“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, 31 May 2013

An Interval of Peace

Today has been my day of rest. Not my day "off", in which I struggle to catch up with domestic tasks, but a true day of rest. I have taken a deep breath, and once more stepped outside my own life to let my soul catch up.

And it has been so peaceful. It was a lovely morning, so I went for a slow, untimed run round the block, breathing in the green of springtime and marvelling at the efficiency of my legs and heart and lungs. Then I had a shower and breakfast, giving thanks for unlimited hot water, and good food.

Most of the morning was spent reading Wayne Muller's wonderful book Sabbath: Finding rest, renewal and delight in our busy lives, which I have blogged about before; writing a letter by hand; and helping my daughter to revise for her A2 History exam on Monday.

I have recently treated myself to a new cross-stitch kit, to keep my mind and hands occupied when I stop smoking at the end of today (hopefully for good this time!), so that I don't eat rather than smoke. This afternoon has been spent listening to Classic fm and sorting out all the threads and taking the first few tentative stitches.

There are many domestic jobs that need doing, but I am determinedly ignoring them, so that I can savour this interval of peace, before picking the threads of my life back up again this evening. As Wayne Muller writes, we all need a regular interval of rest in our lives, in which to pause and savour what we have, and to recharge our batteries - physical, mental and spiritual.

This interval of peace has been bliss!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Thin End of the Wedge

My last post (about exclusivity, inclusivity and pluralism) was more apposite than I had realised. As some of you already know, I am minister of the Banbury Unitarian Fellowship. Our local paper, the Banbury Guardian, includes a half-page on Church Services every week, giving details of places and times of services, and also a short "Thought for the Day" type column called "Cross Talk". So I submitted a short piece on 'Spring - the season of renewal', which they duly published.

A few days later, I got an apologetic phonecall from a very nice Quaker, who explained that the Cross Talk columns are parcelled out between member churches of Banbury Christians Together, which he coordinates, and that I had inadvertently 'jumped the queue' by submitting a piece independently. Of course I apologised for my blunder, and asked to be added to the list of contributors. He said that so far as he was concerned, he would be happy to add me to the rota, and would consult some other folk about it, and get back to me.

Well, the weeks went by, and I didn't hear anything, so today I gave him a ring. And apparently, there has been a strong adverse reaction to my piece appearing by certain Evangelical Christian members. The inclusion of a piece by a Unitarian is apparently "the thin end of the wedge". Before they know where they are, they'll be letting Just Anyone write a Cross Talk column - Jews, Hindus, Muslims - where would it end? He was very apologetic about it, and agreed with me that this sort of reaction is very un-Christian, to say the least.

It makes me so very sad that Unitarians are regarded as "the thin end of the wedge" because we do not believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God who was crucified to bring humankind back into right relationship with God. And it also makes me sad that no contributions from other faith traditions are permitted, let alone welcomed. Surely we are all human beings, who should be free to follow our own religious hearts, so long as we are not harming anyone else. In the year of the 200th anniversary of the Unitarian Toleration Act, I find it very sad that, in at least one corner of the United Kingdom, Unitarians are very definitely still beyond the pale. I'm not angry, just sad. And in a week when the new Pope is reaching out to atheists, surely these particular Evangelical Christians could learn to be more inclusive. (I am not saying for one moment that all Evangelical Christians would respond like this, just  noting that these particular folk have done so).

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Challenges of Pluralism

For the last couple of weeks, I have been listening to a wonderful Great Course called Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know. The tutor is Professor Mark Berkson of Hamline University, and it has been fascinating listening.

In the last lecture of the course, Religion Today - Trends, Challenges and Hope, there is a very interesting section  entitled Thinking about Others - Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism, which is very relevant to Unitarians. Obviously we are not exclusive - we don't believe that our religion is the only truth, and that folk who don't agree with us are destined for eternal hell-fire.

But "inclusive" is a word bandied around quite a lot by Unitarian communities. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming. So I found his definition of inclusivism quite interesting. He writes: "Inclusivism states that while one's own tradition is the only one that contains complete truth, salvation is still available to those who are outside of the tradition. The grace of God is extended to all human beings, and the saving work of grace can be accomplished even if the individual is not a member of their faith."

And I don't think that's what Unitarianism is about. If we take that definition of inclusivism to be correct, then we are not inclusive; we are pluralist.

Berkson states that pluralism has two forms:

1. "One form of pluralism holds that, despite the outward appearance of difference, at the deepest level, all religions are the same." (emphasis mine) In the lecture, he mentions the much-used metaphor of us all being on the same mountain, but using different paths.

2. "Other pluralists deny the sameness of all religions and argue that if we truly want to respect and appreciate other traditions, we must maintain their distinctiveness and not try to blur the differences.  The latter pluralist approach begins with the notion that ultimate reality - God, the divine - is beyond our ability to completely grasp. We must acknowledge that, as limited human beings, we can never understand divine reality in its entirety ... no religion possesses truth in its entirety. Each tradition possesses its powerful truths, but also its blind spots. The more religious traditions we welcome into the conversation, the more illumination there will be." (emphasis mine)

This is why it is so important for Unitarians to be involved in inter-faith stuff in their communities. If we are truly the second kind of pluralist, (and I think that at our best, we are) then we should welcome the opportunity to engage with other faith traditions and learn more about how they perceive religious truths, both to enrich our own knowledge, and to move into a place of understanding and compassion about people who believe differently to us.

Friday, 10 May 2013

"Oh What A Lovely War!"

Last night, I went to see Oh What A Lovely War, the 1963 play by Joan Littlewood. The programme told me that it was first performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London. The programme notes continue: "It recalls the horrors of World War I through the humour and frivolity of a seaside pier show, mixing famous British war songs with gags and dances, and sets hilarious clowning against shocking factual documentation of the war's casualties. Its blatant denunciation of the incompetence of political leaders during World War I, depicting their readiness to sacrifice the common man to achieve their own political ends is shocking in its horrific results."

It was performed by our local village drama group, Group Eight, and they really surpassed themselves. Usually, they do either a comedy of manners or a detective story at this time of year, and it was inspiring to see how they rose to the challenge of doing something deeper and darker. I found it incredibly moving. The set was fairly simple, and the action took place either side of and in front of a screen, on which was projected the horrifying statistics of the actual war. It was very effective.

People's view of war changes over time. When World War I ended, the official view, according to Reg Grant, author of Armistice 1918, "was that it had been a tragic experience, but also one steeped with heroism and a sense of noble duty fulfilled ... This view did not exclude a recognition of the horrors suffered by the men at the front, but saw the suffering as justified by a high purpose."

There is nothing like a common cause to pull people together, and to bring out the best in them. Look at the saturation bombing during World War II. Its purpose, according to Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was "to scourge the Third Reich from end to end. We are bombing Germany city by city and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for her to go on with the war. That is our object, and we shall pursue it relentlessly." The Third Reich had similar ideas about Britain.

And did it work? Of course not. Everyone was united in diversity and became even more determined to hang on and beat the enemy. Morale was high, in spite of rationing and propaganda. The government-controlled media made sure that their messages would stiffen people's resolve to endure. The situation is much the same in Afghanistan today.

In times of peace, the views of the majority can be very different. For example, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a wave of anti-war feeling, and the "Great War" came to be seen as a senseless waste of human life, (as was shown so graphically in the play last night) rather than heroic sacrifice. In 1933, the Oxford Union voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposal that "this House will not fight for King and Country." This caused a great stir, because Oxford students were an elite in Britain, and were the sort of people who would be expected to form the officer class in time of war. Which of course, six years later, they did.

Like most people nowadays, I believe that World War I was so much futile slaughter, and that most of the wars since World War II have been fought on immoral grounds. But World War II is more difficult to decide about. Most people would say "Well Hitler had to be stopped, didn't he?" Yes, but would the Nazi party have come to power if the Treaty of Versailles hadn't been such a short-sighted and vengeful document? I do sometimes wonder whether we would have been any better if we had had to endure the appalling conditions the Germans did in the decade after the First World War ended.

The common humanity of humankind should be an overarching bond that prevents war. After the terrible events of 9/11, we saw this in action - people all over the world of whatever political complexion were united in horror at the toll of death and damage. We just need to be reminded of our common humanity. Often.

Surely there are better ways of resisting evil? Look at the Norwegians and their non-violent resistance during World War II. Look at Mahatma Gandhi. Look at modern day prisoners of conscience. Look at the women of Northern Ireland. Look at the women of Greenham Common. Look at Nelson Mandela. Look at pressure groups such as Global Zero, which is campaigning for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. If only enough people would take the trouble to think for themselves and to see past the accepted Government line, I am sure that the world could become a more peaceful place. But it seems that retribution is seen to be more important than peace in most people's minds. Why are revenge  and the need for reparation the first things that anyone thinks of if they are injured? Or is it me? Am I just an idealistic fool?

The thing that the play last night really brought home to me is that 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 and peace organisations 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, but also pledge ourselves to make our world a better place - to end all wars, to relieve world debt (which would be so much easier if we weren't spending all that money on weaponry), to feed the hungry, to find cures for diseases such as cancer and 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, 3 May 2013

As the Spirit Moves Me

I love the words of Quaker Stephen Allott: "It was this Spirit of God which breathed into our human clay to make us living souls." This is something I have come to believe in the past eighteen months or so, through reading the works of the great Celtic poet and theologian John O'Donohue. He wrote, and I have come to believe (because it makes sense to me) that our souls come from elsewhere, and inhabit our human bodies, our "clay", and go elsewhere after death. Our souls are animated by the Spirit - it is the Spirit that enables us to respond to the Divine in the world.

One of the most obvious ways in which the Spirit works within us (at least to me) is when we respond to something beautiful. Who has not felt their heart lift and their level of joy soar when contemplating a majestic mountain, or the endlessly changing sea, or the intricacies of a flower, or a man-made work of art, or the face of someone you love? Who has not thrilled to the sound of uplifting music or the songs of birds in the springtime, or the sound of a beloved voice? I believe that this is the Spirit within us recognising and responding to the beauty of the world all around us.

How can we learn to listen to the Spirit, and to recognise her at work in the world and in our hearts? I think that this may be attempted by what I would call 'sacred living' - recognising that God / the Spirit / the Divine Other is present everywhere, all the time. Sacred living is about weaving moments of attention into your everyday life, and recognising the sacred there. it is about living with a new level of awareness. It is about going through our days paying attention to what is happening in each passing moment. It is about noticing the presence of the divine, the numinous, everywhere, in the natural world, in other people, in ourselves and in things that happen to us. Sacred living is about rediscovering our sense of wonder, and living our lives in response to that.