“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sharing our Scriptures

Yesterday, I spent a wonderful day at Holland House, a Christian retreat centre in Worcestershire, with the Worcestershire Inter Faith Forum. Representatives from various faiths - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i and myself as a Unitarian - were invited to engage with their own scriptures, and to share them with each other and the audience. This included explaining what scripture meant to us as people of faith, how our sacred texts (as physical objects) are handled, and then sharing and reflecting on a piece from our own scriptures about welcoming the stranger.

It was such a rich day. I found it particularly moving to hear how much (despite our differences) everyone was on the same page, especially about welcoming the stranger. And it was very special to hear part of the Book of Genesis being read in Hebrew, a passage from the New Testament in Greek, the Qur'an in Arabic, and a Buddhist Pure Land chant.

But of course Unitarians do not have a single sacred text of their own. So I had some explaining to do. I said:

"This is a difficult question for a Unitarian to answer, because we do not officially 'have' a sacred text which is unique to us. Unitarianism grew out of Christianity, and before World War II, most worship services would include a reading from the Christian or Hebrew Bibles. Some of our congregations, who regard themselves as Free Christians, still do this. But in the last 50 years or so, the majority of Unitarians have moved to a more pluralist viewpoint, espousing freedom of religious belief, based on individual reason and conscience. So I can only answer as an individual Unitarian, with my own particular beliefs and viewpoint, rather than on behalf of the denomination as a whole.

These days, Unitarian worship leaders are able to create our own "living scripture" of readings that speak to our condition and that of our hearers. There might still be a reading from the Bible, but equally, there might be a poem by Rumi or Hafiz or Mary Oliver or Rainer Maria Rilke, or a chapter from the Tao Te Ching, one of the Quaker Advices and Queries, or a passage from the work of a contemporary theologian or spiritual leader, such as Richard Rohr, Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, or Marcus Borg, to name but a few. Or of course by other Unitarians, past and present. To quote one of our ministers, Stephen Lingwood:

'We can pay attention to a cloud of witnesses from many different countries around the world and many different times in history. We can delve deep into the traditions of our spiritual ancestors and listen to their voices. In doing so, we can create a 'living scripture': a loose, dynamic collection of texts which brings together essential insights from the past and present of our movement.'

But if the question means 'To what scripture do you turn in times of trouble?' the answer will be similarly diverse. In my own case, I will turn to the Psalms, from the Hebrew Bible, and also the poetry of John O'Donohue. For advice, I turn to Quaker Advices and Queries, which I always carry with me."

It was a rich time of listening and sharing, and I felt very blessed to be a part of it.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

Yesterday I was supposed to be travelling over to Evesham for a meeting, and then going on to spend the evening with my parents. Then I got an e-mail from the person I was supposed to be meeting, asking whether I thought it was wise to travel, in view of the threatened snow. I phoned them up, we had a conversation, and I decided it would be safer to meet on Skype. Which we did, and it was good.

But it meant that I then had to phone my parents and let them know I wouldn't be coming - my mother had expressed concerns about the weather earlier in the week, so the news was half-expected. But I feel really sad that I didn't see them.

And then, the threat didn't materialise - there was a little snow, but not much - "just enough to cover a Hobbit's toes" as Tolkien once wrote. I could easily have made the journey.

Which has reminded me of the quote by Susan Jeffers "Feel the fear, and do it anyway." I should have followed my gut feeling, and taken the risk. If worst had come to worst, I would have had to stay the night in Worcestershire - hardly a penance.

The things we fear very often fail to materialise. It is much better to live in the present, and to live life to the fullest. I love the quote by Helen Keller: "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."  Yesterday, I forgot that advice, to my regret.

In this case, my fear only spoiled my fun - I didn't get to see my parents. But fear can do dreadful things. When people are afraid, they often lash out in defensive anger. Fear of the unknown very often leads to hatred. Bertrand Russell says: "Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." And Gandhi wrote: "The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear."

Brene Brown has written an important book, 'Braving the Wilderness', which is partly about engaging with strangers with civility and respect, rather than fearing them, because they are unknown. She writes:

"One of the biggest drivers of the sorting that's happening today is the proliferation of the belief that 'you're either with us or you're against us.' It's an emotional line that we hear everyone, from politicians to movie heroes and villains, invoke on a regular basis. ... It's a move to force people to take sides." She goes on to write: "The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our bunkers of certainty ... The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate [because] answers that have the force of emotion behind them but are not based in fact rarely provide strategic and effective solutions to nuanced problems."

In other words, if we are afraid of something, our fear is often based on lack of knowledge, or by false either/or dichotomies. Our job, as thinking human beings, is to look past the either/or position, and engage with whatever the issue / people concerned. Which means we have to overcome our fear of the unknown, open up our vulnerability, and be brave. Which is hard, but so worthwhile.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Building A Beloved Community

At the Midland Unitarian Association's Spring Training Day last Saturday, Rev Ant Howe led an inspirational session about how to build good relationships with the wider community. He asked some searching questions, which every Unitarian (or any other) congregation needs to answer.

The first one was: "Who are we here for?" and he answered it by saying that the purpose of any religious community is not just to serve its members, but also the wider community in which it is situated. He suggested that the purpose of a religious community is to bless the community in which it lives, by the things it offers. It's about building small links with the people beyond our doors. He acknowledged that this can be difficult, if you only have small numbers, and everyone is tired. But also that it can get exciting, if the congregation does something new for "others".

Many of the suggestions were ones which most congregations (or at least those who have their own building) could offer:

  • a collection for the homeless, or for refugees - opening the church / meeting house to collect clothes and sleeping bags. Offering refreshments and leaflets about Unitarianism.
  • collecting for the local food bank - similar principles.
  • an annual collection of Easter Eggs (and I would also suggest, selection boxes at Christmas) for local children, and distributing them to the local hospital and children's homes.
  • a weekly coffee morning, for people who might otherwise not get out, and speak to others.
  • a monthly knit and natter group.
The key is to look around, identify local needs which aren't being met, and then ask the question: "Can our congregation meet them?" 

The point being, that if you meet a need, you're giving worth and dignity to people, and you become known as a loving community. He said: "A church exists for the benefit of its non-members, to be the salt of the earth, not to impress the salt."

He then divided us up into small groups, and set us to answering the following questions:
  • What does your congregation currently do to minister with the wider community?
  • How are the values of your congregation lived out in practical ways which benefit the community?
  • Is your congregation a part of its local community, or quite separate from it?
  • What ways would you like to get your congregation more involved in the wider community?
And most importantly ...
  • What projects are you interested in?
    • What is the first step?
    • How are you going to do it?
    • When are you going to do it by?
By the end of the session, all those present had decided on one project they'd like to try, and planned the first step towards executing it.

I wonder what a different world it would be, if all religious communities did the same?

Saturday, 10 February 2018

In Praise of the NHS

This morning I went in to Northampton General for a minor procedure. It was moderately unpleasant, but the result was good. What moved me was the kindness and professionalism of every member of staff in the place. While I was waiting, I listened to one nurse trying patiently to communicate with a very elderly, deaf woman, who had left her hearing aid at home, and another reassuring (through an interpreter) a patient who had no English, and who was obviously scared out of her wits. And when my turn came, they were kindness itself – reassuring me at every point, and explaining exactly what was going on – which I really didn’t want to know!

The British National Health Service is a wonderful institution, which should be properly funded. In my experience, the staff are (without exception) dedicated to their jobs, and never forget that patients are people too, with hopes and fears. And yet we are told that it is in crisis, that waiting lists are long, that people get left in corridors, because there are no beds for them, and that staff are suffering from burn-out, from trying to square an impossible circle.

I don't usually make political comments on this blog, but I am totally unable to understand why the NHS is not adequately supported by central government. When they can find the money to spend on instruments of torture and death, such as nuclear weapons, why isn't there enough funding for an excellent NHS? It baffles me.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Over-Reliance on Technology

Yesterday afternoon, I had a funeral to do, in a part of Birmingham I’m not familiar with. So I set my sat-nav, planning to arrive half-an-hour early, as is my custom. But the sat-nav went loopy on the way there and I got well and truly lost. It was a good job I had planned to get there with half-an-hour to spare, as it was more like ten minutes to spare by the time I finally found the place. I had to sit and breathe for a few moments, to calm myself, before I got out of the car. At one point I was seriously worrying that I wouldn’t find the place at all, and that I’d be late for, or miss, the funeral. Which would have been dreadful.

It made me think about how reliant on technology we (I) are these days. I had set the sat-nav with the post code for the Crematorium, and set off with blithe confidence that it would get me there in good time. But for some reason, it malfunctioned, and I was up the creek without a paddle. I stopped and asked for directions in a newsagent, and the directions he gave me were so confusing that I got lost again.  

I tried to use Google Maps on my phone, but couldn't remember the password for the App Store, so that was no good. And I didn't have a road atlas in the car ... a mistake I plan to rectify! In the end, I stopped re-set it with the post-code, and still drove past and had to turn round. But I had found it - more by luck than technological wizardry.

After the service, which I am thankful to say went really well, I set the sat-nav again for home. And it took me a completely different (and much more direct) route back to the M6. 

Before the days of sat-navs, I used to use the AA Route Finder to get directions. I think that in future I will look up unfamiliar destinations on this again, so that at least I know the correct junction of the motorway to get off on.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Restoring Former Glory

Last November, I started playing the piano again, after a gap of several years. Not surprisingly, my poor piano had fallen out of tune in the interim, and so I asked my piano teacher whether the piano tuner I used to use was still in business. He was, but could only make an appointment at the end of January - yesterday.

It was nice to see him again, but when he walked in to the lounge, I made some throwaway comment about it having been "a while" since the piano was tuned, and to my slight embarrassment, he whipped a record card out of his pocket, looked at it, then grinned across at me and said: "Yes, May 2007." 


For the next two hours I sat and stitched, while he did whatever it is piano tuners do, and restored it to its former in-tune glory. I love to watch skilled people at work - whether they are knitters, crocheters, artists, or in this case, piano tuners. It reminds me that we all need each other - I couldn't tune a piano if I lived to be a hundred. Nor cut hair, nor a million other tasks which others do so skilfully for me.

We are all inter-connected in a very fundamental way, by the services we render to one another. And I am most grateful, for my privileged life - a life in which such services are available, and easily accessible.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A Knot in the Handkerchief of the Sub-conscious

Today I am so very grateful to my sub-conscious mind. You know how it is, when you've been doing a job for years - you stop writing regular tasks down, and just assume you'll remember to do them in time?

Well, I nearly didn't (remember in time). I was driving back from the gym yesterday morning, and suddenly froze in my seat: "*****!" I said to myself (fortunately I was driving alone). "I've got to do X and Y before the end of the week, and it's Friday!"

One hurried shower later, I was in front of my computer, typing away busily. Several hours later, both jobs were done. I am still a little in shock, that I had not remembered them, but mostly relieved that my sub-conscious mind came to my rescue, just in time.

I find the workings of the sub-conscious (or unconscious mind) fascinating. I once read a book called Operators and Things by Barbara O'Brien, which is a sampling of the workings of a mind taken over by schizophrenia. The book is divided into two parts - the first hundred or so pages shares her experience of being schizophrenic - the voices she heard, and what happened to her. The second half, which I found as interesting as the first, was where she pieces together what had happened to her, and shares research about the workings of the unconscious mind, which is the greater part of all of us.

One of the things she mentions is "hunches" - those nudges we get from our sub-conscious, which often help us to solve a problem, or in my case, to remember to do something important.  This is how she describes the process:

"The unconscious, ... when it is presented with a problem, does more than search its files with lightning fingers. It appears to search and also to consider, evaluate, weigh. First, it must understand the problem. And this it can also do. It can grasp an intricate concept. The conscious mind broods over its problem, and the unconscious, listening to the brooding, grasps the problem.

It searches its files, evaluates, and sends up an answer. The answer is rejected by the conscious mind. The conscious mind broods on the reason for the rejection and the unconscious listens, understands, gets to work again with the new concept and comes up with another answer. Still not good enough? Why? The conscious mind broods again and the unconscious gets to work again, and works until it finds an answer acceptable to the conscious mind. The conscious mind stops brooding and celebrates, and the unconscious rests. For the time being, the organism is out of danger."

We call this process "intuition" or "inspiration". I am in awe at the complexities of the human mind, and grateful to my own sub-conscious, which sent me a nudge at the right time.