Sunday, 25 July 2010

"Make of yourselves a light."

My Zafu
A couple of weeks ago I gave an address which explored our particular church's covenant. In a way this is an expansion of the call to meet in 'the spirit of Jesus.'

There are a lot of 'in parenthesis' in this address, none of which appeared in the giving of the actual address but which, as I put this down 'in print' seemed necessary to make. Apologies for them if they merely irritate you. Just skip them.)

-o0o-

Jesus memorably said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life' (John 8:12).

There is a saying of the Buddha's found in the Digha Nikaya ('Collection of Long Discourses') which resonates strongly with Jesus' words

'When a Bodhisattva descends from heaven, there appears in this world an immeasurable, splendid light surpassing the glory of the most powerful glow. And whatever dark spaces lie beyond the world's end will be illuminated by this light' (14.I.17).

(I owe my experience of the conjoing of these texts to Marcus Borg's book Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings)

Now, surely the most powerful glow - at least in the realm of human experience - is the sun and this thought instantly brought to my mind the poem entitled 'The Buddha’s Last Instruction' by Mary Oliver:
 
“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.



(Mary Oliver - New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1, Beacon Press, Boston 1992)

-o0o-

In our Christian tradition we are very used to the idea of Jesus being the light of the world, a light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness has never overcome. Although not explicitly referenced our lighting of the chalice each week is, of course, intimated related to this idea - "Divinity is present everywhere; the whole world is filled with God. But, in certain places and at certain times, we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.

But what did Jesus mean by his saying? Or, what seems to me to be a far better question, how might we use this teaching of Jesus' honestly in our present circumstances and with our skeptical attitude towards religion? (When I use the word skeptical I use it in its positive sense which is to denote our questioning attitude and willingness to question claims that we feel are too easily taken for granted by too many.)

Well, I think the only way we can honestly use this teaching today is to shift our focus from a metaphysical understanding of it to a very, very practical one. It relies on us changing our way of thinking about the 'light of life' as being something Jesus or God has and which is passed on to us only on condition of our *believing in the right things* to a sense of it being something freely available and omnipresent but which can only be accessed on condition *doing the right things*. So, once again, this is an address that is not trying to offer you a *theory about the world* (in order to have this 'light of life') but about finding some simple way *to be in the world* (and to 'have this light').

But to *do* - because it is about doing more than thinking - to *do* this we need to be helped into a radically different way of encountering the teaching of Jesus that doesn't rely on metaphysics and theories about God/Jesus and the world (our liberal tradition's historically prevalent approach). This kind of help to new perspectives of our own tradition is one of the great benefits of engaging in real and sustained inter-faith dialogue and although much of my professional work in this area is, as most of you know, mostly in the realm of Jewish/Christian and Muslim relations my other long term inter-faith encounter has been with the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. For many years, although admittedly at times fitfully, I have practised sitting meditation (zazen). In a nutshell you just sit down and shut up.

(If you want to discover an interesting and knowledgeable exponent of Zen within the Unitarian fold go no further than James Ishmael Ford - hi James! - who has written a couple of excellent books - In this very moment and Zen Master Who? and who has his own blog - Monkey Mind. I would also recommend the two books on Zen written by another of my heroes (yes James, that means you're one of mine . . .) , Paul Wienpahl, who wrote The Matter of Zen and Zen Diary. Both are, alas, out of print but the second I particularly recommend if you are trying to move towards practising an embodied form of spirituality but who know they are *deeply* rooted in the Western philosophical and Judaeo-Christian tradition.Abe Books is a good place to start.)

The book which, in my teens, introduced me to Zen Buddhism - and also generations of people in the West since its publication in 1970 - was 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' by Shunryu Suzuki which consists of a collection of his informal talks to an American Zen group. At the end of his opening talk on posture - a simple explanation of how to sit on your cushion - he writes that 'the Buddha could not accept the religions existing at his time.'

'He studied many religions, but he was not satisfied with their practices. He could not find the answer in asceticism or in philosophies. He was not interested in some metaphysical existence, but in his own body and mind, here and now. And when he found himself, he found that everything that exists has Buddha nature. That was his enlightenment. Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism' (p.28).

The point I want you to observe is that Suzuki feels that 'in this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.'

Now, at one level Suzuki is clearly talking specifically here about the posture you should adopt in meditation. But the whole point about engaging in any genuine spiritual or religious practice is that it doesn't stop when you stand up from your cushion or from other kinds of meditation or prayers. You 'take' the practice with you into the world - or better, you become that practice in the world.The absolutely key thing to notice is that you will not succeed if you simply take a theory about the world into the world! Suzuki clearly knows this and points specifically to driving a car and to reading but these are just examples. How you are in the world is what matters. Though sitting meditation clearly not driving a car, reading a book, riding a bicycle, working at a computer, making tea, taking a bath, fixing a puncture, eating or drinking the thing that you learn through sitting is to be natural. As Suzuki says later in the book - 'the true practice of Zen is to sit as if drinking water when thirsty' (ibid p. 108): 

'The seed has no idea of being some particular plant, but it has its own form and is in perfect harmony with the ground, with its surroundings. As it grows, in the course of time it expresses its nature.  Nothing exists without form or colour. Whatever it is, it has some form or colour, and that form and colour are in perfect harmony with other beings. And there is no trouble. That is what we mean by naturalness (ibid. p. 108).

Now in Oliver's poem (and to me she appears to be a writer nearly always transparent in her naturalness) - although she experiences that she is not needed (is nothing special or indispensable) she also experiences that she is something of inexplicable value. She imagines the Buddha experiencing this too and looking into the faces of that frightened crowd - a crowd that surrounds us still, a crowd to which we may ourselves still belong.

This sensation of being nothing special or indispensable but yet something of inexplicable value seems to me, at least, to be the 'light of life' and when we sense that we become a light to the world for others.

In Zen practise you sit. This is in some real sense the beginning (though not the end) of your doing, it is the way by which you access the light of life, a light which, with patience and disciplined practice, will spread through every aspect of your natural being-in-the-world. (Here I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm not in anyway claiming I'm a Zen Buddhist - that would be, if not a lie, then stretching the definition of Zen Buddhist a bit far! If I am anything I'm some kind of flawed disciple of Jesus who has simply found the insights and practises of Zen - especially in its Soto form - extremely helpful. Dogen's writings continue to inspire my own practise and thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.)

The basic doing, the practise, that we inherit from our liberal Christian tradition is, alas, not for us so clearly defined as it is with zazen but it is clearly related to modelling our way of being of the life of Jesus. When you come to examine his life and teachings you find very little to do with belief - it's all about following, walking with, imitating him in prayer and service to all who are poor and needy - whether in spirit, body or both. It is a 'posture' - an attitude one takes up in the world - and in this sense I think it meaningfully relates to the posture one takes up on the cushion. To return to Suzuki's phase 'In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.'

None of this is, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, so that we may become little Jesuses (sometimes represented by the worrying 'What-Would-Jesus-Do' syndrome - Jesus did what Jesus needed to to to be natural, we need to do different things even as we might do them in the 'same spirit') but another proven way to become ever more natural expressions of ourselves as sons and daughters of God -beings of inexplicable value. Surely to understand one is a son or daughter of God is another way of saying we (and all beings) have 'inexplicable value.'?

The message (or at least one important part of the message) of Jesus, the Buddha, Suzuki and Oliver (and me!) is that YOU are of inexplicable value - YOU are that light of life - but to experience it, to become that light, requires that you commit yourself to a real spiritual discipline whether it be sitting or following the example of Jesus. That is, at times, a hard and difficult work but only when you do this work will you begin to leave the crowd of frightened people and begin to start "the real work" the “What is to be done.” 

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.


-o0o-

In the period of conversation after the address it was pointed out that there were many examples (other than Mary Oliver) in English that connected with what one might call Zen thought. I recommended R. H. Blyth's  Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics - a book, again alas, out of print.

However, today (31/07/2010), I have just found this online edition.

Friday, 23 July 2010

A visit to Anglesey Abbey

This afternoon Susanna and I went over to the gardens of Anglesey Abbey. A lovely two hour amble after a very tiring week.
The house from the park
View into one of the formal gardens (statue of Father Time c. 1700)
Narcissus (1848) contemplates, well green stuff . . .
The temple (statue: copy of Bernini's David (1901)
One of the avenues

 An ornamental urn (mid-19th century)

Susanna greets a griffin (c. 1730 from Dresden)

 Resting in the dahlia garden under Apollino - the adolescent Apollo (c. 1800)

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Conserving the light, but to what end? A new call to do some 'digging' . . .

In my various roles as a chaplain this week I have been talking with people both about their real fears of redundancy as well as with a number who have been informed that their jobs are now to go. This is, of course, just the start of a very long process.

The economic situation that, it is claimed, necessitates these particular swathing cuts - though I firmly believe an underlying callous neoliberal ideology is really the major driving factor in the choice of where 'savings' are to be made - these cuts will push many hundreds of thousands of people in this country back into poverty and many others will find themselves increasingly stretched in financial terms as well as finding themselves without vital public services.

Though I think there are good and sound reasons why all of us, particularly in the West, need to understand that as a culture we have been snaffling far too much of the world's natural resources and been living way above anything like appropriate and sustainable levels of consumption, we mustn't loose sight of another ancient dynamic that is returning, namely, that caused by the growing gap between the unimaginably wealthy (and therefore powerful) and those who are much poorer, including those whom we can clearly call the poor.

The rhetorical claim may be being made by our present government (and governments across Europe) that "we're all in this together" but this is not true in the way they would like us to think it is because the plain fact of the matter is that the poorer people will take the greatest burden which, in its own insidious way, is in truth often an unconscious act of supporting the excessively wealthy. (Addition 8 August 2010 - See this article by John Harris in The Guardian with his take on this claim that "we're all in this together.")

Back in the 1910s the German philosopher Ernst Bloch was writing what became his book called "Traces" (you have already heard from it the story of the horse and the dog who were friends) - here is another of his stories which illustrates my point simply and starkly:

"What are you doing? I asked. I'm conserving light, said the poor woman. She sat in the dark kitchen, a long time already. That was certainly easier than conserving food. Since there isn't enough for everyone, the poor step in. They work for the rich even when they rest alone" (Traces p. 9).

In our culture the teaching about the poor we find in the Bible has all too easily been used, not to liberate them and to create a society concerned for the fullest possible flourishing of all, but instead to mollify - to offer people a solution that is more akin to an opiate than a goad to action which might lead to genuine social justice. Luke's teaching of "Blessed are the poor" or, as Matthew spiritualise it, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" for theirs is the "kingdom of God (or heaven)" has consistently been used to persuade the poor to remain quietly in their households in the dark, isolated one from another, and thinking that their sacrifice is good both for wider society and their own ultimate personal salvation.

In a way, of course, it doesn't help that Jesus said "the poor will always be with us." When you read the text closely and you inherit it within a tradition of radical social justice that is lived and embodied it is clear that Jesus wasn't justifying this situation at all - his concern for the poor and his actions for and on their behalf is clear - but as this line has been inherited it has consistently been used to implant in many minds the thought that poverty is simply a fact of life and so, whilst it should never be condoned, it sits there as mere fact as incontrovertible and uncontroversial as the wetness of water.

(NB, one public comment made immediately after I gave this address - something we encourage each week - pointed out that Jesus was concerned with a very wide understanding of in what consists poverty, i.e. it was not only the economic kind that concerned him. This is vitally important to note but today I wanted to remind us that economic injustice is included and it is all too easily forgotten.) 

But Jesus protested, so have many radicals and, today, so do I.

Having said that, at an important level it *is* clear that "we are all in this together." Most of us, with more than an eye to the common good will, in our own ways, choose 'to sit quietly in the dark' in difficult times voluntarily taking less than we once did. I firmly believe that a lessening of our consumption coupled with a rediscovery of voluntary simplicity will aid our salvation, however you interpret that idea. I would go further and say that it is *essential*. These straightened and chastening times can be a great opportunity for a genuine spiritual and ethical renewal in which we rediscover our connectedness, not only with each other but with the whole natural world. At least, in part, this will help us fulfil in a contemporary way the promise Jesus made us that the poor will be blessed. But this only true *in part* because, as Bloch's little story reveals, we live in a culture in which there are those who not only *need* not share the burden of the hour but who *will* not. The bankers, big business leaders and many of our political leaders go on living lives 'bathed' in the brightest, most expensive and luxurious of lights, a light which is being paid for by the silent, suffering darkness of millions. If we just sit quietly alone in the dark without protesting the poor will, once again, merely be working for the rich.

The promise that the poor will inherit and be blessed will only be truly fulfilled when this silence is broken, when the light of the self-sacrificing darkness of the poor is removed from under the bushel and placed proudly upon the hill to serve as a beacon and rallying point to all who care for genuine justice and equity amongst all humankind.

My own great hero in this struggle as many of you know is Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) the leader of the radical movement known as the Diggers who felt that the earth and its fruits were a "Common Treasury" for all and who, in 1649 in protest at their poverty, began to live and dig upon the common land of George's Hill in Surrey. He memorably asked:

"Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?"
(Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

The answer then was clearly "No!" and, although our age is not the same as the one Winstanley knew the answer is still "No!" The situation we find ourselves in after years of following a neoliberal agenda which has foisted upon us all a market driven approach to economic and social policy makes Winstanley's words resonate with us today in a remarkable way for do we not see those who have run and supported destructive big business capitalism continuing to live at ease and 'bathed' in a bright light by bagging and barning up what should be common fruits of all in obscene pay packages and bonuses?

The Diggers in their modest rebellion of setting up a community on George's Heath in April 1649 to till common land as a protest to this private bagging and barning of common riches was truly a light placed upon a hill and it can inspire us still. Winstanley also said this (and so pointed to how religion can often be a regressive rather than a progressive force) and with it I'll begin to draw to a close. He said: [Priests, i.e. one group of wealthy and powerful people many of whom enjoyed light at the expense of the poor beneath them, - Priests]:

"lay claim to heaven after they are dead, and yet they require their heaven in this world too, and grumble mightily against the people that will not give them a large temporal maintenance. And yet they tell the poor people that they must be content with their poverty, and they shall have their heaven hereafter. But why may we not have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth) and heaven hereafter too, as well as you? ... While men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they not see what is their birthrights, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living"
(Quoted in 'The World Turned Upside Down' by Christopher Hill, Pelican Books, London 1978, p. 141).

I think it is vital to heed Winstanley's words today and in our own times ensure that our eyes are not out by our present leaders so that we cannot see the birthrights of the vast majority of people on this earth, most of whom are economically poor. Even as we might all agree upon the need significantly to scale back on the excesses of our Western culture we do not need, at the same time, to agree or support political and financial agendas that are designed to keep a self-selected few in expensive light whilst the poor sit alone and in the dark.

Please protest with all your heart, mind, soul and strength - you are unlikely actually to dig upon George's Hill (or any other) but in this day and age there are many ways other ways to engage in the kind of protest movement that deserves the name of 'digging'.

My current energies are going into actively supporting the People's Charter and have just contributed a piece supporting it for the Country Standard. I recommend it to you. If you want to know more about the Cambridge People's Charter group contact me directly (email address at the top of this page). This may, of course not be your 'hill', but please don't let this stop you from finding another and digging it well . . .

Thursday, 15 July 2010

A day off at Fen Drayton Lakes

It was my day off today and Susanna and I decided to take a spin over to Fen Drayton Lakes. I've cycled there a few times but never been there just to walk so, off we went. We got wet, very wet in the end (the last two photos show the darkening sky) but before that it was a wonderful walk - the countryside alive in the strong, blustery wind. Here are a few of the  photos we took. Susanna took the one of me because I was wearing a 'Cambridge Tweed' jacket which, when I bought it from Ede and Ravenscroft, I was told it was designed to blend with the Fen landscape - it was she who noticed that it does.  



Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Relaunch of the Country Standard

Country Standard - was a monthly radical magazine for rural workers established in 1935 and it has just been relaunched and you can take a look at it here. On page 7 you can read a very short piece I contributed on the People's Charter in which I remind people of that great English hero Gerrard Winstanley.

There is also a blog which is concerned with the history of the Country Standard and also that of the National Union of Agricultural Workers "Sharpen the sickle! The fields are white; 'Tis the time of the harvest at last."

Monday, 12 July 2010

Faith does not consist in believing something wonderful . . .

A teaching of Jesus' that has been on my mind for a couple of weeks is from Luke (17:5-6) in which Jesus replies to his disciples' request to "Increase our faith!"by saying"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."

Discovering what this teaching might be gesturing towards relies upon us creatively engaging with the text and one of my own lifelong guides in modeling this engagement has been Tolstoy. As some of you know, I habitually carry in my bag a by now very worn copy of his "Gospel in Brief".  Here is how he presents this saying from Luke. By the way Tolstoy uses a birch rather than a mustard seed simply to make the teaching more accessible to his initial, Russian, audience.

"Then the disciples said to Jesus : "Increase in us our faith. Tell us that which will make us more strongly believe in the life of the spirit, that we may not regret the life of the flesh, which must be given up wholly for the life of the spirit. For reward, you yourself say there is none."

And in answer to this, Jesus said to them : "If you had such a faith as the faith that from a birch seed there springs up a great tree ; if, also, you believed that in you there is the germ, the only germ, of the spirit whence springs up the true life, you would not ask me to increase in you your faith.

"Faith does not consist in believing something wonderful, but faith consists in understanding one's position, and wherein lies salvation. If you understand your position, you will not expect rewards, but will believe in that which is entrusted to you."


Firstly, I think it is important to note that Tolstoy thinks Jesus was gesturing towards faith as being something other than "believing in something wonderful." I find this an amenable idea because I am very keen to stop us doing old-style metaphysics - something which our rationalist Enlightenment tradition really loved and thrived upon. Tolstoy's words resonate with my attempt to help us see that in this church community our religion, our particular expression of what it means to follow in Jesus' footsteps (and this can be done without necessarily adopting the label Christian) - that our religion really ought to move confidently towards becoming a way of 'being-in-the-world' and not a 'theory-about-the-world.'

This idea clearly resonates with Tolstoy's expression of what he then say he thinks faith should in the first place be, namely, "understanding one's position." He expands upon by saying this is believing in that which is intrusted to us.

In other words he is saying he thinks Jesus was encouraging us to work with the materials and responsibilities we actually have to hand which have been entrusted to us in our own contexts.  There's nothing particularly wonderful here - no great metaphysics or theology - there's simply a call to understand our local church's position which is summed up in our covenant:

'In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus the members of this congregation unites for the worship of God and the service of humanity.'


Some of you will, immediately, be quite happy with this but I am aware there might be a few who are thinking, hmmm, is this really for me? So let me expand a little on this.

Firstly, we are entrusted with the responsibility to cultivate a love of truth. This is simply to say, as I put it in the order of service each week (borrowed from my friend and mentor, the philosopher Victor Nuovo) that we must cultivate "a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it." (NB This is not capital 'T' truth nor is it about truth-ownership). Consequently, we need to keep looking everywhere and to listen carefully, taking seriously all those things which strike us as being genuine knowledge and to keep a reasonably open mind about those other things we are not sure about.  We must, of course, do this in all areas of human endeavour from the obviously spiritual to the scientific. As St Paul in 1 Thessalonians said: "test everything; hold fast to what is good" (5:20-21). From time to time, of course, this means we can let go of what we find not to be good.

Secondly, we have been entrusted with the responsibility to live in the spirit of Jesus. But please, oh please recall 'the spirit of Jesus' is not the same as the 'beliefs of Jesus'. Remember I think our way forward is to interpret our tradition in non-metaphysical ways. We act in the spirit of Jesus by taking care to read and reflect deeply particularly upon the Gospels. This doesn't mean slavishly believing every word in them is of equal worth and to be promulgated (not even Jesus') but it is to take seriously that the "gestalt" (i.e. overall shape of an entity's complete form) of the Gospel and Jesus' life is a trustworthy model to emulate. Remember such a disciplined practice (a constant, life-long meditation on the gospels) is not designed to make us 'little Jesuses' or even Christians, but in this church and under my ministry at least, it is understood as a way to help us to become more fulfilled expressions of our own unique possibilities as existent beings - to have life and have it abundantly.

Thirdly, we have been entrusted with the responsibility to worship God. At first sight this one seems rather more problematic especially since I know very few of us who attend this church believe in God (or the gods) in the way our forebears did, i.e. as a personal being (or beings) who created our world and who intervene(s) in it in some way. If you accept certain definitions about God (which I don't) some of us could even be called atheists. That would include me, as you know. But, as I have recently been saying, the language of 'worshipping God' or the gods is the only language we have been entrusted with which can invoke the sacred, creative, divine and holy space that the gods or God used to inhabit. This space, this astonishing clearing in our world that allows us to build, dwell and think, is what captivates and drives me as a religious person and which offers us the kind of succour and sense of belonging and meaning that we used to find in God. I passionately feel that in this clearing we find, not the kingdom of Heaven but, instead, the possibility of a republic of Heaven. Consequently, I have no qualms about the responsibility we as a church have, and I as this church's minister has, to engage in the "worship of God".  The 'worship of God' seems essential to me in a way 'belief in God' seems to diminish in importance by the week.

And lastly we have been entrusted with the responsibility to engage in the service of humankind. Clearly in what this service consists is shaped by how we go on to live a life in the light of the foregoing. At this point I could go on in two ways. One would be to look at how this plays out in your personal life as an individual. But you can do that yourselves and you will, I am sure, feed your reflections on that back into the life of this still developing community. The second way is to look at our collective expression of how we serve humankind.

I realise, because we are a congregation that is structurally open to a wide variety of religious and spiritual outplayings of our covenant, we have not always been very good at obviously acting together. We tend to prefer to leave here and as empowered individuals to take our social action into other organisations such as political parties and other voluntary charitable work.

But ten years as your minister has led me to see something else that you really should be aware of namely our buildings and the position of minister both of which you support with your time and money.

The hall and church is used to provide a place for all kinds of community activities. Of course they are used for the more obviously churchy things such as child dedications, weddings and funerals but its use is way more extensive than this. Here are just a few:

There is a forty year old drama school which has its home here - the MacKenzie School of Speech and Drama. Literally thousands of people have benefited by having this place week after week and much joy, entertainment and personal maturation has been enabled. There are dance clubs - in the past ballroom and tea dances but today Scottish dance and Tango. Friendship, love and passion has flourished here and this love and passion will have had many good effects in the world. There will be some bad matches, of course! but I'd bet they've mostly been good. Young mothers and fathers come here for the bumps and babies group and here people have found great support and friendship. There are Yoga classes, Buddhist meditation groups, general music making, there are the weekly conversations we have and the dozens of other meetings ranging from the political through to general community meetings - such as the Residents' Association.  All of these things are a very tangible expression of our responsibility to serve humankind.

Then there is the role of the minister - every minister will have their specialties and Frank certainly served well and widely and I have built on his work and those who preceded him back to 1904. But today, in me, your support enables me to teach courses at the Woolf Institute which foster better understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims, it enables me to be a chaplain to both the University of Cambridge and to the Cambridgshire Constabulary and to play other roles in various community projects and activities. It means that a real live liberal voice is out there in a small, but effective way, in our society. The role of minister serves humankind and it is because of your contributions that this is possible.

So, to conclude, Tolstoy thought that Jesus was gesturing towards the idea that faith (our faith) does not consist in believing something wonderful (i.e. in metaphysical theories *about* the world) but understanding one's position and believing in what has been entrusted to us - in our case our covenant (i.e. it is about how we *are* in the world). In this very practical non-metaphysical expression of what it is to follow Jesus lies our faith - in it we may have confidence and I recommend it to you.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Where we Stand - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people and the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

Last week I was sent a copy of the leaflet produced by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches called "Where we Stand - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people and the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches". The Memorial Church in Cambridge (where I am minister) is a congregation which is very open about its welcome of LGBT people (and we most certainly conduct same-sex blessings and wish to see same-sex marriage legislation passed) - we don't make a big fuss about it, because we wish to be a liberal Christian community for all kinds of people including, of course, LGBT folk. Anyway, as I was leafing through this leaflet I discovered it contained a photo of a service I recently conducted for two members of the Cambridge congregation - it was a splendid day and the picture took me right back to this family event with great pleasure. So, atop this blog is the picture and below is a link to the pdf leaflet. On the day I have just heard that Jeffrey John is, again, not going to be selected as a Bishop it seems appropriate to put out a small message that there are some Christian churches that take a quite different stand.

Where we Stand - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people and the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Cambridge People's Charter Meeting - Friday 9th July 2010 @ 19.45 in the Unitarian Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge CB1 1JW

Watchmen and women - A Flower Communion Service

(This is a slightly revised version of an address I gave last year during the Flower Communion Service)

As I tried to explore again last week those involved in liberal religion have had a long love affair with the idea that it was possible to express religious faith through certain 'essential and universal principles' hoping that, in so doing they could articulate a kind of pure, ‘neutral’ religion that would suit all and offend none. It is a project which, though once admirable in many ways, has failed and the continued decline of liberal religion as a vital force in our contemporary culture is extremely worrying, especially at a time when as a major political and social influence religion is back with a vengeance and when right-wing political forces across Europe are once again gaining ground.

The reason I begin this address with these remarks is because without a real understanding and sense of how the Flower Communion's hard particularities can connect with our own community, time and place it can quickly become a dreadfully trite and sentimental affair which expresses little more than a vague and desperately ungrounded and unstable desire simply to get along with others coupled to a somewhat vacuous affirmation of the beauty of nature.

But this was a service which was consciously created by the Czechoslovak Unitarian pastor Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) with a quite different aim in mind.

Although in his sermons and prayers of the 1920s Čapek felt he had begun to articulate well his developing liberal theology he realised that his community in Prague needed a service which allowed these ideas to be expressed in a more tangible, particular and concrete way. Because, for a variety reasons, traditional forms of Christian communion had problematic resonances for many Czechoslovakians, Čapek realised he could not simply do a light revision of a Christian communion service and so, on 4 June 1923, he introduced the Flower Communion.

Čapek asked members to bring a flower of their choice and, when they arrived at church – just as you have been asked today, they were directed to take it inside and place it in a large vase. This simple act was understood to be symbolic of each individual’s free desire to join with others in religious community. The vase that contained the flowers was itself understood to be symbolic of the church community. Speaking of the vase in which the flowers were gathered Čapek said:

"For us in our Unitarian brotherhood the vase is our church organization. We need it to help us share the beauties and also the responsibilities of communal life. In the proper community by giving the best that is in us for the common good, we grow up and are able to do what no single person is able to do. Each of us needs to receive in order to grow up, but each of us needs to give something away for the same reason" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 145).

There followed some hymns, a reading of I Corinthians 13, a prayer of consecration, one of blessing and a sermon. At the close of the service each member was to leave with a different flower from the one they brought taking it, as Čapek said, ‘just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents’ as a public confession that they accepted ‘each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a human and wants to be good.’ (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 144).

(Excursus - although Čapek might seem here to be suggesting he desired the 'one-size fits all religion' I criticised at the outset what he is really saying is that by being *this* kind of Unitarian congregation – and see next Čapek quote below – this is to be one thing and not another. By being something, not nothing we can extend radical hospitality to other ways of being – we are inviting people into our circle as respected guests not potential converts to our way of thinking. Though, if any guest finds amongst us a way of being religious liberally that they wish to follow then we will not, naturally!, turn them away.)

Now it is important to realise that the situation in Czechoslovakia and Europe during the 1920s was by no means easy and if you put your flower in that vase you were saying something with real risk attached to it as you were openly committing to a movement that was prepared to face up to the significant challenges that faced this new country (Czechoslovakia only having some into existence as a political and social entity in 1918).

So you have a clearer idea of to what kind of religious community people were committing when they participated in the Flower Communion in those first years here is how, in 1924, Čapek defined what he understood Unitarianism to be:

"What kind of religion is this Unitarianism? It is humanity lightened by divinity. It is humanism and theism combined. It is not the kind of humanism without God and without a soul, but the humanism of those great men who from time to time called our nation to a new life. When John Hus appealed to reason and conscience against the authority of the pope, it was work for humanity. When Comenius conceived school as a workshop of humanity, it was the continuation. I specially quote his words: “man finds himself best in his own innermost, nowhere else, for then in himself he easily finds God and all.” What else is it but to begin with man when seeking God? The opinion that religion is outgrown can be held only about the religion that was not human enough, that remained under the level of humanity or remained, so to say, hanging in the sky, and could not answer the needs of men in their daily life. . . . While worshipping the liturgical Christ people could not hear the human Jesus who asked for love to men. Unitarianism is the religion of humanity in the best sense of the word. It has rejected the inhuman and barbaric conception of God and by this brought God nearer to human understanding; it has established a more intimate relation of Jesus [by emphasizing] the value and sovereignty of man. Today it looks as if mankind was on the crossroad not knowing in what direction to move. . . . Our age calls for watchmen who would stand on the crossroad and warn people not to go back to barbarism and bestiality, but to go from views only terrestrial and selfish to cosmic views, from Humanity to Divinity" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 195-196).

So, we make a terrible mistake if we think that just putting a flower in a vase, saying some nice liberal sounding words about community and inclusivity, and then taking one out later will help transform our lives in the way it did for Čapek and his church members. No! The service only has bite and traction if there is some real connection between the original hard particularities of the service, the hard particularities of its celebration since 1923 and the hard particularities of its celebration amongst us now in the United Kingdom in the 21st century.

You have heard something about the original particularities but in the years which followed its introduction there came first the Nazis (who arrested and killed Čapek in one of their so-called 'medical experiments') and then, when that nightmare seemed over, there came further vicissitudes under a Communist regime. Now as separate Czech and Slovak Republics they face, of course, new and still challenging particularities.

But what of our own twenty-first century British particularities to which we must carefully relate this service if it is to be for us anything real and substantive?

Well, as I said at the beginning of this address, nationally we are facing the real prospect of the demise of our liberal religious tradition at the same time as we are seeing an increase in the number of extremely illiberal religious voices in our culture. Coupled to that is the re-emergence of active and extremely effective right-wing political parties across Europe. There are more examples I could add at this point but these two will suffice for me to make the claim that, just as taking a flower from Čapek’s vase in 1923 entailed risk and courage, taking one today, if you really understand what it means, still entails risk and courage. Taking a flower from this vase is not to engage in some pointless piece of nice liberal fluffy-bunny stuff and nonsense but to witness to your real intention to stand up to and face down the fascists, racists, religious and political bigots and extremists that are increasingly finding a place in our European societies. To take a flower is to signal your intention, like Čapek , to become watchmen and women standing on the crossroad warning people *not* to go back to barbarism and brutality and, at the same time, offering them a new way to be religious in our own age.

This is for us the hard, present particular reality of this service but, as you take a flower I ask you to understand that we also touch something strong and gentle that is nothing less than the hope and vision which lay at the heart of Čapek's faith, those of the Czechoslovak (and now Czech) Unitarians and, I hope, the faith I try to encourage this local community. I can do no better than conclude with Čapek's own words on what this vision was for him and, I hope is for us today:

"My conviction is that my life has meaning and purpose if I live in God and for God . . . Anytime I want something only for myself, and anytime I hesitate to forgive, tolerate, suffer for truth, or sacrifice for goodness – it is me in separation from God. But anytime I want only truth and goodness and enjoy goodness and truth wherever it appears, and anytime I roll up my sleeves to start work that will serve the human whole and the world to progress so that everybody will live and breath in a better way – it is God in me, who is in all other people in the same way. Then God’s spark glimmers in me which is connected with all others in the whole universe as the source and substance and manifestation of the eternal fire, the fire of God" (Doláck, P., The Theology of Norbert Fabián Čapek, Faith and Freedom 54, part 2, no. 153, London 2001, p. 129-130).

-o0o-

For those interested in following up something of the contemporary relevance I see in the Czech Unitarian experience see my chapter The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the construction of Czech National identity in The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity: Faltin, Lucia and Wright, Melanie J. (eds), Continuum Press, London 2007.