation at this, for it was well known that those who approached the king without him having summoned them were liable to be executed. Mordechai responds with the words written at the beginning of this post. Ultimately Esther does intercede, and with a serendipitous and providential series of coincidences the Jews are saved and Haman and his followers are killed. This ancient deliverance from genocide is celebrated annually by Jews on the festival of Purim, which this year begins this Wednesday evening.

Esther had to make a decision. Through no choice of her own she found herself in a situation which she could not have previously envisioned. She had become the beloved wife of the King of Persia, her people, their ties with her occulted from her own husband, were on the verge of destruction and she had some chance of being able to prevent it. But she would have to risk her own life to do so. Would she take hold of the opportunity before her, save her people and have her name become a focus of celebration for millennia to follow, or would she step back from Providence's challenge? She chose well, but do we?

Jesus of Nazareth also faced a tough choice, one that led to the events we will commemorate in a few short weeks:

"And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass away from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; remove this cup from me; howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt." Mark 14:36

He decided to do the will of his Creator, but do we?

We may not all be placed in such momentous situations, on which hinge matters of life and death, but nevertheless we are given opportunities to choose between that which will make us realise our true selves; the best in us, and that which will lead us far from what we could truly become.

Last week my mother ended up in an unfortunate, but thankfully minor, accident. While waiting to fill her car with petrol, the car in front, driven by an elderly lady, began to reverse. Sounding her horn to try and prevent collision failed to work, and the car in front collided with hers causing some damage. My mother spoke with the clearly distraught driver of the other vehicle, who through a veil of tears pleaded with her to take the car to an inexpensive garage to have it repaired, as being a pensioner, whose husband had only recently passed away, she could not afford much, and was eager not to have her insurance premiums increase. After swapping details my mother reassured the lady that she would seek out an inexpensive garage for the repairs. It turned out that the bill for the repair would be over £200 pounds. When being informed of this price on the telephone the other lady, again through tears, said that it was far too expensive for her low income to cope with, and that she would have to communicate with her son who lived far away to see if he could help an eventuality she thought most unlikely. That afternoon my mum and I had a long conversation as to what to do. On the one hand she was not at fault for the accident, and is also a pensioner and who is struggling to build up a new business after having been made redundant recently. Why should she have to leave her car with dents and scratches, or loose over £200 pounds of her own money to repair it? The other woman should have been looking where she was going, or cease driving if she is not up to it anymore, and should certainly pay for the damage caused or go through the insurance that exists for just such an occasion. On the other hand the lady's distress and difficult circumstances were believed by us to be genuine, and we were both mindful of the teachings of our master;

"And if any man would go to the law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile go with him twain." Matthew 6:40

"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31

These teachings, are reflected in the Talmudic story of Rabbah Bar Hana who hired two men to carry a precious amphora of wine back to his home, and who after they smashed the jar through their negligence, took their cloaks as compensation for his loss. Later he was informed by the great sage Rav that despite his legal right to do what he did, he should return to these poor men their cloaks and pay them in full the money they would have gotten had they not broken his amphora, because God wishes people to go beyond the letter of the law and their genuine entitlement, to act with love and compassion for others.

So the debate went back and forth most of the evening. In the end my mum had in mind to inform the lady the following day that she need not pay. Ultimately first thing the following morning my mother received a phone call from the other party's insurance company stating that they would repair the damage as their client had contacted them and accepted full responsibility. The decision had been, at the last moment, taken out of my mother's hands. But nevertheless she had in my opinion risen to glorious heights as a result of her deliberations and resolve. I am sure that it will be "reckoned unto her for righteousness".

History is replete with examples of people who refused to pass up moments of Providential opportunity. Who overcame hesitancy to instead heed the pleadings of God's voice speaking in their conscience, and who acted in ways that sanctified the name of the Divine and of Humankind. They serve as great exemplars to us all, for the little choices that we must make from day to day.

We may not fully understand the story of which we are a part, but it can do us no harm to keep at the forefront of our mind, that the choices we make, are writing the very words, the very sentences and paragraphs of this great human story. I believe we can face this reality faithfully and contentedly in the knowledge that the great Author is always whispering words of guidance to us, if we only pause to listen.

"Send forth, O God, Thy light and truth,
And let them lead me still,
Undaunted, in the paths of right,
Up to Thy holy hill.
Then to Thy altar will I spring,
And in my God rejoice;
And praise shall tune the trembling string,
And gratitude my voice."
John Quincy Adams 1841

Monday, 20 February 2012

Matrimony Rethought

"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. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth: but how can one be warm alone?" Ecclesiastes 4:9-11

One of the defining features of Unitarianism since its inception and one of its principle strengths, is in its commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of religious inquiry. The challenge for the individual is to understand why he/she holds the beliefs they do, and to reassess them in the light of new evidence or new thought. As an honest pursuit of truth this can be done with confidence and without fear. However it isn't always easy in life to revise a belief or opinion that one has held, especially if one has held to that belief with any kind of passion or conviction.

Over recent weeks I myself have had to rethink a position which I had held with some degree of passion and clear conviction and that issue is same-sex marriage (and to a lesser extent Civil Partnerships).

Those readers who read my blog regularly may remember a while back me mentioning that I was opposed to same-sex marriage and that I believed I had rational reasons for being so. I never elaborated those reasons at the time but I do so now in order to show where my thinking has changed.

I used to believe, and actually I still do, that marriage, an institution of great worth and importance, is specifically designed for and expressly addressed to the nature of male - female relationships. Ultimately this is rooted in my belief that the purpose of marriage is to regulate intimate relations between men and women by limiting them (in a moral sense) to legally defined unions. In this way the not unusual outcome of male-female intimacy; children, are born into an environment which is clearly defined and regulated, with paternity protected and issues of stability and inheritance also clarified. The child born as a result of an act of love, sees in the love and commitment between its parents a reflection of their love and commitment to him/her. The bringing together in such a union of male and female creates a microcosm of society for the child to learn about and develop within. I also believe that in creating an arena which in some sense morally legitimises sexual activity, it strengthens positive and humane values that serve to dignify physical intimacy and elevate it above simple pleasure seeking, recreation or exploitation.

It is fair to ask why a relationship between two people should have anything to do with the state and the law at all. Surely it is a private matter, involving those who freely enter into a partnership. It appears to me that the state and the law have been involved for much of human history in this area because of the huge social importance that heterosexual relationships play in society, again primarily because these relationships bring forth the next generations, but also because they bring together the two halves of humanity. As such the representative of society; the State through the agency of the Law clearly defines and confers recognition on these unions, and creates for them certain privileges which reflect the esteem with which society holds them. The wonderful, late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, whose lectures on the Bible are an enthralling glimpse into the wisdom of traditional Jewish Biblical commentary, noting that many of the Bible's laws governing the public national life of the Israelite nation occur in the book of Deuteronomy, and wondering why laws of marriage appear there, concluded in a similar vein that the relationship between a man and a woman is of national and not only private importance.

I felt and I continue to feel that homosexual relationships, such as the one I have with my beloved partner, while being most precious to those involved in them, do not have the same social/national importance as heterosexual relationships. Their small numbers compared to the heterosexual majority, their non-reproductive nature (leaving adoption, surrogacy, children from previous relationships aside) place them, in my thinking, more in the category of private importance and not public importance.

Because of this difference I felt that same-sex marriage, in equating homosexual and heterosexual relationships could serve to confirm and reinforce a loss of understanding as to the value and nature of marriage which would be very regrettable. It is this last belief that I feel that I have no choice but to rethink.

I have come to realise that marriage is not a "zero-sum game", and that because something is designed for one specific set of circumstances, it does not mean that its value cannot be felt in other areas. Simply put the value of marriage is not restricted to opposite-sex couples for which it is designed. Marriage (and/or civil-unions) have valuable benefits for same-sex couples, aside from the practical benefits such as, for example, next of kin rights etc, and I can see no way that such gains would diminish the value of marriage in general.

The existence of same-sex marriage could play a strong part in encouraging and supporting positive values regarding intimacy in the gay "community", providing as it can, an ideal setting for a loving sexuality and adding extra support to those people, especially men, who wish to resist the overt sexualisation, and the value-free sex that is sadly not an unusual aspect of the contemporary gay "scene". For too long, and almost certainly as a result of the bigotry and rejection of homosexuals by mainstream society and religion; morality and healthy, elevating principles have not had the same structural and cultural support in gay society as has existed in the wider community. Same-sex marriage could help to repair some of the real harm that such a lack has caused.

It is not easy to exaggerate the immense personal and emotional value for couples, same-sex or otherwise, of having their relationship formally recognised. To declare to their peers their love for their partner, and to have that respected, even if not approved of, is of huge psychological importance and not something that should be prevented without good reason, and as I said above I no longer see any strong reasons to prevent it.

Finally, two men or two women willing to commit themselves to each other exclusively, to share each other's lives, to support and care for each other for the rest of their days, forsaking all others, is something that is in and of itself beautiful and uplifting and worthy of recognition, and if truly celebrated and truly valued would do much to enrich our civilisation, where concepts such as commitment, care, and restraint have unfortunately seen some erosion. Indeed how encouraging it is in this age where marriage has been undervalued to see the passion and desire on the part of same-sex couples to formalise and celebrate their couplehood in this way.

Of course in some sense I have yet to address the elephant in the room. Many religions and many people of faith view same-sex marriage as improper because it would seem to legitimise relationships which they feel are truly wrong and sinful. It would seem as if society, of which they are a part, is giving its imprimatur to sin, and in some people's view, to an abominable sin, so naturally they wish to prevent this from happening. I do have respect for people with such views and am not quick to judge them as bigoted, homophobic or wicked, especially those who harbour no hatred of individuals but who genuinely "hate the sin and love the sinner". However I do believe they are very mistaken. Either way no church, mosque, synagogue or temple should ever be forced to conduct marriages which they deem as contrary to their conscience, beliefs or theology. Not in a free and liberal society.

Theologically I have no problem with same-sex marriage. It is also clear to me that the meaning of the famous Biblical prohibition, often cited by those opposed to same-sex marriage and homosexuality itself:

"V'es zochor lo tishkav mishkavei isha. Toeva hi" Literally: "And with a male do not lay female layings. It is an abomination" Leviticus 18:22

is as it has always been understood in Judaism, a prohibition on one particular male-male sexual act. It is not a prohibition against homosexual attraction, love, togetherness, commitment or broader intimacy. As such this prohibition does not to my mind in and of itself preclude same-sex marriage. It is certainly true that an argument can be made to suggest that marriage in Biblical terms serves to legalise sexual union and hence the prohibition against the sexual union of two men, means that same-sex marriage is null and void, however our society has over the centuries broadened its understanding of marriage, and same-sex marriage need not be seen (and indeed is not seen) as having anything to do with specific forms of homosexual intimacy. It, like marriage in general, is much more about the love, companionship and desire to live as a committed partnership.

It is my belief that the Eternal esteems devoted love whether it is between a man and a woman, or two men, or two women. My partner and I both feel God's presence in our life together, guiding us, strengthening us and even challenging us to be the best we can be, not only as individuals but also and importantly as a couple. Experience informs me that all the little events that thankfully brought he and I together, were the hand of Providence, which reminds me of the words of our teacher Jesus:

"What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder". Mark 10:9

And so I celebrate the change in the law that has allowed religious groups in Britain to conduct civil-partnerships in their places of worship. I give thanks that Unitarians, alongside Quakers and Liberal Jews fought for this right. I cautiously hope for the time when the definition of marriage is legally broadened to include same-sex relationships and I pray that tolerance and understanding be extended to those whose conscience prevents them from agreeing to such changes. I hope that honest and respectful arguments be used to conduct the debate on this contentious issue, and that it not be used by either side to further political agendas. But above all this I look forward to the time when my partner and I become husbands to each other in my chapel, in the presence of God, and trust that after 14 years together our embarking on this new step, solemnised by the very law of our great nation, serves to strengthen even further our loving bond.

"God is love; His mercy brightens
All the paths in which we rove;
Bliss He wakes, and woe He lightens:
God is wisdom, God is love"
John Bowring Hymns 1825

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Eternal's Healing Face.

"O Lord my God, I cried unto Thee, and Thou hast healed me." Psalm 30:2

Over the last few days I have unfortunately been unwell with a pretty harsh cold. I had the opportunity during this time (apart from feeling very sorry for myself) to contemplate the wonder that is our body's natural ability to heal. The fever I suffered with, while very uncomfortable, was a stark reminder of my body's various strategies to defeat the invading virus, which when thought about with any depth truly fills a person with gratitude for the wisdom inherent in the way our immune systems function. And there was even more to be grateful for; the healing properties of chemicals and plants and the awesome wisdom of humanity that over time has learned to harness these properties to manufacture medicines that can cure or make bearable many illnesses. (How lucky we are to live, as James Martineau says in one of his prayers, "at the end of so many ages, heirs to the thoughts of the wise, the labours of the good). Finally and certainly not least, much gratitude towards the love and concern of our fellow human beings, which is often so clearly felt when one is unwell.

The more I mused on all this, the more I came to see the notion of healing and repairing as existing throughout our world and the vast cosmos beyond. It can be seen in the way a forest destroyed by a violent and all consuming fire, very quickly begins to replenish itself, with shoots of the new trees and plants emerging from the scorched earth. The way that plants and life return to land obliterated by flows of volcanic lava. The way that new stars are formed out of the vast gas/dust clouds left behind by other stars in their supernova death-throws. The way our skin so rapidly repairs itself when cut, not to mention the ability of some creatures to replace entire limbs. The power of sunlight to help ease some skin disorders, and the way that the sea and its wave actions slowly clean the last traces of oil spilled on its surface, allowing life to flourish once again, and so on and so forth.

My own personal theological conception of God is most similar to what is called Panentheism. A Greek word meaning All is in God. This understanding is present in many religions and the Jewish religion itself uses the word "Makom" Place, as one of the names of God, signifying that God is the place in which the universe exists. I conceive of the Eternal as present in every aspect of the created world, and yet not confined by it, but instead transcending "beyond" it. An analogy I personally find helpful is to conceive of an image in my own mind; say a man sitting on a swing in a park. That image has an existence, but it exists solely within me. I am therefore present in every single part of that image, in its shape, colour, texture and movement, it could not exist without me, I am the very fabric of that image, and yet I am not that image, my essence and existence transcend it.

It is my belief that the essential nature of God, The One, is unknowable, as it exits beyond all possible frames of human conception. The only way we can know something about the Divine, I believe, is through the world that He created and through revelation.

So as I look at the aspects of healing and mending that are present in nature, I see God, specifically God as Healer. The very properties in chemicals and plants that cure illness and discomfort, the very forces discovered by science that bring new life to where destruction ruled are the healing Hand of the Divine itself, revealing Her merciful face as a God who wants this world of ours to exist and to mend and to repair. Nature is both a veil that hides the Divine countenance and a mirror that magnificently reveals it

And so onto us, made in the image of our Father in Heaven as we are informed so radically by the Bible. Should we not also, as a religious imperative use the power of healing and mending inherent in us for the improvement and welfare of our fellow human beings, and beyond that to the other dwellers of this world? Surely religion is not only about prayers, observances, self-actualisation, personal salvation, committee-meetings and some coffee and biscuits.

For did our teacher Jesus, himself not send out his followers into the world to heal:

"And he sent them forth to preach the Kingdom of God, and to heal the sick."

I am a believer that we can all do something to bring healing to those who are ill, indeed a wonderful American Orthodox Rabbi, Rav Pam, taught his students that even telephoning an unwell person, and talking with them for a while can bring them cheer, which even if for only a few moments has the power to make them feel better. This too is healing. What do we do and what could we do, as individuals and congregations to support our local hospitals and hospices I wonder?

But there are other ways too. There are so many rifts amongst people, from the trivial to the international. What part do we play as individuals, and as wider congregations to bring together those who have been torn asunder by hatred, pain or mistrust, and heal those divisions?

We can of course never be one hundred percent sure, but I feel that if we play our part, however small, in bringing health and reconciliation to our world, we too will become living demonstrations of the Almighty's healing presence and a testimony that God is found within us as much as beyond us.

"And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace." Luke 8:48