“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, 27 April 2012

A Good Laugh

I think it was Anne McCaffrey who once wrote: " A man can sleep any time, but a good laugh restores the soul."

I was reminded of the truth of this yesterday. The week so far had been fairly tedious, full of tasks and duties, and not full of fun. Then I went for my piano lesson, and for the last few minutes, my teacher suggested that we play some duets. Well, within minutes of starting we were both convulsed with laughter, tears pouring down our faces, as I vainly tried to keep up with her. And for the rest of the evening, I felt light and bubbly and happy. I felt Joy.

In his classic The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis divides the causes of human laughter into "Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper and Flippancy." He writes: "You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. ... Laughter of this kind does us [devils] no good and should always be discouraged."

Of Fun, he writes: "Fun is closely related to Joy - a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. ... in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils."

Of the Joke Proper, he writes: " The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. ... Humour is for them [the English] the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. ... A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke."

And he writes: "But Flippancy is the best of all. ... Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. ... every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. ... It is a thousand miles away from Joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it."

Whenever I read these definitions, it makes me reflect on the amount of Joy and Fun in my life, and reminds me of the danger of Flippancy. Laughter does indeed restore the soul, but never at others' expense.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Joy of Learning

I have just been required to summarise the three years of my ministry training in a report to the Interview Panel. And it brought home to me two things: a) how much I have learned in the last three years, and b) how much I still have to learn.

Many years ago, my wise mentor, Arthur Beckenham, quoted the following advice to me, which I have tried to follow ever since:

"Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow."

When I finished the bulk of my training last June, I felt bereft. I had really enjoyed the experience of learning more about Unitarianism; its history; its theology; all of it. I had also derived huge benefit from contact with the Baptist ministry students at Regent's Park College, who gave me a real insight into mainstream Christianity, from an insider perspective.

I love learning new things, and I love that my Unitarian faith is broad enough and deep enough to incorporate what I learn into my life. To quote the Quakers: "may I be open to new light, from whatever source it comes".

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The challenges for liberal religions

One of the highlights for me of the recent General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches Annual Meetings was the keynote speech by Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. He spoke movingly about the future of liberal religions from a Quaker perspective. I would guess that most of those present could identify strongly with the challenges he spoke about:

    Paul Parker (photo by John Fitzgerald)
  • to try to understand what is going on with our membershhip, in terms of age distribution etc
  • being confident about who we are and what we offer and being able to talk about it to others
  • how to answer the question "I'm a Quaker [Unitarian] - ask me why" in language accessible to new people
  • living up to what we say and believe - putting our faith into action
  • how do people know we exist - how to raise visibility
  • making sure that people can find us, and that they feel welcome when they do
  • being vibrant, effective communities
  • recognising the variety of ministries within the Quaker [Unitarian] community - acknowledging what gifts people bring and the service they offer
Like the Unitarians, Quakers are a minority faith in the United Kingdom, but have a wonderful and important message to share with many spiritual seekers who are looking for just such a faith. So dealing with these challenges is vital for our future.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Walking the Talk

[written during the Annual Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarians & Free Christians]

Being at the Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings is a bit like living inside a bubble. For these few days, spent with 300 or so fellow Unitarians, I am immersed in matters Unitarian, morning, noon and night. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

On the good side, it is an annual opportunity for spiritual nourishment, and a chance to catch up with old friends, and perhaps make new ones. It is so good to spend time with like-minded people, talking and learning about things I care for passionately, and enjoying the deep cameraderie and fellowship that is GA at its best. The opportunity to worship in a large group is particularly rich.

And yet, and yet. In the world outside - the real world - anything may have happened. We are cocooned in our Unitarian bubble, and I have no computer, and hence no access to what is going on.

This year, for the first time, this worries  me. I feel as though we are perhaps too inward looking, maybe even a little self-obsessed, rather than being concerned with how we can make a positive difference to the world in which we live.

Maybe that is a bit unfair. Several of our motions, about which there were passionate debate, were very much concerned with that same outside world. And I have seen and heard some marvellous examples of Unitarian social action this week - Send A Child to Hucklow, the new social justice initiative in Bethnal Green - the list goes on. During these meetings, I have heard over and over again the wish that we might have a higher profile, so that our marvellous Unitarian message of welcome and inclusivity and spiritual & religious liberty could nourish the lives of other spiritual seekers.

I just hope that the people here (myself included) will take this to heart, and go back to our congregations and our lives inspired to spread the Unitarian message through our words and our actions, so that we may indeed become a force for good in our complicated 21st century world.