Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Lent Reflections Week 7: Rejoice

Legend has it that Mary Magdalene, a woman of means, influence, and courage, procured an invitation to dine at the court of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. She went to Rome to protest Pilate’s miscarriage of justice, and to announce the resurrection, bringing with her an egg as a symbol of new life, with the words, “Christ is Risen!” The emperor scoffed at her, saying, “Christ rose from the dead as surely as that egg in your hand will turn red!” The egg immediately turned blood red.

As a teenager I attended an evangelical church with my friend for a while. The people I found there were welcoming and sincere, and very secure in their faith. As a young person beset with doubts, to be honest I envied them their certainty. My heart desperately wanted to ‘accept Jesus into my heart as my saviour’ as they used to say. However, my head would not agree, no matter how hard I tried. Original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection – they made no rational sense to me.

When I left home to study Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds I retained a sense of guilt about being unable to accept the mainstream Christian worldview. So it came as a relief to discover, in my biblical criticism classes, that bible stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection were written down so long after the events that they were unverifiable by Jesus’ contemporaries.

The study of early Christian texts in the context of the times in which they were written has led biblical scholars to conclude that there were various groups among the early followers of Jesus who interpreted his life and teachings in different ways and produced a variety of literature. Their thinking was influenced by the ideas of the time, for example Jewish apocalyptic thought, pagan myths of dying and rising gods, and mystery cults, whose initiates would die to their old selves and be reborn. The stories about Jesus are more likely to reflect the needs of the communities who shared them, rather than be an accurate historical portrait. By the time some of these stories were collected into the writings that we now know as the New Testament, the view of Jesus as Son of God and Saviour had prevailed.

Biblical scholar Burton Mack believes the resurrection stories originated in the congregations established by St Paul. For the first followers of Jesus, the importance of him as the founder of their movement was directly related to the significance they attached to his teachings. What mattered most was what these teachings called for in terms of ideas, attitudes and behaviour, but as the Jesus movement spread, groups in different locations and circumstances began to think about the kind of life Jesus must have lived. Some began to think of him in the role of a sage, others as a prophet, or an exorcist come to rid the world of evil. This shift from interest in Jesus’ teachings to questions about Jesus’ person, authority, and social role eventually produced a host of different mythologies. The mythology most familiar to Christians of today developed in northern Syria and Asia Minor, where Jesus’ death was interpreted as a martyrdom and a miraculous event of crucifixion and resurrection.

Acknowledging that the stories of the empty tomb are myths freed me to consider alternative interpretations to the ‘fundamentalist’ Christian view that the resurrection was historical fact and the crucifixion was atonement for original sin. I am using Richard Rohr's definition of myth here. As he says in his book, The Universal Christ, “Remember, myth does not mean “not true,” which is the common misunderstanding; it actually refers to things that are always true!”

The resurrection can be interpreted as spiritual truth rather than physical truth – Jesus was experienced by his followers as Lord/God after his death – this is a view often expressed by liberal Christians.

The resurrection can be interpreted as a psychological truth – experiences of the risen Christ were an expression of the great love that his friends had for him, just as many people today experience the presence of loved ones after their deaths.

The resurrection can be interpreted as an archetypal or mystical truth – Jesus represents the dying and rising god motif, which tells cosmic truths about life and death, linking the dark unconscious with the light of consciousness, leading to wholeness – this view is influenced by Jungian psychology and often expressed by modern mystics.

Two liberal Christian writers who have influenced my understanding of the resurrection are Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox. They both understand the resurrection in terms of the 'Universal Christ' or 'Cosmic Christ.'

Richard Rohr says in his book The Universal Christ, “In the resurrection, Jesus Christ was revealed as the Everyman and Everywoman in their fulfilled state... The “Christ journey” is indeed another name for every thing... Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God's ubiquitous gift.”

Matthew Fox says in his Easter blog, “The “paschal mystery” of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the rabbi is an archetypal reminder about how, as science now teaches us, all things in the cosmos live, die and resurrect. Supernovas, galaxies, solar systems, planets, beings that inhabit our planet—we all have our time of existence and of passing out of existence. But we leave something behind for further generations and that constitutes resurrection. Supernovas leave elements behind in a great explosion that seed other solar systems, planets and even our very bodies... Jesus left behind the gift of his teachings... That compassion and justice are what link us to the Divine and that we are to look for the Kingdom of God but within ourselves and among others in community for the love that is at once our love of neighbor and our love of God... We do not die once. We all die many times. Life does that to us with our losses, our betrayals, our own mistakes and emptying out. But we also resurrect on a regular basis as well. We forgive, we are forgiven, we bottom out, we move on, we give birth anew... The depths of the valley of death do not overcome the power of life which makes things new again.”

My journey with the resurrection has been a journey from head to heart. I am no longer struggling to accept Jesus' resurrection as a one-off historical event in one person's life. I now understand it as a cosmic truth or the archetypal pattern of every human life.

For me, the resurrection story is a universal truth illustrating the transformative power of love. Jesus suffers and dies. He is healed and lives. Jesus is changed or ‘transfigured’ by his death and resurrection; the witnesses are changed by their experience of the presence of Jesus’ spirit after his death. Just as we are all changed by suffering – by grief, betrayal, despair and shame – through love we heal and live anew. The message I take from it is that love is the most powerful force of all, stronger even than death. Rejoice!

Lent Reflections Week 7: Faith

On this Easter Saturday I think of the women of faith who gathered near the tomb of Jesus, watching and waiting through the silence of the sabbath.

Unitarianism is a creed-less faith. It is hard to describe my faith, beyond that it is a faith in love as our ultimate purpose.

What I can tell you is what it means to me to be a woman of faith; how my faith compels me to try to treat others with respect and compassion; how my faith allows me to be comfortable with ambiguity; how my faith helps me develop the confidence to step into the unknown and try new things, to nurture them and to let them go if necessary; how my faith helps me understand that I do not need to fix disagreements and conflicts immediately or by myself; how my faith teaches me to ask for help when I need it, to learn from others and to remain open to change; how, in faith, I allow life to unfold.

What does faith mean to you?

Lent Reflections Week 7: Pain

The worst pain I ever experienced was emotional rather than physical. In my early twenties I lost my beloved dog when I let him off the lead in some woodland and he didn’t come back when called. After searching until dark I went home and reported him missing to the police. Every day I rang the police to ask if he had been found. Every day they told me no. I continued searching the woods, and put up posters in the local shops and the students union, offering a reward. I searched all day and at night I cried myself to sleep. The anguish of not knowing what had happened to him was unbearable. I missed him so much and of course I felt horribly guilty too.

After about a week a student rang me to say that he had followed her home and she had taken him to the police. I rang the police back and insisted they re-check their records. Oh sorry, they said, there’s been a mix-up – he was found and he was taken to a kennel in Huddersfield. A friend drove me to collect him. As we pulled into the car park I heard the heart-rending sound of him howling and I knew he’d been doing that all week. The joy when we were reunited was incredible. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest with love. Tears of relief poured down my face as I hugged him close. After a week in kennels he smelled terrible!!

My story of pain had a happy ending, but so many don’t. Today I think of all those for whom pain, whether physical or emotional, is a constant companion.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Lent Reflections Week 6: Truth

I grew up in the Anglican Church, but the ‘sin and salvation’ side of Christianity never resonated with me. At school I became fascinated by the different approaches of world religions to ‘the big questions’ and decided to study Theology and Religious Studies at university. The more I studied world religions, the more I understood them as human constructs, which left me disillusioned with the idea of finding the ‘truth’.

I now realise that trying to discern the ‘truth’ of one religion from another is a false endeavour, truth is subjective. What is important is thinking about what is true for us and living in accordance with that truth. My truth, 'appreciation of the interconnected web of being,' leads me to tread lightly on the earth by trying to live as sustainably as possible and to follow the ‘golden rule’, treating others with respect and compassion.

My understanding of Unitarian spirituality is the search for what gives our lives truth and meaning, in loving relationship with each other, and the fostering of deep connection – to each other and to the divine, which is in everything.

What is your truth?

Lent Reflections Week 6: Sanctuary

I am blessed to have found my sanctuary in Chorlton Unitarians – the building and the people. We read this responsive blessing, based on the words of Sandra Fees, at our anniversary service last year.

We bless this space and each other. May this truly be a sanctuary for all of us, for those who have passed, who are already here and those who have yet to arrive, a place where we embrace and celebrate diversity in all its forms. May open-hearted hospitality be our passion and custom, and may we cherish this building as a place where each has the opportunity to be heard, understood and accepted. May we invite full participation in religious life so that no one is left out of this beloved community to which we dedicate ourselves.

We bless this sanctuary as a place of peace and love.

We bless this space and each other. May this truly be a sanctuary that sparks the imagination and sparkles with beauty. May this be a place of self-expression for the unfolding of possibilities and potentials. Here may the creative gifts of music, dance, art, poetry, story-telling, conversation, thinking, teaching and leadership be free flowing, nourishing our minds, hearts, and spirits. May this space serve as a canvas for future creativity.

We bless this sanctuary as a place of peace and love.

We bless this space and each other. May this truly be a sanctuary that inspires us to live out our faith by serving the cause of love and justice in the world. May our hearts be made kind and our spirits emboldened to act. May the fire of our commitment burn boldly, because we know that all beings long as we do for laughter, nurture, sustenance, rest and care.

We bless this sanctuary as a place of peace and love.

We bless this space and each other. May this truly be a sanctuary that radiates the warmth of relationship. May it be a place that nurtures and sustains human kinship, offering shelter and comfort, and creating bonds of affection and care. May it reach out into the larger community and world. May we be woven ever more artfully and lovingly into the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.

We bless this sanctuary as a place of peace and love. Amen.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Lent Reflections Week 6: Trust

‘Trust is something that must be earned’ is a common phrase, but if we expect others to earn our trust, we place the responsibility on them. We only take responsibility for ourselves when we give trust freely.

For me, trust is something that must be learned. This lesson has not been easy for me. My subconscious brain learned, through experiencing childhood trauma, that the only person I could trust was me. And so I became extremely self-reliant. If I ask for help, I place my trust in others and risk disappointment.

To mitigate against my anxiety, which is fear of the unknown, I spent much of my life trying to keep myself safe by trying to plan every tiny detail. But complete control is an illusion. Life is chaotic. Change is the only certainty.

Unitarianism does not give you answers, but rather supports you as you ask the questions. As I step into faith, I step into trust. I let go of the need to be in control of every little detail. I embrace the Great Mystery. It is a relief not have to try to understand everything or to want to know exactly how things are going to work out. I am able to give trust freely, not knowing whether it will be repaid.

Last weekend, while on retreat, I reflected on how far I have come on the journey of trust. When my husband texted me, asking about my plans for the day, I replied that I had no idea and that it was liberating not knowing what was going to happen.

Later that day I was ‘initiated’ into the group by being anointed. Such intimacy would have made me very uncomfortable a few years ago. But last weekend, through trust, I opened my heart to receive love, in one of the most tender and blissful experiences of my life.

Cherish Your Doubts by Michael A Schuler
“Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the servant of truth. Question your convictions, for beliefs too tightly held strangle the mind and its natural wisdom. Suspect all certitudes, for the world whirls on—nothing abides. Yet in our inner rooms full of doubt, inquiry and suspicion, let a corner be reserved for trust. For without trust there is no space for communities to gather or for friendships to be forged. Indeed, this is the small corner where we connect—and reconnect—with each other.”

Lent Reflections Week 5: Grace

This is a word I had some resistance to for a long time. I associated it with the line from the song, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." Saving, wretch, all that stuff does not compute with me. So I didn't really get what grace is about until a few weeks ago, when I was one of the first on the scene of an accident on my way to church. A woman had been knocked down by a car whilst trying to cross the road. She was lying face down on the tarmac. Her shoes and glasses had come off and were lying either side of her. The young woman who had been driving the car was sobbing uncontrollably. A young man was phoning an ambulance. A woman was yelling for help. The woman yelling for help and I talked to the woman who had been knocked down and ascertained that the car had hit her arm, and she had banged her head falling, but was otherwise unhurt. We managed to get a scarf under her face, very gently, to make her more comfortable. It was raining so I put my umbrella up over her head. I picked up her shoes and glasses, and put them in her handbag. Other passers-by began stopping to help. Someone found a blanket in the boot of their car to cover her. Someone else turned out to be a counsellor, who began comforting the driver of the car. Two other passers-by turned out to be doctors, who took charge while we waited for the ambulance. When I returned home from church I had a flash of clarity. Grace was at work that morning at the crossroads. In the words of the song, I "was blind, but now I see."

Lent Reflections Week 7: Rejoice

Legend has it that Mary Magdalene, a woman of means, influence, and courage, procured an invitation to dine at the court of the Emperor Tibe...