Monday, 3 August 2020

Lughnasadh / Lammas and Letting Go

The Lughnasadh ceremony of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids includes this description,
“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.”

This year, the festival seems more poignant than ever. It has been a year of letting go and reaping rewards, of sacrifice and transformation. It has been difficult, but I do believe that by giving up our old ways we are moving to a deeper, more creative level – at the level of the individual, our local communities and our collective consciousness. We are reaching a deeper level of understanding our interconnectedness and the creative possibilities for new ways of living together on this earth.

Perhaps the hardest lesson of Covid-19 for me has been to let go of the illusion of control. For the pandemic has brought it home that there is so much that is out of our control. At first I found this frankly terrifying, as someone who rigidly maintained the illusion of control in so many ways – a coping mechanism from a chaotic childhood. Once I accept that control is an illusion, then I can let it go.  As I have embraced the recognition that none of us have control over anything except our own responses, I have found a kind of liberation and a serenity that comes with acceptance.

Letting go doesn't mean being completely passive. I still plan for the future, as much as any of us can in the current circumstances  – it would impossible to do this or any other work without some planning for the future – but I let go of my attachment to the outcome. All the plans I had at the beginning of the year have changed. I have had to let go of expectations, of my preconceived ideas about the way things should be, of my attachment to outcomes. I know there will be more letting go to be done, that this is an ongoing journey, a continuous process.

This weekend Greater Manchester has gone into a second lockdown and things are more uncertain than ever. In such uncertain times, I am learning to focus on what I can do rather than what I cannot; to keep trying to consciously bring myself back to the present, to engage with the here and now, to ask myself, what can I do in this moment?  As the 19th century Unitarian Minister, Edward Everett Hale said, “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 that I can do.”

The grain harvest includes 'separating the wheat from the chaff' – the chaff is the protective husk surrounding the grain kernel, but this husk is inedible and must be removed to get to the nutritious kernel beneath. We carry many protective layers around us and we may not be aware of them all.

The lockdown has given most of us the opportunity to go deep within, to discern our own core. As well as considering what I am letting go, I am also considering what I am holding onto – what is the wheat that sustains me?

I am holding on to my belief that love is our life's purpose, and my experience that we thrive in community and connection and creativity. I am holding on to my conviction that people are essentially good. I am holding on to my understanding that there is a unity underlying the diversity of all things, the interconnected web of being. I am holding on to the sacred nature of the earth and the life it sustains.

Over the next week or so I invite you to consider your own wheat and chaff – what is it that you have let go of and what is it that sustains you?


Monday, 29 June 2020

Exile, Imagination and Belonging

Psalm 137: 1 – 6
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our lyres, for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour."

Isaiah 61: 1 – 4
"The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned; to proclaim a year of the Lord's favour and a day of vindication by our God; to comfort all who mourn - to provide for the mourners in Zion - to give them a turban instead of ashes, their festive ointment instead of mourning, a garment of splendour instead of a drooping spirit. They shall be called terebinths of victory, planted by the Lord for His glory. And they shall build the ancient ruins, raise up the desolations of old, and renew the ruined cities, the desolations of many ages."

These two pieces illustrate two different perspectives on the Babylonian exile. The first, from Psalm 137, is the anguished cry of those who had experienced severe trauma and were anxious to preserve the memory of what they had lost. The second, from Isaiah, looks forward to their homecoming – imagining their release, return, and renewal.

For those who might not be familiar with this episode of biblical history, the exile began around 586 BCE when the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army. The upper echelons of Judean society were deported to Babylon, where they remained until the edict of Cyrus allowed them to return in 539 BCE.

Reading Reem Mojahed's On Exile: A Journey of Fear, Guilt and Nostalgia, I was struck by the similarities between her story of exile from Yemen, through fear, guilt and nostalgia, and some of the biblical stories of the experience of exile and its relationship with belonging, almost 3,000 years before.

The exile had a significant effect on the development of Jewish spirituality, culture and identity. The destruction of the temple of Jerusalem and subsequent exile destroyed the pillars of the Jewish faith as they were at the time, causing a spiritual crisis. The temple of Jerusalem was believed to be the eternal dwelling place of Yahweh. Yahweh was the god of the promised land of Canaan. He had promised that there would always be a King from the line of David on the throne. When the kingdom of Judah was overrun by the Babylonians, they lost their temple, their city, their dynasty and their land.

Trauma studies show that an ability to flexibly retell our story is an important factor in developing resilience after trauma. The Jewish people had to reinvent their religion in exile – to create a new way of being with their God, without the land and the temple. Jewish law specified that some forms of spiritual practice, principally animal sacrifice, could only be performed at the temple in Jerusalem. In exile, the people were no longer able to do this. They created the synagogue as the focus of their communal spiritual life, shifting the focus of worship from animal sacrifice to the study and teaching of the Torah, communal prayer and the singing of Psalms. Even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, they continued the synagogue services alongside the temple practice.

There are parallels with our experience of church in the pandemic. We were exiled from our church building. We have reinvented the way we do church to fit our current circumstances. Our sense of belonging to the church community has shifted from gathering in the building to gathering online.

Even when we are able to gather again in our building, our gatherings are going to be quite different to how they were before the pandemic. For example, those great pillars of Unitarianism, communal hymn singing, and tea and biscuits, will be unavailable to us for some time. When we do resume in-person gatherings, not everyone will be able to join us and we will endeavour to continue online gatherings alongside in-person gatherings to ensure that all our community is included in our communal worship life. All this is part of flexibly retelling our story and building resilience as a spiritual community.

The Babylonian exile, like many of the stories in the bible, is not only the story of one incident in the history of the Jewish people, but an archetypal story that plays out again and again throughout human history, revealing spiritual truths on the inner level.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggermann defines exile as a sense of not belonging and of not wanting to belong in the place where we are. Many of us have had some experience of such a feeling of alienation and may be experiencing this feeling more strongly as a result of the pandemic. I am finding that the pandemic has increased both my sense of alienation and my sense of belonging.

I have often felt a sense of alienation, of not wanting to belong to a world built on systems of domination, where power over the many is in the hands of the few – from neoliberal capitalism to systemic racism. The pandemic is exposing the injustices of these systems as never before.

In recent times, I have often felt a sense of alienation in my own country, of not wanting to belong to a society where government policies are driven by economics rather than a genuine concern for public health and wellbeing.

In my early adulthood I often felt lost and had a sense of not really belonging anywhere. It took me a long time to realise that this sense of alienation was a sense of alienation from myself – a feeling of not being comfortable in my own skin.

Belonging in community and belonging to myself are intertwined. Since I have found a place I call home in the Unitarian community, I have become more comfortable in my own skin. During lockdown, thanks to the wonders of technology, I have connected with Unitarians all over the world and my sense of belonging in the Unitarian movement, from the local to the international level, has strengthened. Lockdown has also provided me with the opportunity to reflect on how I understand myself and my place in the world, and to try to practice self-acceptance.

Professor of Leadership and Management BrenĂ© Brown says, “Belonging is being part of something bigger than yourself. But it’s also the courage to stand alone, and to belong to yourself above all else.”

In his paper, Exile and the Creative Imagination, Professor of Art and African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Olu Oguibe, discusses the art of African exiles. He says, “Exile is an in-between place where nothing is firm. This is why exile may only be lived down fruitfully in that embattled yet mobile and secure territory called the Republic of the Imagination. In exile every act is an act of faith, and only projects of the imagination may exist in the present tense. Art, and faith, therefore, are the only possibilities open to the exile because they transcend the strictures of the existential. Like little safe havens, art and faith provide a space from whence dream and determination may battle the myriad traumas of survival away from home. Through art the exile is able to escape the burden of circumstance, even the temptation of bitterness and recrimination, and thus question, explore, ruminate, and attempt to repossess fragments of that which is lost. Through art the exile may return, in a manner of speaking, by reconstituting the past, participating in the present, as well as envisioning a new world.”

As Chorlton Unitarians in exile, we are participating in the present and envisioning a new world through sharing our creative arts, such as our collective poems.

On a global scale, are experiencing a collective trauma with the pandemic, which has to some extent exiled us all from the life we once knew. I believe that the pillars of the societal structures of domination are crumbling and we have the opportunity to envision a new world. There seems to be a collective will not to go back to 'normal' and a recognition that this is our opportunity to use our creative imagination to envisage a new way of being, with ourselves, with one another, with the Earth, with our God – a way of being that is based on a recognition of our common humanity and of humanity as part of nature.

To quote BrenĂ© Brown again, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequality, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

I do want to belong to a world where all of humanity and nature are held in love, peace and justice. I do want to belong to the world Reem Mojahed wrote about, where “the soul is the first homeland and representation of the idea of belonging and the ultimate identity is above all human.”

Guru Arjan Dev Ji, fifth Sikh Guru, wrote, “Seeking and searching, I have found my own home, deep within my own being.”

If exile is a state of feeling we do not belong where we are, homecoming is coming back to feeling we do belong – not to something or somewhere eternal, but to our hearts and the love that lies at the core of our existence. When we experience this homecoming, we belong to ourselves and to one another, wherever we are.

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote,
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”



Monday, 1 June 2020

Creative Chorlton Unitarians Chronicles: Part 1

Springtime is the time of creativity and growth, of blossoming and blooming. During this time we have been physically separated, but the community of which I am a part, Chorlton Unitarians, has grown closer together in spirit, aided by technology. Our community is blossoming and blooming in many ways, one of which is our collective poems, which we are composing together regularly. For the most part, the themes our of collective poems echo the themes of our Sunday Zoom gatherings. Our process is that we each send our lines on the theme, unseen by anyone else, to one of our members, via WhatsApp message, who puts them together and posts them on our WhatsApp group for us all to enjoy. I am delighted to say that they have given me permission to share our creations so far with you here. I may be biased, but hope you will agree that our collective poems are astonishingly beautiful!
Blessed Be

‘Unity’
Together we will soldier on and
find that Rainbow o'er the sun
The collective sources both known and unknown
Ignite the breath to forge eternal soul
Shared love and wisdom upholds our Calm
In turn which Leaves our fears unarmed
When hope hangs frail as a gossamer thread
Strength is found from the thoughts of our friends
Breathing gently, each fragment touches the next and sighs
I am home

'Earth'
All the earth's loves, big and small
The cat snuggles at my feet
As the wind whispers it's secret song
Leaves dappled with sunlight dance
Amidst ever reaching branches which sway
Atop pillars of strength rooted in the fertile soil
The Moon salutes our stars which shine
To guide the Nocturnes on their way
Oh Earth our womb, cradle, shelter and tomb
We come from You and to You we return
And as we grow, decay, wither and bloom
We are one and the same, this we must learn
The vibrant beauty on display
The silence between the crashing waves
We love you Earth
The Mother of our birth!

'Friendship'
What joy, to embrace others on this
meandering path of life
Igniting heart and spirit and giving of light
To share your laughter and your tears
A friend is there throughout these years
A brilliantly beautiful bond
Friendship flows like water
A vital element nourishing your life
But never demanding its form
A knowing, a past, anticipation, a future
Brought together with dreams, laughter, woe
An unwrapped gift
Full of comfort and a safe place to grow

'Creativity'
Creative are the skills we bring
At Chorlton Church in everything
We set ourselves to make or do
As banners books and poems too!
When my pen begins to flow
I leave my thoughts and let them go
The Welsh hills are calling me
To listen to my song
Swords into ploughshares
The comfort of quilts
Creativity, the key to my soul
Gives me energy, so I suddenly feel my heart beating
Combined conscious collaboration
How to get something from nothing
For the artist and physicist alike
Both their wellspring and their frustration
Creativity Nativity
Through pain, struggle, birthing
The mystery is revealed
A spark ignites the senses and
like a bud unfurling its petals
The mind awakens to its fullest bloom
Slowly but surely She sighs
Whispers on the Wind
Sparks imagination
Fire in the belly
Into the flow
Shaping clay
Forming You
Breathe

'Humour'
I’m laughing my socks off...
The stripey ones!
Giggle, chortle, snigger, smirk
Chuckle, titter, cackle, howl
Where poetry is yin
Humour must be the yang
Where the words left the concrete
And they danced and sang
I love Laughing so much that you cry and your stomach feels weak
As beautiful tears tenderly trickle down your cheeks
Nothing perplexes me more than Time and Space
On the other hand
nothing perplexes me less
as I never bother to think about them!
God laughed so much when I told her my plans that she fell off her chair and bruised her bum!

‘Wonder'
From the majestic beauty of a mountain range, as far as the eye can see
To a minute particle, an atom, that makes up all that be
People wonder at the Stars, the Seas, the Mountains, but never think to wonder at their own souls
The scientists know
This world's beauty they can't grasp
Like a graceful forest deer
Enchanting enough to chase
But too elusive to catch
A bright elusive butterfly dances
Through the dark rooms of my mind
We ponder the wonders of this world searching far and wide
Take a moment to just breathe and feel the glorious power we hold inside!

'Patience'
Slow down take a moment and breathe
Feel the flow as things unravel as they should
Lifelong learning
finds the you in you
If it's for you, it'll not pass you by, so be patient while you wait
A watched bud
Never does bloom
Until we meet again
Let's give thanks for Zoom
With waiting comes reward
Corn from seed sown
Honey from the bee
Wine from the vine
Fruit born from tree
A harvest of beautiful bounty
Engines revving, on your mark, get set...WAIT, STOP
But I'm ready!.. please start again

'Lockdown'
Shutters are down all about town
We're in Lockdown
Joggers multiply as the days go by
We're in Lockdown
Schools out, stay home we shout
We're in Lockdown
Jeans are feeling tight...that ain't right
We're in Lockdown
You’ve stolen my freedom and reduced me
Under house arrest
A parallel universe exists
Lockdown, look down, look back with nostalgia, for the life we used to lead, and took for granted, will it ever return? Will we ever resume our unlocked lives?
Lockdown, schmockdown,
Never was there such a load of Crockdown!
masked and plastic gloves
No hugs
Essentials only
Isolated and lonely
What a load of..
All the same what a load off
A Much needed rest
Feeling blessed
Suddenly, there is time
space to dream and to listen
to silence myself
Through all the troubles
A lesson to learn

'Love'
The liminal space where there are no boundaries and we have to stand naked and exposed
Love transforms us
Makes us whole
The Love that I call God opens her arms for me to enter
So we open our arms to each other
To love and be loved
Many say love is mighty
But it's also in the small
Remove your heart's obstacles
And you may well see it all
In for a penny, in for a pound,
It's love that makes the world go round!
Send my love to the flowers
With sunshine and showers
Love's tendrils reaching out to the furthest shores
Like the ripples from a pebble cast in the widest ocean
Lost in the beauty in your eyes
Found in the beauty of your soul
A lingering look
A sideways smile
A tender touch
A whispered word
I savour the plump fruits of love
And hoard them in my heart
To describe the indescribable
to solve the unsolvable and
to know the unknowable...
that is Love




Sunday, 24 May 2020

Patience obtains all things: lockdown and the wisdom of St Teresa of Avila

“Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things will pass away.
God never changes;
Patience obtains all things,
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
Amen.”
St Teresa of Avila

This prayer has become something of a mantra for me during lockdown. Today I want to share something of how it has helped me, in the hope that it may be of help to you too.

Teresa knew all about fear, impermanence, patience and reliance on God alone. She was born in 1515 in Spain. She lost her mother at the age of 11 and had a spiritual crisis in her teenage years, before entering a Carmelite convent at the age of 20. She subsequently endured a long period of serious illness and suffered persecution from members of her own order for trying to reform it. Eventually her efforts succeeded. She was given papal permission to establish several new convents and her reforms were later taken up by the Carmelite Order. Through her main work, 'The Interior Castle' she became one of the most influential and best loved Catholic saints of all time. Her inspiring story is reflected in this, her best known prayer.

Let nothing disturb you 
Let nothing frighten you 

Five hundred years later and we still live in a world that can be disturbing and frightening. There are many things about the current crisis that we may react to with fear. Over the last couple of months I have learned to allow myself to feel unsettled and afraid, but when I start to become overwhelmed by those feelings, to remember that all things are passing away, including my own fear.

All things will pass away

The impermanence of life can be one of its most difficult lessons. We often fear change and try to hold onto the way things are, but when I truly accept that all things pass away, I can start to let go of my attachment.

God never changes

And yet, underneath all the tumult and chaos, perhaps we may glimpse something constant. We may not all express it in the language of 'God never changes,' but nevertheless we may have a sense that there is something that roots and grounds and anchors us. Perhaps we might call this the Eternal Source, the Spirit of Life or simply Love. When I use the word 'God' to me it refers not to an old man in the sky, but to 'the ground of all being.'

Patience obtains all things

This has perhaps been the most important lesson of the lockdown for me – patience is the key to everything.

When I was a child, 'patience is a virtue' was something my mother would say to chide me – for example, if I ran off with a fairy cake straight from the oven and burnt my mouth, she would say, 'patience is a virtue!' So I grew up feeling quite resentful towards patience – it was something I ought to have, but didn't. I would often find myself sneaking a peak at the last page of a book, because I was impatient to know how the story ended. And I have never been happy with queueing, although I am beginning to get used to it now!

But there is more to patience than just waiting. The Cambridge English Dictionary definition of patience is, “the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed.”

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle conceived the idea that a virtue is the golden mean or the middle ground between two extremes or vices. For the waiting aspect of patience, patience is the ability to wait until things are right, between the extremes of apathy and impetuousness. But there is a subtler aspect to patience, which relates to endurance and acceptance, hinted at in the dictionary definition, whose extremes are indifference and anger. Hildegard of Bingen, in her work Liber Vitae Meritorium (the Book of the Rewards of Life), contrasted the virtue of patience with the vice of anger.

Viewed in this light, patience becomes an acknowledgement that everything, both good fortune and misfortune, come from the same source. As such, both can be equally valuable learning experiences. Indeed, we often we grow more through perseverance in times of discomfort and struggle than we do in times of ease.

Patience isn't something encouraged by consumer culture – we are encouraged to go after and get what we want now – buy now, pay later. We are encouraged to think that purchasing more and more things will solve all our problems. It is hard to stay with the discomfort and the difficulties, to be present to whatever is.

The coronavirus crisis is calling us all to patience – to be patient with ourselves and with others – to be kind, understanding, compassionate and forgiving to ourselves and others.

I am very grateful for the patience of others – for example, for the kindness and understanding shown in our Unitarian community as we muddle our way through new technology and new ways to keep our connections going. I am very grateful that my family and I have been able to be patient with each other as we adjust to the new realities of lockdown at different paces. I am very grateful for the patience of my college tutors and fellow students as we work out how to adjust our ministry training programme to our altered circumstances. And I grateful that I am learning to be patient with myself – to accept that my moods and my energy levels fluctuate more than ever, and that some days are down days and some days are up days.

Our patience may be put to the test in the days to come. We don't know how long our lives are going to be disturbed and disrupted by coronavirus. Some organisations are already making plans to stay 'virtual' in the long term. For example, the University of Cambridge is planning for all its lectures to be delivered online for the whole of the 2020/21 academic year.

I read recently that the UUA (Unitarians Universalist Association, in the US) are advising their member congregations to prepare for another year of gathering online rather than face-to-face. Now our situation in the UK may not be exactly the same, but it is becoming clear that the virus isn't going to go away any time soon.

The following day I read that the UK government had announced a 'Places of Worship taskforce', including leading representatives of our major faiths, to develop guidelines for COVID-19 secure use of our buildings for worship. Places of worship will be part of the 'phase 3' reopening of public gathering places, which will not before 4 July at the very earliest.

We do not know what will happen here between now and then, but it may well be much later than July before any place of worship is fully open again and before we feel it is safe to start gathering in person in our church building. A return to worship is likely to be phased, and subject to vigorous risk assessments, and social distancing and hygiene measures. Even social distanced singing spreads the virus so we won't be able to sing hymns in the way we were used to for some time.

And even when we are in a position to hold services in the building again, there will be some people who will not be able to join us as they need to keep shielding until such time as a vaccine is available, and we will need to consider carefully how to include those people in the services we offer.

And so we will need to continue cultivating patience in all its forms in the days to come as we wait to see what shape our lives will take after lockdown. Luckily, like all virtues, patience can be cultivated with practice – all it takes is patience!

Even writing this has been an exercise in patience for me – it took a long time for it to reveal itself in its final form to me. Which brings me to the next aspects of patience – trust and faith.

Sometimes we may feel that God, or Fate or the Meaning of Life, is capricious and elusive. We don't often understand the lesson we are learning until it is over. But if we let dark be dark, then the light will be revealed to us in the fullness of time.

Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.

We may translate 'God alone suffices' as 'Good' or 'Love' alone suffices. It is our faith in whatever we consider sacred, of ultimate concern, that sustains us. Our spiritual treasures are worth more than all the material things we may accumulate. A big lesson for me during this crisis has been how few of the material things I own I actually need. It is my faith in the ultimate goodness of God / Eternal Source /  Ground of all Being, and the Love that holds us together, that sustains me.

St Hildegard of Bingen's character, Patience, from her musical play, Ordo Virtuum (Order of the Virtues) says,
“I am the pillar that can never be made to yield, as my foundation is in God.”


Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Our World is One World: A Reflection for Earth Day

“Our world is one world:
what touches one affects us all –
the seas that wash us round about,
the clouds that cover us,
the rains that fall....
Our world is one world,
just like a ship that bears us all –
where fear and greed make many holes,
but where our hearts can hear
a different call.”
Words of Cecily Taylor from one of our most loved hymns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how true it is that our world is one world. Facilitated by global air travel, since it first appeared in Wuhan in China in December 2019, the disease has spread to over 180 countries and 200 territories, with over 2 million confirmed cases worldwide. I have a natural inclination to look for the positives in a situation. There is immense suffering as a result of this disease – there are deaths, job losses, food shortages, poverty, mental health consequences. I believe we are also being given the opportunity to make positive changes. Our interconnection and interdependence have enabled the disease to spread far and wide in a short space of time, but they have also enabled communities to respond to the crisis with compassion and care for each other, and they are key to building a healthy future for our world.

Last week, the key note speech at the UK Unitarians online gathering, Being Together, was given by writer and activist Alastair McIntosh. He identified our excessive consumption as a major component in the adverse effect that humans have on our environment. As a result of lockdown measures, many of us have had to make substantial changes to the way we live. Most of us are travelling less and consuming less. Food waste has reduced and air quality has improved.

Carbon emissions have dropped dramatically with the reduction of industrial activity and engine-driven transport. Compared with this time last year, levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50%. The proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide emissions fading away over Italy, Spain and the UK.

Of course, when restrictions are lifted, and industrial activity and air travel resume, emissions will rise, but I do hold out hope that we will not just go back to the way things were. Social science research shows that behavioural changes that are imposed upon us by external interventions can turn into lasting habits.

A 2018 study at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland found that when people were unable to drive and given free e-bike access instead, they drove much less when they eventually got their car back. A study in 2001 led by at Kyoto University in Japan found that when a motorway closed, forcing drivers to use public transport, the same thing happened – when the road reopened, people who had formerly been committed drivers travelled by public transport more frequently.

As a species, adaptability has been key to our evolutionary success. We have had to adapt quickly and extensively to our new circumstances. Some climate scientists are heartened by the ways communities have pulled together to look out for each other – we have taken collective action at local, national and international levels in response to this health crisis – so surely we should be able to take substantive collective action in response to climate change?

Over the next few days, I invite you to consider what recent changes to the way you live would you like to continue in the future?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is connection. This crisis has brought home to me just how precious are my connections - to friends, to family, to the Unitarian community, to the wider human community, to the rest of nature.

For me, one of the gifts of lockdown has been being able to really be present to the great greening of springtime, especially in the last week or so, when the leaves have all unfurled on the trees and the blossom has exploded in a riot of colour. I have realised that most years I am too busy scurrying about to see much further than the end of my nose. As a result of the reduction in the level of noise from machinery and traffic, birdsong is much clearer. A pair of nuthatches have taken up residence in a tree on the street opposite our house, something that has not happened in the 8 years we have lived there. This week has seen a multitude of birds, bees and butterflies visiting our garden. In future years things will be different and probably noisier again, but I would like to continue being present, appreciating being part of nature, taking notice of the sights and sounds of the seasons.

Other changes I have had to make include shopping within a very small local geographic area. As a result of this, I am getting to know the owners of my local health food store and zero waste shop, and I am supporting local businesses. This change in my consumption habits has led me to ask myself, what is enough? Am I doing enough?  Am I consuming too much? I am considering all of my personal consumption, not just food, but other purchases, and less tangible things, but things that are just as influential to our well-being, such as news and social media.  A word we are hearing a lot is “essential”. We are told only to leave our homes for essential purposes. Only essential businesses are to remain open. So I ask myself, what is essential for me?

A lesson for me in all this is that we do a lot of unnecessary things.
“Times are urgent, let us slow down,” says the activist Bayo Akomolafe.
Let us slow down and ask ourselves,
What is enough?
What is essential for the well-being of the Earth?


Saturday, 11 April 2020

Holy Saturday – reflections on despair and hope in lock-down

"It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath day they rested according to the commandment." The Gospel According to Luke, 23:54-56

In the Christian tradition, today is Holy Saturday, when Jesus lay dead in the tomb. The women who cared for him rested, and sat with their grief, their despair, their confusion. It was a day of silence, a day of darkness, a day of stillness.

In the Gospels, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus happen during the Jewish festival of Passover, a festival commemorating the Exodus, the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.

Recorded not in the canonical gospels, but in some apocryphal texts such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, there is a tradition in Christianity, known as the harrowing of hell, that in between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended to the underworld to liberate the souls there from the bonds of death.

Holy Saturday is thus also a day of transformation. When Jesus rises from the dead on Easter Sunday he has not just been resuscitated and restored to the life he once had, he has been transformed. In John's Gospel he appears in a locked room. In Luke's Gospel he is not recognised by his followers when he travels with them and he then vanishes.

In the Acts of the Apostles, after Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples (followers) are transformed into apostles (messengers) at Pentecost - “and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

The Apostles are inspired to continue Christ's transformative work of love - radical inclusivity, the liberation of the poor and oppressed – “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The pandemic has brought the inequalities of our world into sharp focus. Millions live and die in poverty and squalor. If our living conditions are such that we have access to clean running water to be able to practice good hygiene and enough space to practice physical distancing, then we are privileged. Even in our privileged country, the UK, the rich and powerful have access to early testing and superior medical care, while the poor are sickening and dying in their thousands. Those most at risk of the disease, such as care workers, refuse collectors, hospital porters, shelf-stackers, are among the most poorly paid members of society. The demand for food banks has rocketed.

The followers of Jesus were not expecting the resurrection. With the death of their leader, all their hopes had been dashed. They were scared and disappointed. When the women returned to the tomb on Sunday morning with the spices and ointments they had prepared, they fully expected to find Jesus' body there and to anoint it. They were amazed when angels appeared and told them that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, but risen from the dead.

The C19 pandemic has caused fear, confusion, despair and grief. Unlike the followers of Jesus, may we dare to hope for resurrection – not for life to return to exactly as it was before, but to be transformed by love.

Let us not turn away from our fear, confusion, despair and grief. Let us use this time in lock-down to rest with all of it, to sit in silence, to deepen into darkness, to stay with stillness. Let this also be a time of transformation. Let us dare to hope for the resurrection of love in our world. Let us commit to the spiritual life, in the definition of Alastair McIntosh, “life as love made manifest.” Let us commit to doing whatever we can to help build a better world in which all people are free, fed, watered and cared for. Amen.



Sunday, 29 March 2020

Grounded - a personal reflection on the Spring Equinox and the COVID-19 pandemic

In the last week in the UK, we have all been grounded. Our government has told us not to leave home, except for essentials. The other meaning of the word grounded is being fully present in our body and connected to the earth. I'd like to share with you some of my journey over the last few weeks from a place of fear and panic to being grounded in being grounded!

Just over two weeks ago, a few days after my husband started to suffer with a fever, a headache, and dizziness, I started to feel unwell with similar symptoms. One minute I was burning up, the next shivering. My head pounded and I felt as if I was floating, like my head wasn't really connected to my body. These symptoms continued intermittently for about ten days. Whether or not they were symptoms of the coronavirus, we do not know.

In the middle of my illness, we had to take the decision to close the church building and stop gatherings on the premises. I worried about the safety and well-being of all those who come to church, and I was also concerned about members of my family who are in their seventies and who didn't seem to be taking on board what social distancing and self-isolating mean in practice, although I am pleased to say that they are doing so now.

I started to experience panic attacks – they were short-lived, mercifully, but very intense. I was gripped by what I can only describe as existential terror – my heart felt like it was being squeezed and it was difficult to catch my breath. Whether these were part of the symptoms of my illness or just related to the stress of the unfolding situation, I don't know. Perhaps both.

During my illness, my personal, individual spiritual practice went right out of the window. I knew it would help, but I couldn't summon the motivation. It is my custom to start my day with a period of spiritual practice. I usually start with a short body prayer, with actions that mirror the words, and then I might do some kundalini yoga or I might simply sing and dance for a few minutes. These are all practices that help me feel grounded and set me up for the day.

While I was ill, I wasn't doing my morning practice, and I wasn't feeling grounded in my body and connected to the earth. I was able to find some comfort in reading poetry. My favourite poem is 'The peace of wild things' by Wendell Berry. Two lines from this poem in particular became particularly poignant for me, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water.”

I realised that the existential terror, which had gripped my heart during the panic attacks, was 'forethought of grief' – the terror of losing loved ones. And, as Wendell Berry says, wild things, wild creatures do not do this, they are fully present with the still water. They are fully present in their bodies and fully connected to the earth.

The turning point for me, when I was able to rediscover my presence in my body and my connection to the earth, came at the Spring Equinox. The themes of Spring Equinox are balance, with the brief equilibrium of night and day, and blossoming, the Spring flowers blooming with the surge of energy as the earth reawakens from winter rest. I didn't connect with either of those things – I felt completely off balance, and I certainly didn't feel like I was blooming and blossoming.

I am part of a Druid Grove, who have been holding rituals to celebrate the wheel of the year festivals in Heaton Park for the last decade. The Spring Equinox is known as Alban Eilir, the Light of the Earth, in the Druid tradition. On Saturday 21st March a very small group of Druids gathered for their ritual, maintaining appropriate physical distancing throughout I am assured. Those of us who were unable to join the gathering were invited to perform a solo ritual in our own spaces at the same time, so that we were energetically connected with the grove.

I performed the solo ritual in my garden. I set up my markers for the quarters – a stone for earth in the north, a stick of incense for air in the east, a lantern for fire in the south, and a shell full of water for water in the west. I cast my circle and called the quarters, feeling the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, sprinkling some of the water on my head and feeling the earth beneath my feet. I sat in the centre of the circle visualising the grove and my friends. By the end of the ritual I felt fully grounded. I felt the peace of wild things and the presence of still water.

I was also able to recognise, that, although this is an unusual Spring Equinox, the themes of balancing and blossoming are indeed playing out in the world. What is happening now, with this crisis, is a global rebalancing, and a blossoming of kindness and creativity. As Lynn Ungar says in her poem, 'Imagine', the opportunity of this calamity is a great awakening. Everyone I speak to has stories to share of kindness among friends, neighbours and strangers. Those of us whose work centres on people gathering together face to face have had to get creative quickly to continue gathering in different ways. There has been a blossoming of art, poetry, music, within our Unitarian community and everywhere.

I do not want to gloss over the difficulties of the pandemic; there are very real pains, losses and sorrows. For my part, I am now able to see it as an invitation to live a simpler life. Over the next week I invite you to find the things that ground you – that help you to feel fully present in your body and connected to the earth - and to do them every day.


Lughnasadh / Lammas and Letting Go

The Lughnasadh ceremony of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids includes this description, “Here we come to know the paradoxical nature of...