“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

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Passionate Living

I have a dear friend. Superficially, we are quite different. She is very feminine - always wears make-up, has her nails done, and has a shoe collection to rival Imelda Marcos. Whereas I rarely wear make-up, keep my nails fairly short for ease of typing, and own about ten pairs of shoes, two pairs of which are trainers. And yet, we are very good friends indeed, and I count myself blessed that she is a part of my life.

image: kaceycrawford.com.au
We were talking last night, and realised what it was we have in common - we are both passionate women, who do what we do, and like what we like, with our whole selves. This can have its down side - we are "neck or nothing" people, who find it very difficult to moderate. (which is one reason why I've stopped smoking and drinking this year - a few were never enough, in either case). And my friend is a stickler for housework - her house is always like a new pin, no matter how tired or busy she is.

But passion can be good too. It can mean that we throw ourselves into the things we care about wholeheartedly, with no holding back, no partial commitment. I am passionate about my family, about my ministry, about Unitarianism and about writing. I am passionate about my friends, about running, and about cross-stitch. So I do and interact with all these things with my whole self, with heart and mind and soul. And that is good.

Which is why I was unutterably moved by a quotation by Lyman Abbott, which was posted on Facebook the other day, and which I believe are words to live by:

"Put all your ambition, all your enthusiasm, into the work of service. Make it the aim of your life to leave the world better and happier because you have lived in it, and take without greed or grasping what the world will give you of service in return."

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Christmas Reflection - Winter 1947

I am honoured to post an editorial written by my grandfather, Alec R. Ellis, editor of the Martins Bank Magazine, and a member of Ullet Road Unitarian Church. It originally appeared in the Winter of 1947.

There is something about Christmas, some strange power for good, some mysterious spirit which gets abroad. When it is there, the tinsel and cotton wool snow in the shop windows look bright and sparkling; the week after, when the spirit has gone, the decorations look drab and tawdry. Or is it that we see them with different eyes?

On Christmas Eve, there is an air of cheerfulness and goodwill about the office, a sense of pleasurable anticipation felt by everyone. We hurry to get through our appointed tasks so that we can leave early. Some of us are going to have a memorable time, for Christmas is a time of reunion, the festival of the children and the family, when every member who can possibly do so joins the family circle.

But when Christmas is over you will find, if you inquire, that most of your colleagues have had a quiet time and have done nothing special. The young ones will have had their round of parties and merrymaking, but the older ones will have remained by their own firesides. Why, then, the keen anticipation, the gladness that Christmas is here again, when in actual practice it seems merely to be a welcome breathing space between the deposit and the current account balances?

In these days of the popular quiz, if we were to ask the question as to what is the most powerful thing in the world, someone would probably instance the atom bomb. We venture to think that few would suggest a child's cradle. Yet the thought of a child's cradle silenced the guns on the Christmas days in the first world war, and grounded the bombers in the recent war. In a world torn by hate and dominated by fear, something in the heart of man has never failed to respond to the symbolism of the cradle. Therein lies our hope for the future......

So on Christmas Eve, as we wish each other the old, old wish, let us leave the cares of the world and our workaday lives behind us for a few hours, and in the friendly light and warmth of our own homes close the door on all else. With our loved ones around us, and the echo of happy laughter in our ears, let us remember that there is something special about Christmas, something which stirs our deepest feelings and accounts for our keen anticipation of the Christmas season. Phillips Brook summed it up for us in these beautiful lines: "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Light of New Hope

I will never forget the Christmas of 1989. I was pregnant with my son, my first-born, and just beginning to show. I was in my fourth month, and was awash with feelings of serenity and awe about the miracle that was happening to me. Although I hadn't yet felt life stirring within, I knew that deep inside my body a new person was growing, and that my wonderful, clever body was supporting him and nourishing him. And that was this was occasion for awe and gratitude.

On the second Sunday of December, I went along to our service at Northampton Unitarians, and broke the news that I was expecting a child. They were all very happy for me. But the icing on the cake came during the service, which was our Christmas service. (Then, as now, we only met on second and fourth Sundays, and that year, the fourth Sunday was after Christmas). One of the readings that lay leader Peter Galbraith had chosen, all unknowing, was the wonderful section early in the Gospel of Luke in which Mary rejoices about being blessed with child. The bit that starts: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his handmaiden. Surely, from now on, all generations will called me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." I really felt the joy that she must have been feeling. More, I felt exalted, that I was going to participate in the miracle of bringing forth a new life.

Twenty four years later, I still believe that becoming a parent was one of the most important events of my life. Being a parent changed me in fundamental ways - from the moment of my son's birth, there was always someone else to consider, someone else's needs to take into account, and someone else (later two someone elses when my daughter was born) to love and to nurture, and to be overjoyed and frustrated by, in roughly equal measure. Being a parent has been a roller-coaster for me, with wonderful highs and devastating lows, and I would not have missed a day of it.

image: gograph.com

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of one particular child, two thousand years ago, who grew up to have a profound influence in the world, through his teachings and his message and his example.  For me, this is the true meaning of Christmas. But today I want to think about the potential for good that is represented by the birth of every child, and also about the inner child that dwells within us all.

Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote: "Each night a child is born is a holy night - a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping." Yes. This is something I believe so deeply. It is one of the foundations of my Unitarian faith - that the birth of every child should be an occasion for rejoicing, not just that of Jesus. Every single child born of man and woman has the potential to make a difference in the world, and to leave it a better place than he or she found it.

Perhaps it is our job as Unitarians to provide the space and the community in which individuals can grow to become the best people they can be, giving them the opportunity to "Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you," as the Quakers would say. If this is so - and I believe it is -  every Unitarian congregation and every Unitarian has an awesome responsibility - to nurture that of God in other people, and in ourselves, so that the world might become a better, kinder, gentler place, in which everyone has enough to eat, a roof over their heads, a place to sleep, and other human basics such as freedom from fear and freedom to grow into their unique and proper selves.

But we cannot do this unless each of us recognises for ourselves that we are "unique, precious, a child of God." My starting point for this blogpost was a beautiful reading called A Manger of the Heart by the late, and sorely missed, Simon John Barlow, which was published in the Christmas edition of the Cotswold Group Newsletter. The first lines really grabbed my attention: "Prepare the way to welcome your inner child, / The being of love and light / The spark of holiness that lies deep in us all."

And I do believe that there is a spark of holiness within every human being, "that of God in everyone", to use the Quakerly phrase. Our job, here on this earth, today and tomorrow, is to recognise that spark, in ourselves, and in each other. This is the same as Jesus's great injunction to "love your neighbour as yourself." Love your neighbour as yourself - both parts are vital, because it is not possible to truly love your neighbour unless you first love your true self, your inner child, your spark of the divine.

Later on, Simon John advises us to "Commit yourself to nurture your inner holiness / To seek joy wherever it may be found; / To give and receive love every moment of life; / To keep to the paths of beauty, truth and love." These are quite tall orders. We are all human beings, fallible and broken, but I believe that this injunction to committing ourselves to nurture our inner holiness is a path of hope.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Be True, Live Truly

This week I have been reminded of the words of a lovely hymn in our green Unitarian hymnbook, Hymns for Living. The words (after Horatius Bonar) are as follows:

"You must be true unto yourself / If truth to others you would teach; / Your soul must overflow with love / If you another's soul would reach.
Think wisely, truly, and your thoughts / This hungry world shall help to feed; / Speak truly, and your every word / Shall yet become a fruitful seed.
Let lips be full of gentle speech, / Your heart respond to human need;  / Live truly, and your life shall be / A glorious and a noble creed."

And it seems to me that this advice is the most important advice in the world - to be authentic, to live with integrity, and to be true to yourself, rather than trying to persuade yourself into inappropriate feelings, because they are what the majority in society believe. It is not a particularly comfortable way to live - it is much easier to run with the crowd, and to follow others -  to "fit in". But I am finding that I feel so much better about myself, if I am being authentically Sue. Of course I slip, often, because I'm a beginner at this, but I'm finding that I am becoming more aware of those slips, and they are making me feel more uneasy.

I think it was Socrates who said that "an unexamined life is not worth living." So I am examining my life, and trying to make choices that are true to who I am. As ever, I am uplifted by the Quaker Advices:

"Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you."

"Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life."

"Live adventurously. ... Let your life speak."

"A simple lifestyle, freely chosen, is a source of strength."

"If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions."

So I am going to try to be true, live truly, and be Sue.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Gift of Wonder

At this time of the year, I can end up feeling distinctly un-Christmassy. Positively bah-humbuggerish, in fact. As I have written elsewhere: "By the time December comes, we will be blatting around like the proverbial blue-bottomed flies, buying presents, sending cards, ordering turkeys and making the hearts of the supermarket shareholders glad by spending our hard-earned cash on excessive amounts of food and drink to see us through the festive season. Then, when Christmas Day has come and gone, many of us will end us with post-Christmas indigestion - too much food, too much drink, too much everything."

When I am doing the weekly food shop, the commercial over-kill of Christmas is only too apparent. The supermarket shelves are groaning with "seasonal" goodies, most of which have either too much sugar or too much fat in them. Not to mention the booze, which of course I have forsworn this year, and which is on offer on every aisle-end.

image: archive.aweber.com

So it was a particularly welcome gift this morning, to spot a toddler in a pushchair, gazing up at the Christmas decorations that festooned the supermarket ceiling, with a rapt expression of wonder on his face. I pointed this out to his Mum, and it made her day too. Of course, to him, it is all new and wonderful and wonder-full. I was so grateful for the reminder of what Christmas really is about - not the food and the drink and the presents, but the joy and the sharing and the sense of wonder at the birth of a child. And I share a reflection which I wrote some years ago, for times such as these:

Let us take a moment to appreciate all the good things in our lives; our comfortable homes our many possessions, which make our lives easy and secure.

But more importantly, the blessings that money cannot buy:
the love of families;
the companionship of our friends;
this beloved community of freedom and trust;
the beauties of nature;
our bodies - those complex systems that work in such mysterious ways;
our health;
the very air that we breathe.

Help us to realise how rich we are already, and help us to ask the question "do I need this?" rather than "do I want this?" in relation to everything.

Help us to realise that true happiness lies in wanting what you have. And in a sense of wonder.





Friday, 29 November 2013

A Sense of Place

A few days ago, I spent the day exploring the land around Pendle Hill in Lancashire with my good friend. It is a new part of the world for me, and very beautiful, with its narrow winding roads bordered by dry stone walls, the autumn gold, yellow, green, orange, brown and bronze of the fields and trees, and the deep, deep blue of the sky.

image: www.fatgoatwalks.co.uk

And always, wherever we were, Pendle Hill, there in the background (or the foreground). It is a very distinctive part of the landscape.

The thing I found most interesting was how grounded my friend felt, here in her own place. I have never seen her so relaxed and settled. It is fascinating how much of an influence a place can have on a person. Sometimes it is only when we see people "on their native heath" that we see them whole. And it is something I feel in myself too - for example, as soon as I come within a couple of miles of the Nightingale Centre and Great Hucklow, I can feel a deep peace begin to settle within me. It is very much my spiritual home, the place where I feel at rest.

As usual, John O'Donohue says it best: "When you find a place in nature where your mind and heart find rest, then you have discovered a sanctuary for your soul. ...Perhaps nature senses the longing that is in us, the restlessness that never lets us settle. She takes us into the tranquillity of her stillness if we visit her. We slip into her quiet contemplation and inhabit for a while the depth of her ancient belonging. ... Nature calls us to tranquillity and rhythm. When your heart is confused or heavy, a day outside in nature's quiet eternity restores your lost tranquillity."

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Taste of Words

When I was a student, I had a poster on the wall of my room, which showed a bookworm, eating its way through a pile of books, with the quotation by Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

image: fromsmilerwithlove.com


I have always loved that quotation, because it describes so exactly what I do. When I have a new book to read, particularly if it is the latest instalment in a series, I devour it, avid to discover what happens. I sit and read and read and read, and don't stop until I've finished. Then I go back for a more leisurely second reading, savouring the words, rolling them round in the mouth of my mind, and enjoying them more deeply. I know some people who never read a book twice, and I simply cannot understand this. For me, the best books are to be read and enjoyed, over and over, until they become a part of me, "chewed and digested". They are food for thought, and some are food for my soul.

I have only recently noticed that I often think about reading in terms of taste - I will read some words and think that they are delicious. And all the words I used about reading in the previous paragraph are taste-related. Which is odd, since reading is done with the eyes, not the tongue or the teeth. Perhaps it is the internalising process that I go through when I find a book that I love - it becomes a part of me, and that is a fully sensory process, involving sight and taste and even smell (the smell of a new book is one of my favourite smells!) so that the book becomes part of my heart and mind forever.

Food for thought, and food for the soul, that is the taste of words. And I count myself blessed, that reading and books are such a huge and important part of my life.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Why I Am A Unitarian

There are two ways of explaining why I am a Unitarian - how I became one, and why I have remained one for the past 35 years.

In the first instance, I blame my father! When I was a teenager, it was our family's custom to eat one meal a week all together, Sunday dinner. (The rest of the week he was working late, and we ate earlier, with Mum). During this meal, we would talk about life, the universe, and everything, and it was a treasured and precious part of my life.

One Sunday evening, the conversation turned to Christianity, and I started to sound off about some of the Christian doctrines or beliefs that I couldn't understand or was unhappy about (e.g. the Trinity or the Atonement, or original sin). Dad explained that there was an alternative to mainstream Christianity, which allowed each individual to follow their own reason and conscience, and did not require you to suspend disbelief. He gave me a copy of Alfred Hall's book Beliefs of a Unitarian, and by the time I had read the first two pages, I realised that I was home. The whole book had a profound effect on me, and still does.

Thirty-five years later, I am still a Unitarian, because I find it utterly satisfying as a religious path. It has allowed me to find out about and explore different religious belief systems and traditions, and to take from them the elements that "speak to my condition", to use a Quakerly phrase. Within a Unitarian framework, I have been able to forge my own unique system of beliefs and values, on the basis of which I can live my life, trying to be the best Sue Woolley I can be. And I can be open to new revelations and insights - Unitarianism is not a closed faith. And that is so precious.

My Unitarianism has been influenced by writers who follow many religious paths or none  - Unitarians such as Alfred Hall, Cliff Reed, Philip Hewett and Forrest Church, not to mention some of my fellow ministers; Quakers, Pagans, and an eclectic mix of others, including John O'Donohue, Lionel Blue, Rachel Naomi Remen, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tse, Vera Brittain and Philip Pullman.

Unitarianism gives me the perfect freedom to work out what gives my life meaning, and a safe and welcoming and enquiring community in which to do the working out. What could be better?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Thinking Space

Today I received an e-mail which annoyed me. Something that I had counted on was cancelled at short notice, and I was really cross.

My first reaction was to fire off an instant reply, venting my annoyance and disappointment. Fortunately, when my mouse was hovering over the Send button, my guardian angel stepped in and said: "Stop right there! Think about this. You are more than a reflex reaction." I also remembered the wise words of fantasy and science-fiction author Anne McCaffrey, who once caused one of her characters to say: "Make no judgements where you have no compassion."

"Make no judgements where you have no compassion."
In other words, walk a while in the shoes of the person who has irritated you, and understand why they acted the way they did, and then think about whether you can find any parallels in your own life. Don't be so godd*mn self-righteous!
And of course, when I thought about it, there had been a time, fairly recently, when I had acted in a similar way, for reasons which seemed good to me.
So I am glad that I didn't fire off that hasty e-mail. And glad that my guardian angel dictated some thinking space, to make room and time for some compassion.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Making a Sober Choice

Two months ago today, I made a solemn promise to God to quit drinking. I came to recognise that while most other people I knew could easily moderate their drinking, having a glass or two as and when they wanted, I could not. So I decided to bang it on the head while I still could. And having hit the two month mark, it seems like the honest thing to do to share my journey with others. It's not that I'm trying to convert anyone else to a life of sobriety, just explaining why it is right for me.

image: www.designofsignage.com
It took me a long time to recognise that I had a problem with red wine, because I rarely had a proper hangover, and tended to get tipsy rather than drunk, so did not experience the nastier side effects. So I carefully ignored the warning signs - the fact that if I couldn't get my beloved red wine, I'd drink a bit of whatever was around; that I would 'have' to finish the bottle; that I was often drinking at home, even if my other half wasn't; and that every morning I would wake up feeling dried out and under par. But it wasn't affecting my life or my work or my family, so I pushed it to the back of my mind. After all, most of my friends drank wine, and they certainly didn't have a problem, so obviously I didn't.

I first scared myself in March 2012, when, having read an article about alcohol problems in the paper, I sat down and worked out that I was drinking between 2.5 and 5 times the recommended limit per week, and rarely having a day off the booze. But I decided that I could moderate, and drink only at weekends, and see how it went. I was still in denial.

It worked for a while, then I drifted back to my accustomed habit of between half a bottle and a bottle of wine most days. In January 2013, I again tried to moderate - this time I was only going to drink "outside the house." But that didn't work either. I still hadn't realised that moderation only works for people who don't have any kind of emotional dependency.

Then in July 2013, push came to shove. I got pissed in front of people whose good opinion I respected, and the fact that they had been amused by my slurring speech somehow made it worse. After a long talk with my spiritual director, I spent some hours sitting with the shame of it, and faced up to exactly how I felt about continuing to drink - frightened, uneasy and ashamed of my lack of control. During the first week in August, I worked through the process, and made the decision to quit at the beginning of September.

At this point, God got involved, and I decided to make a commitment to Him and to some ministerial friends at our annual conference on 2nd September. Which I did. It was a powerful ceremony. A Bah'ai friend, who gave up drinking over 30 years ago, and who I had gone to for advice, said: "If you've made a promise to God, you can't break it, can you?" The Quaker Advice about "A simple lifestyle, freely chosen, is a source of strength' is also proving very helpful.

And that's all. I have made the choice to stay sober, and intend to stick to it.



Monday, 28 October 2013

Drunk on words

"I find it very easy to get drunk on words", to quote Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers' detective hero. So one of my favourite Facebook pages is The Liberal Lectionary, a Canadian page maintained by Rev. Stefan Jonasson, a Unitarian Universalist minister and historian, which posts "words of inspiration for common worship and personal devotion from the liberal religious traditions." Very often, the words he posts will resonate with me strongly, perhaps even giving me an idea for a blogpost or a service. Here is one he posted last week:

The Liberal Lectionary's logo

"We have all known persons to whom the rich intimacies of nature come best through the sense of smell. They love intensely the various enticing odors of the country. The woods after a rain; the newly cut hay; the freshly ploughed field; the aromatic tides from sweet-fern; the perfume of wayside flowers; the faint sniff... of burning leaves; the whiff from salt marshes; the deliciously indescribable fragrance from apples in a room; all these experiences and many more, beget a rare delight. To these olfactory devotees nature is a glorified, universal, broadcasting station from which is sent forth, wave after wave, yes, volley after volley, of delicious odors, perfumes and aromas." — Frank Wright Pratt (born October 23, 1866)

For me, this was a quotation to roll around my mouth, savouring and tasting it. (maybe I'm a taste person, rather than a smell person!). But I find well-crafted quotations and poetry - particularly poetry - so deeply satisfying, it is almost beyond describing.

I have blogged before about the power of words. And I still stand by what I wrote then: "Words have so much power, especially in conjunction with the human voice. They can be used to encourage, sustain, energise and uplift; or they can be used to arouse hatred, bitterness, despair and all other kinds of bad feelings. ...  With one word of praise or blame, one human being can build another one up, or fling him or her into the pit of despair. The human memory has an uncanny knack of remembering words spoken in anger or despite, which can cause people with fragile self-esteem (that is to say, all of us, deep down) to think badly of themselves; whereas words of praise may be shrugged off. ... Words have so much power. We all have the responsibility to use them wisely and well."

Friday, 18 October 2013

Coming Alive

A while ago, somebody asked me this question: "What makes you come alive?" and I have been thinking about the answers ever since. My first response was that it is interaction with the natural world - walking by the sea or in the mountains, making a garden, walking a regular route and noticing the day-to-day changes in the nature around me, being awed by natural beauty - all these play an important part in re-connecting me with the numinous presence of God, with making me "come alive." To which I would add, interacting with family, friends and fellow Unitarians and f/Friendly Quakers - being in spiritual community.

An appreciation of our world in its beauty and diversity is definitely something that makes me come alive. When I go for a run, it is wonderful to be out in the changing seasons - to see and savour and appreciate the blossom in Spring, the mass of wildflowers in Summer, the first conkers and the changing leaves in Autumn, and the elegant sparseness of the trees in Winter. this connectedness with the natural world is something that I have learned to nurture and treasure. It so often gets lost in Western society - we are so busy doing the job in hand, rushing to the next appointment, that we don't take time out to appreciate the world around us. My husband and I have, in the past few months, taken to having a half-hour walk when he gets home from work, and it has been lovely and enriching, It has not only re-connected us with the world around us, but also enabled us to re-connect more deeply with each other. What a blessing.

John O'Donohue has a beautiful blessing For Beauty:

As stillness in stone to silence is wed,
May solitude foster your truth in word.
As a river flows in ideal sequence,
May your soul reveal where time is presence.
As the moon absolves the dark of distance,
May your style of thought bridge the difference.
As the breath of light awakens colour,
May the dawn anoint your eyes with wonder.
As Spring rain softens the earth with surprise,
May your winter places be kissed by light.
As the ocean dreams to the joy of dance,
May the grace of change bring you elegance.
As clay anchors a tree in light and wind,
May your outer life grow from peace within.
 As twilight pervades the belief of night,
May beauty sleep lightly within your heart.
What a blessing.



Thursday, 10 October 2013

Moment of Liberation

Like most women of my age, I believe I could "do with losing a few pounds", so I watch what I eat and keep a close eye on my weight. And the slimming industry thrives by feeding our insecurities, backed by the cult of celebrity, which fills the magazines and television screens with images of slim (OK, skinny) celebrities with their air-brushed-perfect faces and bodies, back in their skinny jeans weeks after giving birth.

Today I was reading one of the 'before and after' stories in the slimming magazine I had bought that morning, and was brought up standing by the following statement: "It's amazing how your body changes. My waist has gone down from 45in to 30in, my bust has reduced from 46in to 36in and my hips are down from 47in to 34in." The lady concerned was understandably pleased about this, and was looking fantastic in her 'after' photo, but my reaction was rather different, as my vital statistics are slightly smaller than hers. I thought "My God; I'm an 'after'! What on earth am I worrying about?" My BMI is at the top end of normal, and I've been the same weight, plus or minus a couple of pounds, for at least the last decade.

It was a real moment of liberation. I finally realised that I have been suckered in to years of obsessive worrying by popular culture. I suppose that on the good side, it has made me eat more or less healthily, but what a waste of emotional energy!

Gok Wan has it right - all body shapes and sizes have their own beauty, and it is about time that women like me set ourselves free from the obsession with chasing after some externally-imposed standard of "the perfect body" and started to appreciate the wonderful, marvellous, intricate bodies that we have, that walk, stand, sit, lie, reach out in longing, caress, and generally do what we want them to do.

Every woman's (and every man's) body is a gift from God, and a home for our souls. if we must have an obsession, let it be about learning to be at home in them, and looking after them, treating them with the respect they deserve, by eating and drinking good stuff, and by doing sufficient exercise to keep them fit and healthy.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Many Bonds of Marriage

On the eve of a mini-break to celebrate our Pearl Wedding Anniversary, I idly start to read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea and find the following passage, which describes the middle years of marriage:

"Here the bonds of marriage are formed. For marriage, which is always spoken of as a bond, becomes actually, in this stage, many bonds, many strands, of different texture and strength, making up a web that is taut and firm. The web is fashioned of love. Yes, but many kinds of love: romantic love first, then a slow-growing devotion and, playing through these, a constantly rippling companionship. It is made of loyalties, and interdependencies, and shared experiences. It is woven of memories of meetings and conflicts; of triumphs and disappointments. It is a web of communication, a common language, and the acceptance of the lack of language too; a knowledge of likes and dislikes, of habits and reactions, both physical and mental. it is a web of instincts and intuitions, and known and unknown exchanges. The web of marriage is made by propinquity, in the day to day living side by side, looking outward and working outward in the same direction. It is woven in space and in time of the substance of life itself."
Written in the 1950s, these words hold just as true today as they did then. They describe our marriage well, and  make me realise, once more, how very blessed I am, how blessed we are.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Belief's Wide Skirt

Today a friend posted a wonderful quotation from Toni Morrison on Facebook:

image by quotepixel.com
"For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."

And it occurs to me that this is what ministry (and religion) should be about. It isn't about telling people what they should believe, or frightening them with bogey-stories about what will happen to them if they don't subscribe to a particular creed or ethical viewpoint. It should be about sharing our own authentic beliefs ("what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light") with courage and honesty, so that others may do likewise.

This is why freedom of belief is so important to Unitarians (and to other religious liberals, such as Quakers). We believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves, and that the final authority for this is the still, small voice of your own conscience. So within the Unitarian community, belief does indeed have a wide skirt, and the best thing that we can do for ourselves and for each other is to share our authentic beliefs in a supportive community that encourages questions and doubts, so long as they are real.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Trusting the System

It has been an eventful week! On Wednesday, my children-no-longer-children and I spent the day at Alton Towers, enjoying a last family day out together before they both go off to university this weekend.

And I was persuaded by my daughter to have a go on the new attraction, a fourteen-loop rollercoaster called The Smiler. From the ground it looked terrifying. But, not wanting to appear a wuss, and not wanting to disappoint her, I joined the queue, which lasted for 50 minutes. During that period, I had plenty of time to regret my decision, as we could watch the ride from below, and people were spending a lot of time upside down, from what I could see. My stomach was full of butterflies, and I really wasn't happy.

image: dailymail.co.uk

Then our turn came. The harness was secured and the ride - which lasted nearly three minutes, which is quite long for a rollercoaster - began.

And yes, I was frightened. As we looped over and under, and round and round I had oodles of time to wonder what would happen if something broke. The only thing that got me through without screaming was the mantra "Trust the system." In other words, I realised that at a place like Alton Towers, safety is paramount, and this was a new ride, which would be maintained to the highest standards. And that therefore I was Quite Safe and in No Danger At All.

And the recognition at the end that the fear is generally worse than the reality, and that I had survived.

This recognition is holding me in good stead now, as I help the children to pack their worldly belongings, in preparation for their departures for university - my daughter on Saturday, my son on Sunday - both freshers. I am, of course, thrilled and delighted that both of them have got into their first choice of uni, and am so happy for them as they start a new phase in their lives.

But my goodness, I'm going to miss them. And of course I'm going to worry about them endlessly in the early days. But I'm hanging on to the knowledge that I can only give them two things - roots to grow and wings to fly (to coin a cliché). And that like when I was on the rollercoaster, I need to trust the system, and have faith that their future reality will be life-enhancing and good, and that I will survive missing them, and look forward to them coming home full of stories about their new lives.

And I know that I am so very lucky - I won't be alone - my beloved husband and cat will still be here. My new reality will be quieter, but not lonely. So I give thanks.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Sum of All Our Experiences

A few nights ago, I went to see the new Richard Curtis film About Time with my husband and my daughter. It was a lovely film, well up to his usual standard, but what I found interesting was our differing responses to it. I was much more emotionally affected by it than either my daughter or my husband.

image: derekwinnert.com

This made me realise that whatever you experience, whether it is going to the pictures, attending a lecture or concert, or going to a church service, you will react to what you hear and see in a particular way, depending on your past experiences. What you get out of a particular experience will very much depend on the baggage you bring to it.

We are all the sum of all our experiences. Maybe we need to bear this in mind, in our dealings with others, treading gently and lightly on their tender spots, knowing that our own are just as tender.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Facebook Grace

I have just made a fairly fundamental change in my life, and am feeling good about it, if a little fragile. So it was wonderful to turn on my computer this morning, and read the following from PeaceBang, Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, a wonderful Unitarian Universalist minister:

photo by telegraph.co.uk

"I would like to speak on behalf of SAVORING. Not gloating, but savoring. Stopping to recognize how much work, hope, planning, collaborating, expense, risk, what-have-you has gone into a project or event or life change, and really letting it soak in that you got there. You did it. You landed. I agree that our work is never done, but there are times during the climb up the mountain that one has to not only stop and look at the view but look behind and appreciate how long a climb has already been achieved. It's so easy to get absorbed in the next To-Do List. Take some time and get found in the Right Here List."

Reading it felt like a personal benediction. And I'm finding that this is happening more and more with Facebook. Perhaps it's just that I have a wonderful group of friends, but so often, I read posts and am inspired and cheered by what I read.

Thank you all. Reading your posts and blogs makes my life just that little bit richer, and I feel blessed.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Honesty - always the best policy?

I have been brought up to believe that honesty is the best policy. It was drummed into me as a child that one should always tell the truth, and that telling lies or acting dishonestly was wrong. The Quaker Advice no. 37 asks:

"Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organisations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility?"

And Alfred Hall, in Beliefs of a Unitarian, writes: "Unitarianism is not a system of creeds or beliefs. It is more than anything else an attitude of mind. It is a fresh way of looking at life and religion. ... Its method is that of appeal to reason, conscience and experience generally, and above all to elemental principles of truth and right which are implanted in the human heart at its nobles and embedded in the universe."

So not much room for equivocation then.

I wonder. Perhaps being honest and truthful is generally the best policy, but sometimes, just sometimes, telling a white lie, or even a whopping, great black lie may be the right thing to do. To cite just one example, look at the Dutch, German and other citizens during the Second World War, who hid and protected Jews, and saved their lives, by lying to and deceiving the Nazis.

And I honestly (there's that word again) do believe that sometimes telling a white lie in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings is definitely the best policy. Perhaps the key to knowing when to bend the truth is to use your reason and conscience, and to put what you believe to be right over the simple yes/no of telling a lie or telling the truth. I can see the dangers of this - if we do this, we are having to judge what is right or wrong in each individual case, and sometimes, we don't have enough information at our disposal to make the best decision (or what turns out to be the best decision in the long run).

I don't have any answers. Perhaps the best that any of us can do is to follow the best that we know, and to hope and pray that we will be guided to do and say what is right. May it be so.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Living at the Edge

I've just returned from an amazing week at Summer School, with my spiritual batteries re-charged. The theme for this year was 'Living at the Edge' and the workshop I was in was called 'Recovering Who You Are' and was billed as a reflective writing workshop, taking stock of our lives. Which it was. It was wonderful.

And of course, in the afternoons and evenings there were many other inspirational and fun things to try. But the culmination of the week for me was a Walk to the Edge with Nancy Crumbine and Julie Dadson. The Edge in question was Froggatt Edge in the Derbyshire Peak District, and we were invited to stand at the edge and either ask a question or discard something from our lives. It was an incredibly powerful ritual. It reminded me of that bit of the film Gone with the Wind when Scarlett stands in the ruined fields of Tara after the Civil War and swears "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."

On the face of it, standing at Froggatt Edge on a sunny Summer afternoon, with a couple of dozen fellow Unitarians, just wouldn't compare. And yet it did. I threw my promise to the wind and the fields and the limestone and the heather, and I intend to honour it.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Reason and Passion

I love the words of Kahlil Gibran, when he writes: "Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgement wage war against your passion and your appetite." I think that this is so true of all of us - at some times we are cool and logical and reasonable, and at others we are fiery and illogical and passionate. And that is as it should be.

In their early years, one of the names that Unitarians were known by was "Rational Dissenters". I looked this term up in Wikipaedia, and was interested to find the following description: " Like moderate Anglicans, they desired an educated ministry and an orderly church, but they based their opinions on reason and the Bible rather than on appeals to tradition and authority. They rejected doctrines such as the Trinity and original sin, arguing that they were irrational. Rational Dissenters believed that Christianity and faith could be dissected and evaluated using the newly emerging discipline of science, and that a stronger belief in God would be the result."

And I absolutely agree that what we believe and how we behave should be subject to our reason and conscience. Yes. But I also believe that there is more to life than being  perfectly reasonable and logical.  Yes, the final authority for an individual's faith should be their own conscience. But I think that this involves our hearts as well as our heads. When I first became a Unitarian, over 30 years ago, I was "converted", if you like, by reading the first section of Alfred Hall's book Beliefs of a Unitarian, when he wrote:

"But above all, it must be known and understood by Unitarianism is not a system of creeds or beliefs. It is more than anything else an attitude of mind. It is a fresh way of looking at life and religion ... It lays the stress on the reliability of the human mind to judge for itself ... Its method is that of appeal to reason, conscience and experience generally, and above all to elemental principles of truth and right which are implanted in the human heart at its noblest and embedded in the universe."

So Hall was saying that what is in our hearts is as important as what is in our heads. Yes. I also believe that there are some things in life that are beyond reason - how we love, how we feel compassion for others, and also, to some extent, what we believe, what gives our lives meaning. I think that both reason and passion are important - I am increasingly finding that while I can reject certain beliefs on the grounds of reason, there are some aspects of "doing religion" or having faith that are beyond reason. For example, I have a growing awareness of God or the Spirit at work in the world. This is on the basis of intuition, not reason, but I believe it is real.

Head and heart together, reason and passion. May we use all our faculties to find wholeness and completion and meaning in our lives.



Thursday, 8 August 2013

Crafted with Love

For the last couple of months, I have been stitching away at a beautiful cross-stitch project. It's called Indian Summer Reflection; it was designed by Martina Weber of Chatelaine Design, and it is exquisite. It's in the form of a mandala, and I'm working from the centre outwards. Last night, I got to a certain point, and decided to take a photo of it and post it in a stitching group I'm a member of on Facebook. But because I'm not particularly au fait with posting photos and such, I posted it to my own timeline first, then shared it with the group.

And received a beautiful benediction from a Facebook friend: "patiently creating such a lovely mandala is a great way to honour your life, your achievements and who you are."

Which made me think about the power of creative art of all kinds to transform lives, not only those of people who see the finished work, but also those of the crafters and artists. I certainly feel at peace when I am stitching and try to stitch mindfully.

And then, by that marvellous serendipity that I am learning to recognise as grace, another friend posted these words by Kent Nerburn, from his Letters to my Son:

"I can measure my life by the moments when art transformed me—standing in front of Michelangelo’s Duomo pieta, listening to Dylan Thomas read his poetry, hearing Bach’s cello suites for the first time.
But not only there.

Sitting at a table in a smoky club listening to Muddy Waters and Little Walter talk back and forth to each other through their instruments…standing n a clapboard gift shop on the edge of Hudson Bay staring at a crudely carved Inuit image of a bear turning into a man.
... It can happen anywhere, anytime. You do not have to be in some setting hallowed by greatness, or in the presence of an artist honored around the world. Art can work its magic any time you are in the presence of a work created by someone who has gone inside the act of creation to become what they are creating. When this takes place time stands still and if our hearts are open to the experience, our spirits soar and then our imaginations fly unfettered.

You need these moments if you are ever to have a life that is more than the sum of the daily moments of humdrum affairs. 
If you can create these moments—if you are a painter or a poet or a musician or an actor [or a dancer]—you carry within you a prize of great worth. If you cannot create them, you must learn to love one of the arts in a way that allows the power of another’s creation to come alive within you."
 And I felt as though God himself had reached down and pasted a star on my forehead.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Dance of the Butterflies

The white buddleia bush in our back garden is alive with butterflies - cabbage whites, peacocks, red admirals and others I cannot name. They spend the hours of sunlight swirling and diving around the bush, feeding ecstatically on the white flowers. It is a wonderful sight.

Cover Photo
(photo: Maz Woolley)

Every year, for a few short weeks, this beautiful visitation happens. This morning, I was doing the washing up, gazing through the kitchen window at the butterflies' graceful dance, and wondering why they like the buddleia so much. I know that it is nicknamed "the butterfly bush", so I googled the question and found:

"They love Buddleia because it produces nectar that has a higher content of sucrose, glucose, and fructose than many other garden flowers; in particular Buddleia generally has a higher sucrose level (two or three times higher than fructose or glucose) and that is what attracts butterflies. However, Buddleia do not produce much nectar, which is why we see butterflies spending so much time on a particular plant. It is also worth mentioning that usually only the larger butterflies visit Buddleia, this is because the tiny individual flowers of Buddleia are relatively long and the smaller butterflies simply can't reach their proboscis far enough into the flower to extract the sucrose laden nectar." (from the Buddleia.net website)

So butterflies are sugar junkies, and love the buddleia because it produces sugar-rich nectar. I am so glad that it does, because their beautiful dance lifts my heart, and makes me rejoice to be in the world.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Power and Persuasion

Last Wednesday, my husband and I went to visit a marvellous exhibition at the British Library, entitled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. It was divided into six sections: Origins, Nation, Enemy, War, Health, and Today. The three I found most interesting (and which between them formed the bulk of the exhibition) were Nation, Enemy and War. As the free leaflet explained, "Governments and national institutions are the most prolific and expert users of propaganda as they strive to validate and justify their actions, build support for their aims and influence the behaviour of populations." Most of the exhibits were posters, but these were interspersed with fascinating short videos explaining particular aspects of the propaganda game, by the likes of David Welch, Noam Chomsky and Alastair Campbell.

The tactics used in propaganda are very clever. They are set forth in the leaflet thus:

  • Establish authority. Link a person or idea with existing symbols of power and authority, which people understand and are comfortable with.
  • Exploit existing beliefs. People are much more receptive to messages that build on attitudes and beliefs they already hold dear.
  • Appeal to patriotism. Play up nationalist sentiments and emphasise benefits to the nation.
  • Create fear. In a state of fear your audience is more likely to believe you.
  • Use humour. Making your audience smile or laugh can make powerful people, countries and ideas seem less threatening and even ridiculous.
  • Imply everyone agrees. The desire to fit in is a strong one and many people will go along with the crowd.
  • Disguise the source. Carefully plant stories and facts so that they come from an independent source your audience trusts.
  • Hammer it home. Decide on your message and stick to it. ... Constant repetition will overcome initial scepticism.
  • Make false connections. Start with an uncontested statement and link it with something more controversial.
  • Be selective about the truth. Control how and when information is released. Ensure only stories that support your position are reported.
  • Establish a leadership cult. Encourage the population to think their leader is solely responsible for all successes.
It was quite scary to see how well all governments have learned these lessons. The technique that I found particularly powerful was the combination of an innocuous or innocent picture with powerful words. In the War section of the exhibition, there was a series of Norman Rockwell pictures of wholesome Americans in various settings, combined with text that implored people to buy war bonds. I found this one particularly distasteful:

poster by Norman Rockwell

To link religion and supporting war in this way is just not on in my book. But there is no denying its power to persuade. Going to this exhibition has really opened my eyes to the huge range of propaganda, both in history and today. The power of social media to influence public opinion should not be underestimated. The last bit of the exhibition was a demonstration of how fast particular stories can spread via Twitter and Facebook. It's on until 17th September - highly recommended.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Thief of Time

I am District Secretary of the Midland Unitarian Association, and we had a meeting on Saturday, which was very good, and very rich, but generated a lot of minutes. And my job for today is to type those up, and to disseminate them, and to generate a to-do list from them.

And I've been putting it off. Some of the things I've been doing this morning were quite legitimate - going for a run, checking & dealing with e-mails, but I've spent an inordinate amount of time on Face book, and have even found myself cleaning the kitchen, just to avoid starting those minutes.


But at least when I became aware of what I was doing, it gave me the idea for this blogpost. One of my favourite quotes about time-wasting is "procrastination is the thief of time", so I went onto Google to find out who said / wrote it, and it was Edward Young.

However, on the website I looked it up on, there were a couple of other really splendid quotes about procrastination, one on the side of judgement, one on the side of mercy. The one by Pablo Picasso really frightened me:

"Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone."
Well, gosh, OK. I'll get on with them, I promise. Just as soon as I've finished this blogpost.
The other, by Denis Waitley, who is an American motivational speaker and writer, I found much more forgiving and soothing:
"Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can't buy more hours. Scientists can't invent new minutes. And you can't save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you've wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow."
"You still have an entire tomorrow." Isn't that amazing?  And isn't it hopeful? Whatever we have done in the past, each new day is full of new possibilities and new hope. So I give thanks to God, who has given us Time in which to move and live and hope and dream.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Double Standards

As some of you who are Facebook friends will know, I have had a new tattoo - it is a Celtic tree of life and I am made up with it. The reactions of friends and family have been mixed - some think it is beautiful, or cool or other nice things, and some don't like tattoos at all.

Photo: Beautiful Celtic tree of life. Thrilled to bits!

The thing that I am finding interesting (and yes, a bit hurtful) is that the folk who don't like it have absolutely no hesitation in coming right out and saying so. This seems to be quite unapologetic too, and I'm sure they wouldn't make similarly rude remarks if I had changed my hairstyle (for instance). So why is it OK to make blunt and unpleasant comments about this particular aspect of someone's appearance? Is it because they consider tattoos to be "beyond the pale" and therefore fair game? I wonder ...

There was a quote posted on Facebook the other day, which read:

"The tongue has no bones, but is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words."

I know that I am as guilty as the next person (in fact probably more guilty than some) of blurting out hurtful comments, or saying things in a hurtful tone. So maybe I should take being on the receiving end for a change as a bit of a wake-up call from God. I haven't enjoyed people being critical of me, so I need to remember to count to ten (at least!) before opening my mouth.

As my mother used to say to us when we were children: "If you can't think of anything nice to say, don't say anything." Thank you Mum.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Special Events

In the last couple of days, I have experienced two special events, both as a passive receiver of special-ness.

The first was watching, on Friday afternoon, the Djokovic / Del Potro men's semi-final at Wimbledon. I have watched Wimbledon every year since I was small, and cannot remember seeing another such match. Both men played exceptionally well, covering every inch of the court, and becoming involved in some amazingly long, exciting rallies. Even the commentators on the BBC were awestruck by the tennis that was being played. And both men seem to have realised that they were doing something special too. In the paper, yesterday, Djokovic commented: "I've had some epic matches and some long five-setters ... but I know that I have been pushed to the limit today. It was one of the most thrilling matches that I have ever played, especially here in Wimbledon. It was high-quality tennis from the first to the last point." And Del Potro commented "This match is going to be remembered for a few years." Yes, I think it will be.

Part of the pleasure of watching it for me was in having played tennis myself, as a girl, and therefore knowing quite how amazing some of the play was, in contrast to anything I could ever have done. It was a real pleasure to watch their expertise, and to relish the clever play.

And this was part of what I enjoyed about yesterday's event too - my husband and I joined 60+ other Unitarians from the Midlands and South Wales in a visit to the National History Museum in St. Fagan's, near Cardiff. It is a wonderful outdoor museum, which consists of fifty-odd houses and cottages, and a couple of churches (including Pen Rhiw Unitarian Chapel), which have been moved from their original locations all over Wales, and lovingly re-assembled on one site, to preserve Welsh architectural and way-of-life heritage. And it is splendid. We saw inside all sorts of buildings, from the medieval church which has been re-painted inside as it might have been back in the day, with bright instructive scenes from the life and passion of Jesus (see above), through Tudor and Georgian buildings, to a post-war pre-fab. But my favourite was a terrace of five houses, two-up, two-down, which had been refurbished in varying styles from the early 19th century to 1985, and you could walk into each one, noticing the changes - from paintings to photos, from hard wood, to soft furnishings and so on. It was fascinating.

What it had in common with Friday's tennis match was the loving care and expertise which lay behind the experience that I had come along and enjoyed. Both events were a tribute to the hard work and skill of the people involved. And the dedication, and the belief that what they are doing matters. And being aware of this lying behind both events made the pleasure keener.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Anticipation and Experience

We have just come back from a lovely holiday in Rome. We visited many of the most famous sites - the Colosseum, the Forum, St Peter's Square, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and so on. The sun shone, the sky was a deep and vivid blue, and there was even a gentle breeze. And it was amazing to see these iconic buildings and sculptures in real life, having seen photos of them so often before.

And yet the things that enchanted me about the Imperial City were not what I had expected. Yes, standing in St. Peter's Square or in the Colosseum or among the ruins of the Forum did take my breath away, and all these things were truly impressive, and I'm really glad I've seen them. But what I really loved about Rome was strolling through the narrow streets of Trastavere, savouring the beauty of the buildings and the joy of coming out of a narrow street into a sunlit square with the inevitable little jewel of a local church, or wandering around the lively Campo de' Fiori, looking at all the wonderful flowers and foodstuffs, and trying to decide what to bring home as a souvenir, or sitting outside one of the many restaurants in the sunshine, just people-watching. And the wonderful food, and the statues on every corner. And having the time to talk about life, the universe and everything with our two children-no-longer-children, with us on holiday for probably the last time.

If you had asked me, before we left for Rome, what I was really looking forward to, I would have enumerated the sites I hoped to see, and how impressed I expected to be with it all. But anticipation and reality were very different. The enchantment was not in the magnificent, in the impressive, but in the vivid light, the mellow paint of the buildings, and the serendipity of wandering freely, open to what we might discover next.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Cultural Christianity

On the latest census form, there was a series of tick boxes for religious persuasion. Nearly 60% of the U.K. population ticked the "Christian" box, yet hardly anybody goes to church regularly, and most of the Christian denominations are bemoaning falling congregation numbers.

So who are all these people who call themselves Christians, but who don't attend Church (except at Christmas)? An answer was suggested on the Sunday programme on Radio 4 a while ago by a spokesman for the Secular Society. He called these people "Cultural Christians". They are a silent majority of this country, who aren't active churchgoers, and are not members of any other faith. Yet they call themselves Christians because they would sign up to what being a Christian in Britain means. To my mind this includes:

·         Going to Church at Christmas
·         Having a crib and/or other religious symbolism in the house at Christmas.
·         Expecting your child's school to have broadly Christian assemblies.
·         Subscribing to the broad ethics of Christianity as taught in schools - the Ten Commandments; the life and example of Jesus etc etc
·         Choosing to have broadly Christian life ceremonies i.e. having your children christened; getting married in church; having a minister at a family funeral.
·         Quite enjoying singing hymns and carols if you are ever in church.
·         Being familiar with Bible stories from both Old and New Testaments, in the same way that you know all the traditional fairy tales.
·         Listening to or watching "religious" programmes on radio or television (whether documentaries, religious services, films/stories or even just Thought for the Day)

This cultural heritage is very strong, and hasn't perhaps been realised as a force by the powers that be. Cultural Christians don't perceive the Christian institutions to be part of their everyday lives; almost certainly wouldn't sign up to the 39 Articles; and would probably have problems with the concepts of the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth.

BUT they want the Church to be there when they need it e.g. in a time of crisis or to commemorate significant events in their lives.

Is this an opportunity for Unitarians? Many of us could describe ourselves as cultural Christians (I certainly am one) but want so much more from our religion. We are a creedless faith, based on freedom of conscience, the use of reason, and tolerance of other people's views (so long as they do not harm others by them). We encourage people to think for themselves and to work out where they stand on religious and ethical issues. I wonder how many cultural Christians could come along to a Unitarian service, or to a Build Your Own Theology session, and find that they had come home?


Friday, 14 June 2013

Getting Your Priorities Sorted

When I logged onto Facebook today, there was a post from David Smith, member of the UK Unitarians group, with a quotation from whilom Apple Chief Executive, Steve Jobs. It said:

"If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?"
It stopped me in my tracks. My first response was "not exactly, I'd rather be spending time with the people I love", but then, I realised that I was also blessed to be doing a job that I love, and now, in the late afternoon, I have a feeling of accomplishment, as I've got done the things I needed to get done, and can now look forward to spending the evening with my family and friends.

But I do wonder, how many people are as lucky as I am? I appreciate how very privileged I am in my soft Western life, with enough food in the house, clean water to drink, a nice house, an abundance of belongings, and a reasonable amount of security. It also made me realise how important it is to ask the right questions about life, so that if it were to end today, I would have no (or few) regrets. How do you sort out what your priorities should be? I was reminded of the old story of the Professor and the golf balls, which has been doing the rounds on the internet for a long time (I truly do not know the original author, so cannot credit him or her):
"One morning a professor of philosophy stood in front of his class and wordlessly began to fill a very large and empty vase with golf balls.  He then asked the students if the vase was full.  They agreed that it was. 
 The professor picked up a box of tiny pebbles and tipped them into the vase.  He shook the vase lightly allowing the pebbles to roll into the open areas between the golf balls before asking the students if the vase was full.  They agreed it was. 
Next the professor poured a box of sand into the vase filling up all the remaining space and once more asked his class if the vase was full.  The students responded with a unanimous "yes."  
The professor then produced two glasses of wine from under the table and poured the entire contents into the vase, the students laughed.

"Now," said the professor, as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this vase represents your life.  The 'golf balls' are the important things; your family, your children, your health, your friends and your passions.  In other words, all those things that if everything else was lost and if only they remained your life would still be full.
The 'pebbles' are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car, holidays, etc.  
The sand is everything else, all the small stuff.  
Now if you put the sand into the vase first," he continued, "there is no room for the 'pebbles' or the 'golf balls'.  The same goes for life.  If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are truly important to you.  So pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness, play with your children, take care of your health, make time for your friends and go out to dinner with your partner because there will always be time to clean the house and fix the car.  Set your priorities and take care of the 'golf balls' first for they are the things that really matter; all the rest is just sand."

One of the students raised her hand and asked, "What does the wine represent?"  The professor smiled, "I'm glad you asked.  I was also showing you that no matter how full your life may seem there's always room for a couple of glasses of wine with a friend.""
Sorting out your priorities, your “golf balls”, can be a difficult task. As the professor said, they are “all those things that if everything else was lost and if only they remained your life would still be full.” But working out what it is you truly value can be hard, and people get it wrong. We’ve all heard of top business types who are so addicted to their work that they take their laptops and Blackberrys on holiday with them. To my mind, they are out of balance, and their health and family and social lives will suffer.
So how should we approach this most important task? Bill Adams, author of The Five Lessons of Life, passes on the following method from his teacher, Sangratan, the Amchi teacher from the Himalayas:
Firstly, think of the things and people you value most. Give yourself plenty of time to do this, in an environment where you will not be disturbed.
Secondly, on a piece of paper, list all those things that you value most, and why you value them. Include such things as family, relationships, health, career, religion, hobbies.
Thirdly, try to number them in order of importance, beginning at 1.
Fourthly, examine your choices. Be honest with yourself. Consider the questions [that follow]:
  • What do you spend most of your free time thinking about, or wishing for?
  • What have you always wanted?
  • What gives you most pleasure?
  • What ways of behaving do you find most admirable?
  • Are there things you enjoyed as a child which you were told to put away for the sake of a career or a relationship? If so, do you still value them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What attributes do you most value?
When you have considered these questions, look again at the list of things you value. Is there a contradiction between your most important values and what you spend most of your life wishing, craving, wanting, or working for?”
Of course, our priorities will change during the course of our lives, so this is not a once-for-all exercise. But doing it, and trying to put it into practice in our lives, might mean that we could answer Steve Jobs' question with a "yes".