“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

Friday, 25 November 2011

57 Varieties of Ministry

A certain famous manufacturer of baked beans, soups and tomato ketchup has the slogan "57 Varieties". According to the Heinz website, "While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever. Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number. So, he began using the slogan '57 Varieties' in all his advertising."

In some faith traditions, the only people allowed to lead worship have to be qualified, whether they are called 'priest' or 'minister' or 'vicar' or 'rabbi'. In the Unitarian movement, the person leading worship in your church or chapel next Sunday might be any of the following: a worship leader, a Lay Preacher, a Lay Person In Charge, a Lay Leader, a Lay Pastor, or a Minister. All are ministering to the congregation in the broadest sense - serving others by ministering to their needs.

I believe that there are many kinds of ministry, and many kinds of minister - maybe even 57! If you look up the verb "to minister" in the dictionary, it says "render aid or service (to person, cause etc)" That makes us all ministers - we are all rendering aid or service to each other, and towards building our beloved Unitarian community, and a better world.

So what is ministry all about? In the traditional sense of the word, it is about having pastoral oversight of a congregation, and regularly leading worship. But I think that in a Unitarian context, it could be interpreted much more widely. I think that there are three main types of ministry going on in our churches and chapels: spiritual, pastoral and practical, because the needs of congregations are also spiritual, pastoral and practical. An invocation by the American UU minister Jack Mendelsohn sums up these three aspects of ministry:

"Here, in this sanctuary of ancient dreams and wisdom and beauty, we come to grow, to be healed, to stretch mind and heart, to be challenged, renewed; to be helped in our own continuing struggles for meaning and for love; to help build a world with more justic and mercy in it; to be counted among the hopers and doers."

Ministry in a Unitarian context is not just something that the congregation passively receives; it is something we all do together, helping each other along the way.

Spiritual ministry is about feeding the spiritual selves of the congregation. It is about delivering worship that will inspire them and help them to grow, that will stretch their minds and hearts, that will challenge and renew their spiritual selves. It is about deep listening and sharing.

Pastoral ministry is about being there for each other in times of need, whether it is listening to someone's problems, or sharing their joys, or visiting them in their homes or in hospital, or conducting rites of passage -namings, weddings and funerals.

Practical ministry is about serving refreshments after the service, or sitting on a church committee, or keeping the chapel clean and tidy, or providing flowers for Sunday worship, or playing the organ, or giving someone a lift to chapel on Sunday morning, or any number of other practical things that turn your church or chapel from a social club into a beloved community. As Lionel Blue writes, "it is not preaching about kindness, it is about doing a kindness."

For me, the thing to remember, to bear in mind all the time, is that we are all human beings, all fellow pilgrims on the same spiritual path. As Cliff Reed explains in Unitarian? What's That? "Unitarians affirm that all human beings originate in the Divine Unity, all have something of God in them, all are alive with the same divine breath."

As I see it, our job as Unitarians, as human beings, is to be constantly aware of the "divine influences" around us, in the world, in our fellow human beings, and to recognise that there is "that of God in everyone", and that we are all connected to each other, on a very fundamental level. It is when we make these fundamental connections that ministry takes place, whether it is in a Unitarian context or in our everyday lives.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Quest for Inner Peace

It can sound a bit like an advertising slogan: 'Inner peace and how to find it.' I have come to realise in recent years that inner peace is one of the most difficult things to obtain, and yet harder to hold on to. And I'm not the only one by a long way. Go into any bookshop, and look in the Mind and Spirit section. You will find the shelves groaning with titles like The Little Book of Calm or Chicken Soup for the Soul or De-stress Your Life in 30 Days (I made the last one up, but I'm sure that such a title exists). And there are DVDs you can buy to teach yourself yoga or pilates to regain control of your life. But as a Quakerly-inclined Unitarian, I believe that there has to be a God-element as well. I love the words of our Unitarian hymn:

"I sent my soul some truth to win; / my soul returned these words to tell: / 'Look not beyond, but turn within, / For I myself am heaven and hell.
And as my thoughts were gently led, / half-held beliefs were seen as true; / I heard, as new, words Jesus said: / 'My friend, God's kingdom lies in you.
Now though I labour, as I must / to build the kingdom yet to be, / I know my hopes will turn to dust, / if first it is not built in me."

Inner peace spiral by Carol Hansen Grey

As usual, the Quakers have got it spot on: number 3 of their Advices and Queries sums up what I am trying to say beautifully:

"Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. ... Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God."

I want to be able to do this so much, and yet it is so hard. How can we attain inner peace in the hurly-burly of everyday life? Most of us spend our lives rushing around from one task to the next - work, shopping, looking after the children, housework, laundry, socialising - the list is endless. People find it more and more difficult to relax, and to attain inner peace, because they've forgotten how to stop.

But we're not supposed to be like this. Every person needs to have some time to centre down, to be at peace, to recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries. I believe that one of the most important of God's creations is the Sabbath - a time to rest, to re-group, and come back to our everyday lives refreshed. One reason why my faith is so important to me is that it has taught me that there is another way of living your life, even if i don't follow it all (or even most of) the time.

There are times when being busy, busy, busy just gets too much. The thought crosses your mind "Stop the world! I want to get off!" But it won't stop, so you have to consciously make the effort to schedule some time to step off the treadmill. It may take a little creative selfishness to realise that you are quite entitled to do this, and quite a bit of planning to reschedule your activities, and find a free time-slot, but it can be done. It doesn't have to be a long time, this 'Me-time', even ten minutes can be enough (depending on what you are doing) it just needs to be regular and consistent.

What you do in your me-time will depend on you. The ideal for me is to follow the Quaker advice and "find a way into the silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength", although I find it very hard to stop my mind buzzing round and round, flitting from concern to concern. I have some prayer beads which I made at Summer School a couple of years ago, and they really help me to focus, and to let everyday life go.

Prayer can also lead to a deep sense of inner peace. I have friends who do this, and I am sure that it helps them to see more clearly and live their lives more serenely. Many people find that listening to a piece of really beautiful music can whirl their minds away, and they come back to earth with a bump at the end of the record. Reading something inspirational may also help - this is something I do a lot, to remind myself of what I'm supposed to be doing, and to regain my perspective.

Physical exercise is also a good way of achieving inner peace. I know that sounds weird, because flogging up and down a swimming pool or playing a game of football may seem the complete opposite of peaceful. But certain forms of exercise really do help you to relax and centre down. Yoga is an obvious one - the fact that you have to concentrate on your breathing clears the mind wonderfully. Personally speaking, I find that going for a gentle run is one of the best stress-busters in the world. If you're not pushing yourself too hard, and can get into an even rhythm, running can be very cathartic.

Going for a walk is another good method of relaxing and centring down. Again, the rhythm of your strides can be soothing, and if you start to pay attention to what you are seeing around you, there is beauty almost everywhere - whether it's a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream, or the bark of a tree, or the architecture of a particular building. Many people find that a spot of gardening, or doing a craft that you love, can have the same effect, if you do it in the right frame of mind.

All these things can bring you, in Sidney Lovett's words, "wisdom and patience and solace, and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world."


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Thoughts on Remembrance Day

To fight or to take a pacifist line is one of the deepest and starkest choices of personal conscience. Is pacifism a cause worth fighting for? What a paradox! I write as one who has a fairly volatile temperament at times, and one who is not a naturally pacific person. I admire Vera Brittain enormously, and the Quakers too. And I am deeply impressed by the realisation that we are all human beings, given life by God. What right have others to take that life away? What cause can possibly justify it?

Being a mother has also affected my views. Having grown my children in the womb, and having nurtured them in the years that have followed, I feel a deep fellowship with all women who have done the same, and can imagine the anguish that every parent must feel when their precious child is maimed or killed.

The common humanity of humankind should be an overarching bond that prevents war. After any natural or man-made disaster, we see this in action. Offers of money and help pour in, as we rush to succour our fellow human beings in distress. We just need to be reminded of our common humanity. Often.

A friend of mine sums up the arguments for and against pacifism as follows:

"The fence on which I seem to sit is this:
1. That I am dedicated to the proposition that love will ultimately (but not consistently or progressively) triumph over hate.
2. That by the same token peace will triumph over war - but not consistently or progressively.
3. That there are some things one must do, not believing in their success, but because doing them is essential to one's integrity (actually I'd say 'for the sake of my soul')
4. I know quite well that my blood can be fired by the beat of a drum or the skirl of pipes - just as I can be moved by 'Last night I had the strangest dream'. I am not one of the world's instinctive herbivores."

It is the responsibility of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead. It is the job of anyone who is horrified by the futility and slaughter of war to attempt to influence their government and fellow citizens to work towards a more peaceful, happier world, in which war would no longer be necessary. And I know that faith groups the world over are trying to do this - we just all need to work together, and to keep at it, until humankind finally realises that peace is so much better than war, for everyone.

Most wars are allegedly fought to bring peace - a most ingenious paradox! We should remember the dead, and honour their sacrifice, but also pledge ourselves to make our world a better place - to end all wars, to relieve world debt, to feed the hungry, to find a cure for AIDS, to stop destroying our environment. It is still a beautiful planet, or it could be, if we could only learn to live together in peace.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Autumn Glory

The Autumn colours have been glorious this year - the leaves have been every possible shade of red-russet-copper-brown-gold-yellow-green that the eye could see or the heart could imagine. The sheer beauty of it all has taken my breath away, especially when the multifarious colours have been backlit by sunshine against a vivid blue sky. Which is why I count myself so blessed to live within walking distance of it all, on the outskirts of Salcey Forest, although the wonderful displays of colour have been everywhere this year, not least in the trees lining the roads that I drive along every day.

Autumn in Salcey Forest by Marlene Snee
In his wonderfully funny book Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson muses about this wonderful annual display of vivid colour. "What is all the more remarkable about this is that no one knows quite why it happens. In Autumn ... trees prepare for their long winter's slumber by ceasing to manufacture chlorophyll, the chemical that makes their leaves green. The absence of chlorophyll allows other pigments, called carotenoids, which have been present in the leaves all along, to show off a bit. The carotenoids are what account for the yellow and gold of birches, beeches and some oaks, among others. Now here is where it gets interesting. To allow these golden colours to thrive, the trees must continue to feed the leaves even though the leaves are not actually doing anything useful except hanging there looking pretty. Just at a time when a tree ought to be storing up all its energy for use the following spring, it is instead expending a great deal of effort feeding a pigment that brings joy to the hearts of simple folk like me but doesn't do anything for the tree."

It is a mystery, but a beautiful one, and I just wanted to record my thanks to God for it.