Sunday, 20 October 2019

Unitarian Day of Prayer for Peace

Today is the annual Unitarian Day of Prayer for Peace and the last day of the interfaith Week of Prayer for World Peace.

International Prayer for Peace:
Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Druid Prayer for Peace:
Deep within the still centre of my being, may I find peace.
Silently, within the quiet of this circle, may I share peace.
Gently, within the greater circle of humanity, may I radiate peace.

“If ever there were a time for a candle in the darkness, this would be it.
Using a spark of hope, kindle the flame of love, ignite the light of peace,
and feed the flame of justice.” Melanie Davies

Peace and justice are intertwined. Most conflict in the world is about control and possession of resources – land, water, fossil fuels. The Gulf Wars were fought to secure the oil supply of the West. The involvement of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen is being fuelled by UK arms deals with Saudi Arabia, who provide us with oil. Meanwhile, China, being a major economic partner of the West, is unopposed in its occupation of Tibet. 

Competition for resources is likely to become more intense as climate change progresses. Recently we have seen Extinction Rebellion blossom into a world-wide movement demanding justice for our planet. The movement challenges our global economy that prioritises money over the welfare of future generations. It draws attention to the injustice of a situation which sees the worst effects of climate change experienced by the poorest peoples in the world, with the smallest carbon footprints, while in rich countries with the largest carbon emissions, we remain relatively unscathed so far.

Peaceful protest, non-violent civil disobedience, has been key to achieving justice in the recent past – from Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence from Britain, through the civil rights movement in America to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

I wasn't able to attend the Extinction Rebellion action in London, but I was pleased to note the involvement of several Unitarians. As I understand it, the core of my Unitarian faith is peace – peace with ourselves, peace with God, peace with each other. It is not just a journey towards peace, but the road we travel.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” 

This is exemplified by the Women Wage Peace movement, established after the 50-day Gaza war of 2014, which resulted in the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, 67 Israeli soldiers and 6 Israeli civilians.  During the conflict, worried mothers of soldiers began connecting on Facebook, to give each other support and comfort. As the dialogue developed, the feeling grew that must try to stop the cycle of violence. Women of all backgrounds in Israel and Palestine reached out to each other and the movement was born.

In 2015, on the anniversary of the conflict, a tent was raised outside the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem. For 50 days people came and went and joined in a peaceful demonstration by fasting, as a way of commemorating and mourning the loss of life on both sides.
The fasting women agreed several principles:
To pressure governments to work consistently and insistently until they find a mutually acceptable and honorable peace agreement, acceptable to both sides; To pressure governments to put into practice the United Nations resolution which states that women must be part of security and peace making committees; To commit to non-violence; To commit to democracy and equality, the movement has no specific leaders and is non-hierarchical.

Since its inception, Women Wage Peace has held several more events. In September 2016, Israeli and Palestinian women walked a March of Hope through Israel and the West Bank, culminating in an Assembly in Jerusalem.
In September 2017, the Peace Journey was repeated, and included bus tours from all around Israel to a series of events at the Dead Sea and Jerusalem; 30,000 people attended the final assembly. In the summer of 2018, a Mother's Tent was erected in the Rose Garden in front of the Israeli parliament. Politicians, opinion leaders, and artists, spoke, reminding their leaders that a political agreement is possible to attain.  In November 2018, they held a Young People's Congress in Tel Aviv, entitled of “Removing Barriers to Peace.”
In 2019 the Mothers’ Tent was again erected, this time in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, where it stood for a month until the last days before the election.

Bernice Lewak Zohn describes her involvement in this year's action, “I am a Jewish, Anglo woman, born and grew up in South Africa. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Israeli women and Israeli Palestinian women. We have brought a loudspeaker and recorder with us so that all passers-by will hear songs of peace, sung in Hebrew, Arabic and English. We hand out sweets to passers-by and postcards which bear the name of our movement: Women Wage Peace - in English, Arabic & Hebrew. We talk to whosoever stops to question us about our movement. Our presence draws a variety of responses from the stream of passers-by.. My heart is warmed by a feeling of kinship with my fellow women, and by a sense of hope; and I feel a need to tell about this lovely organization to all English speakers and especially to my fellow South Africans - those of us who watched apartheid destroy the moral fiber of generations. Those of us who felt that our easy South African life style was built on the backs of others.  Those of us who feel that it is imperative that there has to be an ongoing search for understanding and peace - no matter how long it takes and no matter whether we think that the other side is available or not. To quote John Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible, will make violent revolutions inevitable”."

Among the speakers at the 2017 rally was Shakib Shanan, whose son Kamil was killed in a terror attack at the Temple Mount. She said, “Although my heart is bleeding I stand here tonight with you. In pride and faith that only peace and love must connect us. We have suffered so much, Palestinian families and Israeli families have lost their loved ones and been left with a wound that does not heal. I came here to say, we want to live! We are allowed to say this out loud – we are peace-loving... I call on [our leaders] – enough! Sit already. Sit already! We want peace. Listen to our cry, it comes from our hearts. Listen to the cries of truth and justice, we want peace, from this place hope emerges.”
I found this profoundly moving, that women brought up on either side of such a long-lasting and deep-rooted conflict, are coming together in the name of peace and seeing beyond imposed divisions to our common humanity. Just as hatred is born of fear, peace becomes possible when we move beyond fear of the other and recognise that the other is, deep down, just like us.  

Exemplified by the work of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, it is clear that peace also requires us to practice forgiveness, of ourselves and others.  Forgiveness is not easy, but only when we stop holding grudges, between nations and individuals, when we stop seeing others as enemies and enemies as other, when we are able to accept one another and ourselves without judgement and condemnation, will we find reconciliation and peace. Perhaps the Women who Wage Peace will succeed in their aim for a Middle East peace settlement, perhaps they won’t.  Time will tell.  But whatever happens, they have acted and made their voices heard. 

Rabbi Johan Rayner says, “It is not enough to pray for peace. We have to work for it – to denounce injustice, not just when it is committed against us, but also when it is committed against others; to defend human rights, not only ours but also theirs.”

So if we too wish to reject war and embrace peace, let us act and make our voices heard. Non-violent civil disobedience isn't for everyone. We don’t have to join a march or a vigil to promote understanding of other people and cultures, and contribute towards the creation of a just and compassionate world.  We can sign petitions against environmental destruction. We can write to our MPs to express our concerns about arms deals and spending on the ‘defence‘ budget, when schools and hospitals face cuts.  We can volunteer our time or resources to charities working towards peace and social justice.  We can choose to invest our money in ethical financial institutions.  We can participate in interfaith dialogue, visit mosques, synagogues and temples, get to know our neighbours.  We can pray and meditate, sending our peaceful energy out to heal the world.  

Most importantly, we can practice peaceful communication in our personal relationships – because every time we see something from another’s point of view, we cultivate empathy, every time we treat someone else with respect, kindness and compassion, we contribute to building a peaceful world.  The smallest actions make a difference.  All of these things matter.  All of these things mean we are radiating peace. Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Prayer for World Peace by Sister Joan Chittister
Great God, who has told us “Vengeance is mine,” save us from ourselves, save us from the vengeance in our hearts and the acid in our souls.
Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt, to punish as we have been punished, to terrorize as we have been terrorized.
Give us the strength it takes to listen rather than to judge, to trust rather than to fear, to try again and again to make peace even when peace eludes us.
We ask, O God, for the grace to be our best selves.
We ask for the vision to be builders of the human community rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.
We ask for the love it takes to bequeath to the children of the world to come
more than the failures of our own making.
We ask for the heart it takes to care for all, as well as for ourselves.
Give us the depth of soul, O God, to constrain our might, to resist the temptations of power to refuse to attack the attackable, to understand that vengeance begets violence, and to bring peace--not war--wherever we go…
And so may we be merciful and patient and gracious and trusting with these others whom you also love.
This we ask through Jesus, the one without vengeance in his heart.
This we ask forever and ever. 

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Honouring our Past, Building our Future: Reflections on the 128th Anniversary of Chorlton Unitarians

The first meeting of the Chorlton-cum-Hardy Unitarian Church congregation took place on 17 October 1890.  At first there was no church building and no minister. The congregation met for worship in the Masonic Lodge on High Lane (now converted into houses).  The church building opened for public worship on 9 February 1901, with a service led by Rev. Copeland Bowie, Minister at Southwark, and Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

The description of the original church building in 'The Unitarian Heritage: An Architectural Survey' by Graham and Judy Hague, 1986, reads:
“Chorlton-cum-Hardy Unitarian Church, Wilbraham Road, 1900. Congregation founded 1890 as a missionary effort by the Manchester District Association of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Picturesque, half-timbered; gabled facade with bay window over full-width porch. Steeply pitched roof with small spire. Set in wooded grounds, approached through Art Nouveau gates. Interior plain, design inconsistent with exterior. Organ dated 1856.”

Sadly, our original church building succumbed to dry rot and had to be demolished in 1987.  Our current church building was created from the old Sunday school building.

The congregation was founded to provide a Unitarian presence in the rapidly expanding district of Chorlton. In the second half of the nineteenth century Chorlton expanded from a small village to a suburb of Manchester, growing from 146 houses in 1851 to over 3,300 in 1909.  The growth of Chorlton was facilitated by the provision of public transport, which made it easier for people to live in Chorlton and commute to work in the city of Manchester. A daily horse drawn bus service began in 1864 between Chorlton and Manchester, followed by the opening of the railway station in 1880.

As the population of Chorlton grew, so did religious diversity, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the building of many churches, of which the Unitarian Church was just one.  Between 1873 and 1909 at least ten different churches were built, including Methodist, Primitive Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Unitarian.

Unitarianism also expanded in the nineteenth century. After the repeal of the Trinity Act in 1813 it was no longer illegal to deny the Trinity. Unitarianism began to expand and consolidate into a distinct denomination. In 1910 there were 372 congregations in the UK, a growth of 33% in 50 years.

In the nineteenth century Unitarianism was of course still positioned firmly within liberal Christianity, using biblical interpretation to justify its conclusions about the unity of God, the lack of original sin and other Unitarian teachings. This is illustrated in a publication of 1883 by Robert Spears entitled Unitarian Handbook of Scriptural Illustrations and Expositions.

James Freeman Clarke, an American Unitarian who lived from 1810 to 1888, summarised Unitarian teaching in five points: The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever. This became a popular summary of the Unitarian faith in both the US and UK until well into the twentieth century. After the two world wars, human progress onward and upward seemed overly optimistic. Church attendance declined across all denominations.

Since the mid twentieth century the cornerstones of Unitarian faith have been encapsulated as the values of freedom, reason and tolerance. A non-credal tradition, Unitarianism has been able to reposition itself as pluralistic or multi-faith in today's postmodern society. As a result, the late nineteenth century Unitarian may not have recognised much of the content of our worship today, but they would certainly have recognised our continued commitment to social justice, and Unitarians throughout our history have held dear our core values of freedom, reason and tolerance.

Mission is not a word we use much in Unitarianism today. It has uncomfortable colonial connotations – Europeans preaching the gospel of Christian salvation and 'civilisation' to indigenous colonised peoples. Unitarians did not generally take part in such missionary activity, although they did launch a mission in India. However, the only successful Unitarian Christian communities that have grown in India are those begun by native Indians rather than planted from foreign missions.

Back in Britain, the heartlands of Unitarian growth were in the rapidly expanding textile manufacturing towns and cities of north west England, where thousands now lived in poverty, bad sanitation and poor health. Unitarians founded 'Domestic Missions', which engaged in social reforms, including education, factory legislation and public health, as well as teaching liberal Christianity.

In 1854 the Unitarian Home Missionary Board was founded for the training of Unitarian ministers to serve the urban poor. The Board evolved into the Home Missionary College in 1889, only dropping the label "missionary" in 1926 and becoming simply Unitarian College Manchester.

The word mission is retained in some of our district association titles – North and East Lancashire Unitarian Mission, and Merseyside and District Missionary Association, for example. The Manchester District Association's 'Domestic Mission' still gives small grants to community projects in the city and surrounding area.

How might we understand Unitarian mission today? There are three aspects to a contemporary liberal Christian understanding of mission:
Being – community (how we are as a church)
Saying – evangelism (how we tell people what we offer)
Doing – social action (how we live our faith out in the world)

Over the next few months we will be considering the being, saying and doing of how we understand our community purpose and our vision for the future, with a view to agreeing a new mission statement for our congregation...

Congregational Covenant
May we honour our past.
May we live fully our present.
May we build our future, living our shared purpose:
To be a welcoming spiritual community of open minds and open hearts
To nurture one another
To work for justice
And to care for the earth.
Thus do we covenant with each other:
To dwell together in peace, and to help one another seek truth, meaning, love and deep connection.

Lotus Window in Chorlton Unitarian Church

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Michaelmas, blackberries and letting go

At this time of year I can often be found gathering fruits from the hedgerows. When I was a child my grandmother used to tell us not to pick blackberries on or after 11 October as that was when the devil peed on them! I wondered where on earth this bizarre tale had come from. A little investigation uncovered a link with Michaelmas.

Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is celebrated on 29 September. It is one of the “quarter days” of England, the others being Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer (24 June), and Christmas (25 December). These dates, close to the solstices or equinoxes, were the four dates on which servants were hired, rents due or leases begun. Traditionally, the harvest should be completed by Michaelmas, marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new farming cycle. Michaelmas also came to mark the beginning of legal and university terms.

Archangel Michael appears in the Book of Daniel as protector of Israel. In the Book of Revelation Michael leads God's armies against Satan's forces, defeats them and expels them from heaven. Michael has been venerated as an angel of healing and protection in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At Michaelmas the nights draw in and the days grow colder. Michael's help is requested in defending the faithful against the forces of darkness.

Folklore says that 'Old Michaelmas Day', 10 October (the date change coming from the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar), is the last day that blackberries should be picked. When Lucifer was expelled from Heaven by Michael, he fell from the skies and landed in a blackberry bush. He cursed the fruit and made them unfit for human consumption - the means by which he achieved this differs in different areas of the UK - in southern England he peed on them, in northern England he spat on them, in Ireland he stamped on them and in Scotland he threw a club at them.

This story is a way to persuade children not to consume blackberries when they are past their best. Are there things in our lives that are past their best? At this season of change, I invite you to consider what would be good for you to let go of, to restore balance in your life and to prepare you for a time of rest and reflection over winter. 

Sunday, 11 August 2019

All Shall Be Well: reflections on wellbeing

Some years ago a retired Unitarian minister said to me, “I feel the pain of the world and I therefore take good care of my own well-being.” The many problems of the world can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Looking after our well-being builds resilience and is a spiritual practice.
What do we mean by well-being? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A state of being well, healthy, contented, etc.”

The University of Manchester website expands on this:
“The concept of wellbeing comprises two main elements: feeling good and functioning well. Feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement are characteristic of someone who has a positive experience of their life. Equally important for wellbeing is our functioning in the world. Experiencing positive relationships, having some control over one’s life and having a sense of purpose are all important attributes of wellbeing. When considering these elements, the New Economics Foundation created The Five Ways to Wellbeing in 2008 - as a set of evidence-based actions that promote wellbeing in everyday life.
These are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn and Develop, and Give.”

A guided meditation on ways to well-being by Laura Dobson

Breathing in, I connect.
Breathing out, I am aware of my connections.
Breathing in, I am aware of my connections with family and friends, with ancestors, with the people in this room, with all people in all times and places.
Breathing out, I am aware of my connections with the myriad creatures who inhabit my body and keep it functioning.
Breathing in, I am aware of my connections with the plants and animals that provide me with food, with companionship, with beauty and joy.
Breathing out, I am aware of my connections with the earth, the tides of the moon, the light and warmth of the sun.
Breathing in, I am aware of my connection to my higher self.
Breathing out, I am aware of my connection to that which I experience as sacred or divine.

Breathing in, I am active.
Breathing out, I am aware of my activity.
Breathing in, I am aware of the activity of my body digesting its food.
Breathing out, I am aware of the actions of my heart pumping blood to all parts of my body, supplying my cells with oxygen.
Breathing in, I am aware of the activity of the synapses of my brain, creating thoughts.
Breathing out, I am aware of the actions of my lungs, breathing.

Breathing in, I take notice.
Breathing out, I am aware of my noticing.
Breathing in, I am aware of the sensations of my body touching the chair and my feet touching the floor.
Breathing out, I am aware of the temperature in the room, how the air feels.
Breathing in, I am aware of how the energy feels in this space.
Breathing out, I am aware of my own presence in this company.

Breathing in, I learn.
Breathing out, I am aware of my learning.
Breathing in, I am aware that even in this very moment, I am learning something new about myself.
Breathing out, I am aware that in every interaction I learn something new about others.
Breathing in, I am aware I am always learning about Life.
Breathing out, I am aware I am always learning about the Source of Life.

Breathing in, I give.
Breathing out, I am aware of my giving.
Breathing in, I am aware of the time and energy I give to myself.
Breathing out, I am aware of the time and energy I give to others.
Breathing in, I am aware of the care and attention I give to myself.
Breathing out, I am aware of the care and attention I give to others.
Breathing in, I am aware of the love I give to myself.
Breathing out, I am aware of the love I give to others.

We have considered briefly ways to well-being – actions that we can take that may support our well-being, but what lies deeper? What might be at the centre of our well-being? I'd like to share with you what I have learned about what lies at the centre of my own well-being. While yours may look different, I hope that some of what I say will resonate with you.

“When I open my eyes to the outer world, I feel myself as a drop in the sea. But when I close my eyes and look within, I see the whole universe as a bubble raised in the ocean of my heart.” Hazrat Inayat Khan, teacher of Universal Sufism, 1882 – 1927

Hildegard von Bingen expressed this when she said, “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world—everything is hidden in you.”

These quotes illustrate some of what I feel is at the centre of my well-being, my awareness of the interconnection of all things, being at peace with my place in the universe. They also hint at the depth of inner resources available for us to draw on. A sense of belonging is important. Not just in the wider sense of belonging to human society or the world, but particular belonging, such as the Unitarian church, and other friendship networks and community groups. Well-being is all about having healthy relationships. Living a life of meaning and purpose is important, finding what you love and keeping on doing it. I’m lucky enough to have found my calling here with the Unitarian Church. Gratitude is important – taking time on a daily basis to appreciate life. And last but not least, there is a sense of equilibrium, of life being in balance.

There are two concepts from the work of Hildegard von Bingen that I have found helpful in considering well-being: ‘viriditas’ or greening and ‘discretio’ or discernment.

Viriditas can be roughly translated as greening. Hildegard used it to refer the life-force, vigour or vitality of both plants and people. In terms of well-being, it can be thought of as what allows us to flourish and thrive.

Discretio is sometimes translated as moderation, but has greater depth of meaning. It also means discretion, discrimination, discernment, difference and distinction.

When we put these two concepts together in the context of wellbeing we can use discernment as a guiding in relation to our life-force. Hildegard’s view of life included the belief that God created balance in the body and order in the cosmos. Discretio is the practice of living that balance or order in the union of human and divine, finding harmony of body, mind and soul. It involves paying attention to our inner compass, the promptings of our bodies and our deep selves, to find the right measure in all things.

We can use discretio to find the right measure for ourselves in all aspects of life – the balance between work and leisure, between activity or exercise and rest, between sleep and wakefulness, a balanced diet, living with awareness of our environment and seasonal changes. Discretio is it seems to me a lost art in the public life of politics. We are constantly bombarded with so much information, so many stimuli. Have we found the right measure in our consumption of media?

We can also apply discretio to our relationships – are they reciprocal? Is there a balance between the care we give out and what we receive? Discretio involves taking responsibility for our actions and choices. We can use it to examine our habits, social conditioning and unconscious thought-patterns, and make the changes we need to flourish and thrive.

Balance involves an ongoing process of interconnection. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of our lives are interwoven. Jesus knew this. It is significant that in the Gospel of Mark Jesus first offers the paralysed man spiritual healing, before he heals him physically. When balance is disturbed we experience disease – dis-ease. Even a minor illness such as the common cold affects all these dimensions. We may think of it as a mere physical illness, but as well as feeling physically ill, it affects our emotional mood, how well we function intellectually, and our sense of interconnection and wholeness.

Sometimes we are knocked off balance by a big unexpected event – the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a serious illness – and all we can do is  hang on, wait for the storm to pass and hope that eventually 'all shall be well.' Few people can maintain equilibrium all the time. There will be times when we are just about getting by, but by looking after our well-being on a regular basis we can build resilience for the times when may struggle. And we can learn much about our well-being from the dark times. When equilibrium has been restored we can look back and see what knocked us off course, and perhaps consider how we could have been with the situation in a different way.
It is also helpful to be able to recognise our triggers, the things that are likely to upset us, however small. One of mine is uncertainty. Things being ‘up in the air’ upsets me.

An example of a small incident of uncertainty that disturbed my equilibrium recently – I will be beginning my training for the Unitarian Ministry with Unitarian College in September. As well as my work with the church, I currently work three days per week at a university. In order to make space in my life for the training, I made a request to my line management at the university to reduce my hours there to two days per week. I spoke to all the people concerned directly and they all agreed that it would be fine. I submitted a written request to my line manager and waited to hear back from Human Resources. Silence.

Two weeks later I asked my manager what was happening with my request. Apparently it had been escalated to his line manager, who was not happy about it. This threw me into a panic! I had been led to believe that the request had been approved and now I was being told that it had not been approved at all. I became very anxious. What would happen if my request was refused? I would have to look for another job. What if I couldn't find another job in time? How would I pay my rent and my bills? I started to lose sleep and I picked up a cold. Stress hormones lower our immunity and leave us susceptible to infections. The cold was the nudge I needed to alert me up to the downward spiral I had created by allowing my anxiety to escalate.

I asked myself, what Hildegard might teach me in this situation? What were the lessons of viriditas (greening) and discretio (discernment)? What was getting in the way of me flourishing? How could I discern the truth of the matter? How could I be more at ease with the situation?

My anxiety was the block to my well-being. So what was at the root of my anxiety? My high level of anxiety was linked to my feelings that things had been taken out of my control and that I was insignificant. Someone who had never met me was making decisions about my life, based on numbers. I felt aggrieved and indignant, which of course aggravated the anxiety I felt about the uncertain outcome. I had become carried away with worrying, conjuring up so many 'what if' scenarios, which of course never materialised.

I couldn't influence the outcome, but I could change my attitude towards it. I could let go of my attachment to a particular outcome. I could have more faith, more trust, in the universe, in God, in my own inner resources. Even if the outcome was not the one I would have preferred, it would not be the end of the world. It might even be a blessing in disguise. All shall be well.

Once I had let go of fretting about the future, I was able to come back to focusing on the present, on actions that support my well-being. I sang in the shower. I attended a yoga nidra session. I invited a friend out for coffee. I took a candlelit bath with relaxing essential oils. I checked in with my online ministry student support group. I went for a long walk in the woods. My sleep improved along with my mood.

Unsurprisingly, the reluctance to approve my request was down to money worries that the budget would be reduced as a result of downsizing my role. Eventually, after several more weeks of discussion between various levels of management, my request was approved on a trial basis. Having reconciled myself to accepting whatever outcome I was given, I will admit to feeling a sense of relief when I received the letter!

I invite you over the next week to consider your well-being with a discerning eye. What are the elements that make up your well-being? Which relationships contribute to your well-being? What may be blocking your well-being? What is getting in the way of your 'viriditas', your greening, your flourishing? What supports your flourishing? Have you found the right measure of things?

I'll leave the last word to the mystic whose words reach out through the ages to support my well-being, Hildegard von Bingen,
“I am the one whose praise echoes on high.
I adorn all the earth.
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams.
I am the rain coming from the dew
That causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.
I call forth tears, the aroma of holy work.
I am the yearning for good.”

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Lughnasadh: the harvest of the first fruits

"And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest; and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance; on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.”" Leviticus 23:9-11

The festival of the first fruits of the harvest is an ancient festival.  Its celebration in modern Judaism continues as Shavuot at the end of May (reflecting the earlier harvest in Israel).  The festival now also commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses from Mount Sinai.

In Ireland the festival of the first fruits has been celebrated has been celebrated around the beginning of August from ancient times as Lughnasadh.  The name Lughnasadh means ‘mourning of Lugh’ and refers to the funerary games held in honour of Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, who legend tell us died clearing the forest for agriculture.  Large gatherings were held at Teltown in County Meath from the days of the High Kings of Ireland until the 1700s.  According to Irish legend, Teltown was the burial-place of Tailtiu, who was queen of the last king of the Fir Bolg, a mythical race of giants.  Her name probably derives from Talantiu, ‘The Great One of the Earth.’  Tailtiu cleared a great forest to form what is today the county of Meath, in which lies some of Ireland’s richest farmland.  She collapsed from exhaustion, and as she lay dying, she asked Lugh to hold funeral games every August in her honour.  As long as they were held, she prophesied that there would be ‘corn and milk in every house, peace and fair weather’ for the feast.

The god Lugh was known as Samildanach, the Many-Skilled One, who taught his tribe many things, including the secrets in agriculture.  Another name for him was Lugh Lamhfhada, Lugh of the Long Arm.  Victorian scholars thought this referred to the rays of the sun and saw him as a solar god, but nowadays it is thought more likely that his name derives from ‘lugio’ the old Celtic word for ‘oath’ as was the god of social contracts.  His long arm probably refers to his skill with weapons.  The Romans equated him with Mercury, the inventor of all arts.  He is also part of other Celitic pantheons, such as those of Wales and Gaul.  The festival of Lughnasadh was also widely observed in Scotland and the Isle of Man. These gatherings included games, trading, horse-racing, the arranging of marriages, political business and the settling of legal matters.

With the coming of Christianity, in Saxon times, the early August festival became Lammas, from the Old English for loaf-mass, when a loaf made from the first ripe grain was taken to church to be consecrated upon the altar.  The great gatherings were reduced to a weekend festival so that working people could take the time away from the fields to enjoy fairs where farm-hands were hired for the upcoming harvest and livestock was traded.

How can this festival be meaningful for us today?

Most of us now do our grocery shopping at the supermarket and we may not feel a strong connection to the land and harvest as the source of our food, but by thinking about where our food comes from and making conscious choices about what we eat, we can express our thanks to the earth for its fruits.  We can try to live lightly on the earth and to share our ideas and enthusiasm, inspiring others to move towards a more holistic lifestyle, working together for the good of all people and the earth.

The festival theme of gratitude for abundance is relevant to our whole lives, not just our food and the harvest.  Pausing to give thanks for our blessings encourages our generosity of spirit.  As everything is connected, the more we give from our hearts, the more returns to us.

The beginning of the harvest reminds us that the seasons are changing and summer will not last for ever.  We may no longer celebrate with great clan gatherings, but perhaps we can gather at festivals and community events or visit friends, taking pride in our communities growing closer together and appreciating our place in the wider world.  We may be able to make time to walk the land and appreciate the beauty of the natural world, to treasure the gifts of flowers and to take in the warming rays of the sun, storing their power for darker times to come.

Gathering the crops takes work – we must give our time and energy – and this is the case in our whole lives, not just the fields.  Another theme of Lughnasadh is sacrifice and rebirth.  The life energy of the Sun is sacrificed as the corn, some of which is reborn as bread and some of which is kept as the seeds of next year’s crop.  Sacrifice is an uncomfortable word for me so I found it difficult to connect this aspect of the festival, until I came across this description from the Lughnasadh ceremony of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids:
“Here we come to know the paradoxical nature of sacrifice: that in letting go, we receive – that the harvest is both a time of death, but also a time of reaping rewards, of achievement.  Sacrifice, understood in this way, is seen as a letting go or giving up of something in order to move to a higher, deeper, more creative level.  The corn, in being sacrificed at harvest time, is transformed into bread.  Seen as such, Lughnasadh becomes a Festival of Transformation.”

Letting go to achieve transformation is I feel a helpful process, both in our individual lives and in our relationship with the earth. As the season of active outer growth comes to an end and the season of inner reflection begins, it can be a good time to pause and reflect on our lives, to reassess our long term goals.  Are the seeds of ideas we planted in the spring coming to fruition?  Are we making progress with projects and seeing the fruits of our labour?  Are there any sacrifices we need to make, things we need to let go of, to alleviate any damage?

Our world is constantly changing and humanity’s survival as a species has been dependent on our ability to adapt to changes, to let old habits go and embrace new ways forward.  Let us celebrate what we choose to change and in what ways we have grown this summer.

Taking a wider view of our relationship with the earth, humanity will be required to adapt and make sacrifices in order to continue feeding ourselves, for the earth is not able to sustain our current rate of consumption.  Agriculture has allowed us to be fruitful and multiply, and now our sheer numbers are overwhelming the planet. We have destroyed rainforests and driven many creatures to extinction with pesticides in order to feed ourselves. Droughts and floods are increasing as the climate crisis worsens, often destroying crops in the poorest parts of the world. The time is ripe to consider what we would give to ensure the necessary transformation so that there is a sustainable and fair harvest for all, throughout the world.

For many generations, the festival of the grain harvest has allowed us to see the bigger picture, to connect with the great cycles of life, death and rebirth, symbolised in the humble seed of grain.  Let us hope and pray that we will do so for many generations to come.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Turning Point: Reflections on the Summer Solstice

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” T S Eliot

On Friday we celebrated the summer solstice, the turning point of the year, the longest day, when we appreciate the warmth and fulfilment of summer, and count our blessings, after which the days grow shorter and the nights longer, until the sun is reborn at the winter solstice. Solstice means ‘standing of the sun’ because the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for three consecutive days.

I invite you over the next few days to find some moments of stillness, to give yourself permission to pause and to become aware of the inner light shining in the heart of your being. Perhaps take the opportunity to do your own standing still – to take stock, to reflect on the year so far – how did you come to be where you are now and how can you open yourself to what lies ahead? Ask yourself, what do I love, what makes my heart sing? How can I make space for them in my life going forward? Listen to your inner wisdom and see what emerges.

As well as reaching a turning point in the wheel of the year, we have also reached another turning point for the earth, a point at which the future of the earth’s wellbeing hands in the balance. Some people think we have already gone too far, that human society is on the verge of collapse, because our addiction to burning fossil fuels has led to irreversible climate catastrophe.  Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.”

There can be no doubt that the way we are living on the planet is unsustainable, from deforestation to over-fishing, from fracking to polluting the air with noxious chemicals. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of life on earth and the first to have been caused by humans. How do we face up to this without becoming overwhelmed?

A recent article in the Guardian caught my attention. It was an interview with social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, Mayer Hillman. It was a sobering read. “We’re doomed,” he says, “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.” Hillman believes that accepting our civilisation is doomed could make humanity like a terminally ill person. Such people rarely go on binges, but rather do all they can to prolong their lives. He concludes, “We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”

Hillman mentions the Dark Mountain Project, a collective of writers who publish a journal and have embraced the end of “civilisation” in environmental catastrophe. The Dark Mountain project manifesto includes the following statements:
We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

While neither Hillman nor the Dark Mountain Project writers mention the word, perhaps they would agree with my analysis that the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of disconnection, of separation. This crisis has been a long time in the making. As the Dark Mountain Projects points out, it has been fostered by the stories we tell ourselves, the myths in which our society and our religion are grounded.

Even Unitarianism has been culpable in promulgating these dangerous myths. In a sermon in 1886, US Unitarian Minister James Freeman Clarke gave “Five Points of the New Theology: The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” These were the basis of Unitarianism until after the First World War. Most of us would probably regard this statement as outdated now, yet we must recognise that it is still the basis of the prevailing philosophy underpinning the economic model of the West, neo-liberalism.

Thankfully Unitarianism has evolved since the nineteenth century! One of the principles embraced by Unitarians today is, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” It seems to me that this emphasis on interconnectedness is the key to healing the spiritual crisis of our time.

My shamanic teachers, Jason and Nicola Smalley of The Way of the Buzzard, talk of fostering the five Cs in their work: community, connection, celebration, creativity and ceremony. A similar list to the one Mayer Hillman says that we must focus on. These are the things that give our lives meaning in the midst of chaos. These are the things I find in our spiritually nourishing Unitarian community.

The approaches of Hillman, the Dark Mountain Project and the Smalleys all have some similarities with that of Buddhist and Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy, and Psychologist Chris Johnstone in their book Active Hope. The premise of their work is that we can choose our response to whatever situation we face. Active Hope is a process of three steps we can apply to any situation. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction. Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism – we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.

Macy and Johnstone agree that our perceptions are shaped by which story we identify with and identify three stories being enacted in our time -
  1. Business As Usual – this story assumes that there is little need to change the way we live and that economic growth is essential for prosperity. 
  2. The Great Unravelling – this story draws attention to the disasters that Business as Usual is taking us toward and those it has already brought about. It is the story of the collapse of ecological and social systems, the disturbance of climate, the depletion of resources, and the mass extinction of species.
  3. The Great Turning – this story is embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse the let the second story have the last word. Involving the emergence of new and creative responses, it tells of the multifaceted transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world. The central plot is the gift of Active Hope. 
They identify three dimensions of the Great Turning:
  1. Holding Actions, which aim to protect what is left of our natural life-support systems and counter the unravelling of our social fabric. Holding actions are essential; they save lives. But by themselves, they are not enough for the Great Turning to occur. Along with stopping the damage, we need to replace or transform the systems that cause the harm. This is the work of the second dimension.
  2. Life-Sustaining Systems and Practices, which involve a creative redesign of the structures and systems that make up our society. Through our choices about how to travel, where to shop, what to buy and how to save, we shape the development of this new economy. Social enterprises, micro-energy projects, sustainable agriculture, and ethical financial systems all contribute to the rich patchwork quilt of a life-sustaining society. But by themselves they are not enough. These new structures won’t take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. Cultivating and sustaining these values is the work of the third dimension.
  3. Shift in Consciousness, which nurtures and develops our connected self, deepening our sense of belonging in the world. Like trees extending their root systems, we can grow in connection, thus allowing ourselves to draw from a deeper pool of strength and courage. By strengthening our compassion, we give fuel to our courage and determination. In the past, changing the self and changing the world were often regarded as separate endeavours. But in the story of the Great Turning, they are recognized as mutually reinforcing and essential to one another.
I believe that the tide is turning. The Great Turning is gaining momentum. From Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for the climate to Extinction Rebellion to the launch of the New Zealand government’s wellbeing budget, which puts health and life satisfaction rather than GDP or economic growth at the centre of its economic policy, the voices calling for our transition to a life-sustaining world are multiplying.

Our awareness of the interconnectivity of all life underpins this movement towards a life-sustaining society. To take sustainable agriculture as an example, practices such as organic farming, permaculture and especially rewilding, where we understand ourselves as part of nature, not above it and separate from it, are our best hope of a sustainable future for life on earth.

So let us stop telling ourselves the old stories of how humans are above and beyond nature. Let us stop telling ourselves the old stories of the necessity of progress. These stories no longer serve us. Instead, let us tell ourselves the story of interconnection, the story of how we are an integral part of the whole, which flourishes through co-operation not competition.  Let us stop telling ourselves the story of the pyramid = the story of hierarchy, of patriarchy, of man at the top and all else below. Let us begin again to tell ourselves the story of the circle, the sphere, the earth, the sun and the moon – the story of cycles, of inclusion, of wholeness.

When we inhabit the circle story we act from love and compassion. We understand that, in the interconnected web of being, all acts of love and compassion make a difference – if I pick up a piece of plastic litter, thus preventing a mouse, say, from becoming trapped in it – my act of love and compassion may not affect climate change, but it makes all the difference in the world to the mouse.

I am reminded of the story by Loren Eiseley of the star-fish on the beach. Thousands of star-fish have been washed up on the beach after a storm and a girl is throwing them back into the sea, one by one. People watch her. A man asks her what she is doing and points out that there are far too many star-fish for her to make a difference. She picks up another star-fish, throws it back into the sea and says, “I made a difference to that one.” So the man joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined in and all the starfish were saved.

The Dark Mountain project manifesto concludes, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.”

Monday, 17 June 2019

Father's Day Reflections on Unconditional Love and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV) – The Prodigal Son.
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

From 'Embracing The Power of Truth' by Shavasti:
When we insist that only the victim has the right to heal, or more right to heal, then what we are agreeing to is that the perpetrators and all of their descendants live in separation from their true nature - that is how we end up with the world as it is today.
Those of us who have stood in righteous indignation demanding the downfall of the wicked, the cruel and the unjust have made just as big a contribution to the age of darkness as anyone else. We insist on separation, we insist that others live in darkness.
Peace will come to us all when we have the courage to lament the losses of our enemies, when we have the courage to grieve their dead, when we have the courage to weep for the burden that their children carry, when we have the courage to recognise that we ourselves will never be at peace individually or collectively until our sworn enemies are likewise at peace.

The parable of the prodigal son is a very well-known story, but even stories that are familiar are worth re-examining now and then.  As with all the parables of Jesus, they work on various levels.  They are simple stories about everyday things, but they reveal deep truths.  They are archetypal stories that we can all identify with, speaking to us now, in this day and age, as much as they did two thousand years ago.

The story appears in Luke’s gospel as the last of three parables about loss and redemption, following the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, that Jesus tells after the Pharisees and religious leaders accuse him of welcoming and eating with "sinners."

The younger son, who squanders his father’s inheritance in ‘loose living’, represents ‘sinners’, while the older son, who is concerned with following duty and law in the hope of reward for merit, represents the Pharisees.  The father represents God with his unconditional and limitless divine love and mercy.

When we look at the two sons we can see that we could probably identify with each of them at some time in our lives.  And because this is an archetypal story we may see parallels in the lives of those around us too.

When I mentioned to my own father that I would be using the parable of the prodigal son as the basis for the Father's Day service, he said, “Oh, I don’t like that story.  It’s not fair on the son who stays at home.  He works hard and gets nothing, but his wastrel brother gets the party.  The message is that you may as well be a bad person all your life and then repent at the last minute.”

I can see where he is coming from.  Most of us can probably identify as one who works hard and does their duty, and may feel aggrieved when we are not rewarded for it, and perhaps even bitter and envious of others who may seem to us to be less deserving but are showered with love and riches.

My father stayed at home and worked hard for his father, a difficult man, who never expressed his gratitude.  His sisters left home and were always welcomed back by their parents, whatever mistakes they had made.  So I can understand why my father identifies with the dutiful son.

But what of the prodigal son - can we identify with him?  Is anything he does so terrible?  Yes, he is restless and reckless.  He wastes his money and by implication, his life. As far as we know, the only person he hurts is himself.  Most of us have probably done things we are not proud of.  Perhaps sometimes we may feel we have wasted our time on things that are not good for us.  At some time in our lives we have all needed forgiveness.

And so we come to the father.  The message of the parable is distinctly Universalist. The love of God the Father is infinite – there is nothing one can do that would make Him turn away.  We are always welcome to return to the fold. This is inclusivity at its most radical.  No one is excluded from the circle.

It may seem as if there is no motivation to do the right thing and to live by a moral code if God accepts everyone, no matter what.  That motivation, in my understanding, lies in the knowledge that love is its own reward. If I embody love then I will naturally choose to do what is most loving, right and just.

The prodigal son can be seen as an archetypal story about the journey we all need to make as individuals towards wholeness and acceptance of our true nature as children of divine love.  We go out into the world, make mistakes, experience loneliness and loss. Yet, hidden in these experiences of suffering are the seeds of transformation.

Perhaps we can also see the story reflected in society as a whole.  We have wandered far away from home; some would say we are squandering our inheritance by turning away from God and the spiritual dimension of life.  Can we find our way back home?  Will there be a happy ending for us?  Will all be well?  That possibility lies in whether we choose to accept the invitation to embody love.

A similar parable of a lost son is found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra. The stories are parallel to start with, but continue differently after the son's return. In the Lotus sutra, the poor son does not recognize the rich man as his father. When his father sends out some attendants to welcome him, the son panics, fearing retribution. The father lets the son leave without revealing their kinship. However, he gradually draws the son closer to him by employing him in successively higher positions, and eventually tells him of their kinship.  In the Buddhist parable, the father symbolises the Buddha, and the son symbolises all human beings. Their kinship symbolises that everyone has Buddha nature.

A friend pointed me to the Shavasti piece.  The book had made a big impression on her, especially the concept that “we ourselves will never be at peace individually or collectively until our sworn enemies are likewise at peace.”

It is easy to judge others for actions we consider reprehensible.  Those who commit murder, rape, terrorism; clearly these things are wrong and it is easy to justify demanding retribution for such crimes.  It is hard to believe that even perpetrators such as these could be embraced by Love.

If God is all loving then that love extends to even those we detest with our whole being.   If there is any limitation on that love, if murderers are refused by Love, then Love is not love, but something else. And if Love refuses a murderer, who else does Love refuse to embrace? Who else is love unable to transform and heal?

In the Lord’s Prayer we ask, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.  In the parable and in life, forgiveness is key to reconciliation and peace – it is only by forgiving others and ourselves for our mistakes that we can be reconciled to each other and to our own true nature, and so find peace.  May we always remember that, however far we roam, there is always an invitation to open the door and be embraced by Love.

Some final thoughts from UU Minister, Rev Ana Levy-Lyons, “Give yourself permission to be all three characters in the Prodigal Son story. Feed your inner settler and your inner nomad. Find a place for each in this world. And be your own loving parent too – the parent who accepts and values each; allows each to make mistakes; and invites each to the party. This is the true meaning of freedom.”

Unitarian Day of Prayer for Peace

Today is the annual Unitarian Day of Prayer for Peace and the last day of the interfaith Week of Prayer for World Peace. International Pra...