Article in Stretton Focus, December 2016
Watching the news and reading the papers it seems to me that the world is becoming more and more polarised on a number of issues.
Take politics for example. The Trump/Clinton confrontation was highly polarised. Obviously, there were differences between the two candidates but they were scathing about each other using vitriolic language to express their personal revulsion. Of course they had major conflicts but did they need to express themselves so offensively?
Political polarisation is not limited to Trump and Clinton. Pro and anti Corbyn factions were more outspoken and nasty than usual and pro and anti Europe groups were very polarised before that vote.
In society there is an increasing polarisation between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots. In l998 the average pay of the Chief Executive of one of the top 100 UK companies was 47 times that of their staff. Today the difference is 130 times. Our new prime Minister has said she will encourage a fairer society. It will be interesting to see. In the meantime the rich get richer and the lot of the poor improves more slowly.
In religious circles there is increased polarisation. Among Christian churches there is little talk of ecumenism and inter-faith activity is not high on the agenda. So there is an increasing tendency to take up an extreme position in opposition to an alternative view – polarisation.
Internationally there seems to be a danger of returning to the kind of polarisation which characterised the Cold War.
What do we do? We must work for reconciliation.
Desmond Tutu had to deal with an extremely polarised situation in South Africa. White South Africans who felt dispossessed on the one hand and blacks who felt they had an opportunity to correct a few decades of ill-treatment on the other. He sought reconciliation, or rather looked for truth and reconciliation. Change can be slow and painful but reconciliation is the only way. To face the truth and seek to be reconciled to your enemy may result in rejection, failure and disillusion but it is the only way.
On 8th May 1994 at a service of thanksgiving in South Africa the following words were used:
“We are reconciled to the patience and persistence that make peace; to the transparency and fairness that make justice; to the forgiveness and restitution that bring harmony; to the love and reconstruction which banish poverty and discrimination; to the experience of knowing one another that makes it possible to enjoy one another; to the spiritual strength of the one God who made us of one flesh and blood and loves us.”
Words still relevant 22 years later.
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2016
It’s OK to Doubt
This is the age of unbelief. It is fashionable to be sceptical. We don’t believe in politicians, or trust the banks. We don’t believe weather forecasts. We don’t believe our doctors – we check up on them via Google.
We don’t believe what the churches tell us. The only things we do believe are what the media tell us – so we buy the newspaper that says what we want to hear.
Do we believe in anything or anyone? Do we believe in the future? What do we think about the meaning and purpose of life? We are educated, and this leads to questioning. It is good to have questions, but where can we find the answers?
Who can we trust? What is the truth? Doubt is preferable to absolute certainty. Certainty can lead to extremism. To quote from The Burning of Books by Kenneth Baker:
‘Absolutism has led bigots of all religions throughout centuries, to justify the murder of those who dared to disagree with them.’
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2016
‘To be or not to be’
The verb ‘to be’ is the most important word in the English language. The present tense, ‘I am’, raises the question ‘Who am I?’ and invokes the challenge to be the best person we are capable of being. We have always referred to God as the ‘Eternal being’, but we do not possess the language to define God accurately and therefore struggle to find a clear definition, as have many of the poets and writers throughout the centuries.
William Wordsworth is confident about the nature of a supreme being, i.e. God. In his poem ‘Lines composed above Tintern Abbey’, he says:
‘And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime,
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.’
Again in his ‘Ode to Intimations of Immortality’ Wordsworth refers to the concept of pre-existence where the soul is created before the body to connect the child with the ability to witness the divine in nature. As children mature they become more worldly and lose that divine vision. However they are often able to see what others do not see in the natural world as everything to them is a source of wonder.
Spiritual development should be seen as a lifelong experience involving reflection and adjustment and is the way children develop in relationships. Questions could be asked about the nature of spirituality and if it only exists between people. Individuals are not spiritual in isolation from other human beings. Spiritual growth should be encouraged from an early age as it can promote balance, concentration and contentment for a child, enabling them to handle the pressure and challenges they will face in the future.
If we can experience God, as I believe Wordsworth and many of the poets and thinkers did and do today, i.e. as a spiritual presence and mystery that transcends everything, then our lives should take on a renewed meaning. I refer you to the Quakers, where God is defined as the inner light, i.e. God within everyone.
If everything is in God then surely there is no need to search for something that is already there and within us.
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2016
Cloistered or Questioning
On holiday in Portugal earlier this summer we visited two monasteries which are UNESCO listed heritage sites – Batalha and Alcobaca. Monastic life ceased in Portugal in the mid 19th century so although there has been a loss of furnishings and decoration the buildings, faithfully restored, are essentially as they were when the last monk left.
Quite a contrast with the UK where the depredations of King Henry VIII’s commissioners three hundred years earlier opened the way for ruination of rural monasteries and re-use of those attached to city cathedrals. The full grandeur of Fountains and Tintern has to be imagined, the soaring grace of the Portuguese monasteries is there for all to see.
What caught my imagination were the cloisters. Quiet spacious corridors, simple central gardens, a place where contemplation is easy, yet busy today with tourists just as they once were with monks going about their daily life: a contrast with England’s ruins beset by picnics and pigeons.
It got me thinking about those contemplations. In a thousand years or more of unhurried monastic life there were a lot of monks and nuns. They had space in their daily routine for silent contemplation. What they thought about was dictated by the rule of the monastic order. In Alcobaca a room off the cloister was the only place where monks could freely talk together, the parlour – now the shop.
We may have left mediaeval approaches to faith behind but the monks and nuns had something we should try to recapture. They had time to think about faith. We should consciously make space for it in our lives. Silence calms the soul. Meditation frees the mind. It is also reported to have anti-ageing benefits. We have greater freedom today, the monastic rule constrained their thinking but our thoughts can roam wider and deeper. The demands of modern life make meditation all the more valuable to learn and challenging to do.
How many of us open up the time and space for silent contemplation? In silence we can learn to focus on our personal beliefs. It is rewarding to take the time but we all seem too busy. We can strengthen our spiritual life and we need to do it, just as much as the monks and nuns did.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2016
On the day after 23rd June
I found myself writing this piece on 24th June because of holiday dates clashing with the Stretton Focus August copy date, and the words below came to mind. For me, these words resonate with that dramatic morning after, and the strange place we are moving in since the EU referendum:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.
The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ tale is of the cities of London and Paris, intertwined in a human story of despair and suffering on the one hand, and prosperity and love on the other. The result of 23rd June in the UK has focussed on what we really have become: a nation divided – many cultures and big questions of what the UK is. There are those who have prospered well for decades, made rich by globalisation, and those who have not shared in this. They feel left out, ignored and are fearful, and they have been for decades. Now, the young join them as the open future of Europe has been stolen from them. Yet in the wider world there is greater misery and suffering, and here at home we still need to offer food banks.
There was a murder, of Jo Cox, a decent, engaged, passionate human, an MP and a mother. She crossed the party divisions in the interests of Syrian Refugees. We may understand more by now, but this cannot be unconnected from our angst as a nation not at ease with itself.
Nor can we, as a nation, fall back now on that familiar rhetoric, ‘in God we trust’, because a large and increasing minority in the nation declare themselves to be of ‘no religion’. Though, the things we have to handle now are of a spiritual nature, what kind of nation shall we be in the world of such instability? What is our vision of humanity and our contribution to its prospering and its respect for the planet? How do we play a leading role in resolving global conflict, suffering, poverty and terror and security in Europe and the world?
These are matters at the spiritual centre of our being, whether religiously or humanly inspired. Can we transcend that self-interest; those old hatreds, fears and divisions that separate and limit us? Can there be a consensus built across our society to value and respect alternative views, to recover progress made in inclusiveness and celebration of diversity?
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2016
Never mind the quality, feel the width
Some of you reading this will recognise my title as the name of a TV programme very popular between 1967 and 1971. It was a comedy sitcom where two tailors, one a Jew and one a Roman Catholic, were working at their trade, and trying to understand each other’s religious viewpoint – but failing humorously!
The title could be regarded as a modern ‘proverb-in-reverse’. Proverbs always carry a message. They are often pointing out the value of moral behaviour, and urging us to think before we act. They have wisdom and insight which, if observed, will keep us safe from the dangers of excess, and from other forms of thoughtless living.
As this is a proverb-in-reverse, we need to do the opposite of what it says – that is, we should feel the quality and never mind the width. But as it stands, and taken literally, it represents the wisdom of the world, which is embraced especially by banks and supermarkets. For them, the only thing that matters is making a profit (feel the width); and ensuring a mega-bonus for those at the top (never mind the quality of life for those at the bottom).
There can be a religious aspect to the proverb-in-reverse. Never mind questioning your beliefs, just conform to what’s expected of you. Adherents of religion are often discouraged from asking important and relevant questions, like “who or what is God?”. They are taught and expected to just perform their acts of worship without raising any questions about the nature of worship itself; or about the God who is being worshipped. Just keep saying you believe all the right things (creeds and doctrines), and you too will receive your ‘bonus’ in heaven … feel the width.
In the secular world where money rules, and in the religious world where God rules, we need to start feeling for the underlying quality of our beliefs and practices: and not be tempted and led astray by the width of either money or religion.
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2016
A young woman went to her mother and told her that she didn’t know how to cope with her life. It seemed to be one huge struggle after another bringing up her family.
Her mother took her into the kitchen and filled three pots with water. In the first she put carrots, in the second eggs and the third coffee beans. She let the pots boil for about twenty minutes. Then she took the carrots and eggs and placed them in separate bowls and ladled the coffee into a third . She then asked her daughter what she could see. “Carrots, eggs and coffee,” she replied. Her mother then asked her daughter to feel the carrots and she found that they were soft. She then asked her to break one of the eggs. She pulled off the shell and felt that it was hard-boiled. Finally her mother asked her daughter to sip the coffee and taste its rich aroma.
The daughter wanted to know the point of the exercise. Her mother explained that each of the objects had faced the same adversity, similarly to human beings in their life. The carrot went in strong and hard but the boiling water softened it and it became weak. The egg had been fragile, its thin outer shell protecting its liquid interior, but the boiling water hardened its inside. The ground coffee beans were unique because once they were in the boiling water they changed it into delightful coffee.
The question now is: Which are you?
Are you a carrot? When faced with adversity do you become weak and lose your patience and strength? Are you like the egg which looks the same on the outside but is hard inside?
Or are you like the coffee bean which actually changes the nature of the hot water, i.e. the very circumstances that bring the pain? When the water gets hot it releases the fragrance and flavour. If you are like the bean when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you. When the hours are the darkest and trials are at their greatest could you rise to another level in the face of adversity? Can you be the change we would wish to see in the world?
Would you rather be a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?
(Based upon a story, author unknown)
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2016
A church is a fellowship but how often do we stop to consider what this means? As we approach the 150th birthday of the opening of our church, it struck me that we should take some time to reflect.
Scattered around our buildings are small plaques remembering those who gave loyal and often long service to the church. There are two windows with dedications, one quite recent and one going back into the 1950s. There is a sundial in our garden remembering a lady whose family worshipped in our church before the First World War. In recent years we have commemorated loved ones and friends when we dedicated new hymn books.
The fellowship has also been seen through the restructuring of the church entrance and interior ten years ago, a major project which bravely said we must think together in new ways about what we have inherited. There are other ways in which our fellowship shines.
Our regular groups allow time to be shared together, events planned, and support offered where needed. We share time as a congregation with chats over coffee and occasional Sunday lunches. As individuals we also reach out into our community.
Perhaps most importantly our fellowship is seen in our continuity of worship and the renewal of our shared statements of faith. We have had to examine ourselves as we enter a period without our own minister, Revd Donald Horsfield having retired. We have updated our ‘pastoral profile’ to reflect who we are now and what we do today. We had to look at our fellowship afresh.
It is a timely reminder with the anniversary looming that we are not only about the past and present but the future. Our mission statement, ‘we are open, inclusive and questioning’ is strong and simple: turning that into action when our fellowship is generally ageing needs particular care. It may be challenging but the strength of fellowship is that we work at it together. So here we are, almost 150 years on. We are continually refreshing ourselves. The doors are open; we welcome everyone to share our worship. We are inclusive. We recognise the bigness of our faith, we are questioning and easy answers are not for us.
In the next weeks we will celebrate our building’s 150th birthday, with respect for the fellowship past, love for the fellowship present and with hope for the fellowship’s future.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2016
We are all subject to aging, illness and various forms of loss. Our human reaction to the inevitable pain of life is to suffer. We tend to dwell on the bad things that have happened to us: we can’t seem to let go, and this is not good for our health. The self-induced stress raises our blood pressure; and can have a detrimental effect on those around us.
Buddhists would say if we can let go of our reactions we can eventually attain Nirvana, which is not a place, but a state of mind. The Dalai Lama shows how this can be done.
He will not let himself hate the Chinese Communists for what they have done to Tibet. He says “They have taken so much, why should I let them also take my peace of mind?”
Buddhism tells us ‘Do what you can to restore the balance: if you can’t, let things take their course; go with the flow of life, and move on.‘ We don’t need to be a Buddhist in order to let go. Hopefully every night, in a small way, we can let go when we surrender ourselves to sleep, letting go of the day.
If we need an operation, we let go of consciousness, and surrender ourselves to the skill of the surgeon. Parents continually have to let go of their children, to a baby-sitter, to school and college, and often to a job abroad. On retirement, older people let go of their position in life.
It is perhaps more difficult to let go of bad feelings and resentments. If we can let go of old ideas, we can make room for new ones. The ultimate in letting go is Death, which can be hard for the person dying, and for those left behind.
This process of letting go requires patience; it won’t happen overnight; but if we can do it, it will enable us to grow. Letting go is a form of surrender. Some people even surrender themselves to God, trusting in the power of God to see them through life. At least in learning to ‘let go’ we might become more at peace with ourselves.
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2016
Liberty, Egality, Fraternity and now Laïcité
From the 19th century in France, the word to express the desired freedom of all public institutions, especially primary schools, from influence of the Catholic Church is laïcité. This was captured in a French Law of 1905 expressing French secularism as separation of the church from state. Today, the concept covers other religions as well. However, it becomes problematic in everyday life, eg what you wear and when you wear articles of clothing, for example the Nicab. Here, I don’t need to go into the cultural/religious and democratic argument, suffice to say that for the French, laïcité is still work in progress, as indeed it is here, in a different national setting.
New ideas have emerged around laïcité, one is, to understand it really as the freedom to practice religious and cultural and indeed gender diversities, whilst each person has the freedom to exercise voluntary restraint from some practices that may cause others to feel uneasy, in some situations or at special times.
We have a practice in the churches in the season of Lent, now halfway through, to be used as a reflective time preparing for Easter. People have been encouraged to ‘give something up for Lent’, or do something positive, not widely practised these days. That may mean fasting of food and alcohol or taking on some voluntary work. The idea of exercising restraint in different ways could lead to positive results. It could mean, if it ever became popular, groups restraining from holding meetings and using the time saved for some voluntary work, or just space to be. If extended around communities and even the world it may prevent wars, or at least create a space for resolution.
Ecumenical lent groups used to be a feature in the town. They provided a space for the members of all the churches to meet and reflect together on a theme or book. There was freedom to depart from the guide book and explore a bit of our own thoughts, shared with others. The essential character of the exercise was to draw people together from different denominations, and to receive other perspectives and views through different cultural experiences. It was not about an argument and a need to win my point of view over against another nor was there a requirement to come up with an agreed statement at the end. We all had restrained ourselves from doing our own thing, from following our own separate curriculum. Whatever happened to this movement? It seems to me that fundamental to the complex weaving of diverse cultures into some agreeable social fabric, which all can invest in, is a willingness to include, rather than to separate.
Focus on Faith in Stretton Focus, March 2016
Polystyrene Chips and Bubble Wrap
One of the real pains in modern life is packaging. It seems ridiculous to have slices of ham sealed in plastic, even if the tear off top sometimes makes access to the ham easier. Move away from food to small items, such as a new toothbrush and hard welded plastic is everywhere. The growth of online shopping has fostered a parallel growth in the use of cardboard boxes.
Faith is delivered in packaging too. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the dramatic fall in church attendance in recent years. The packaging has become hard to deal with. It may not be faith which is failing but the packaging may be putting people off. Christ’s core message was very simple. Christian faith is essentially very simple. However churches package it with doctrine, ceremony, myth and mystery; just like using wrapping paper and polystyrene chips. It also serves to narrow the faith, channelling it in ways which suit the doctrine. We need to get inside that wrapping, get to the content and release understanding of the spiritual bigness of faith.
So who can help? The press is no use at all. It wraps faith in religion and then puts that inside its own branded wrappers. There are ghetto slots like Thought for the Day on Radio 4, some newspapers have dedicated columns and Sunday morning TV is another area with its own branding and packaging.
Where can we go to get help understanding faith better? Where there is no packaging or branding, no ritual, mystery or impenetrable doctrine. We need places which are open, inclusive and questioning. Places where our spirit is awakened to fresh ideas and interpretation. They need to be inclusive and questioning so that faith and belief do not get narrowed by false boundaries, trapped in bubble wrap.
All churches are concerned about faith and how it is perceived in society. We do not always challenge our packaging. Where we can we must learn to do so; then we can help those who are striving to understand God, striving to get past the wrappers which strangle access to true expression and the understanding of faith.
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2016
Sydney Carter would have been 100 years old in this year of 2016. Ian Bradley has written a fine tribute to him, mentioning the hymns by which Carter will be remembered for the next hundred years and longer. These include hymns like Lord of the Dance; When I Needed a Neighbour Were You There; and One More Step Along the World I Go.
Carter was a Quaker with a deep spirituality, a wide religious outlook, and a questioning mind. He said that his hymns and poems were ‘a celebration of the question mark, without which there can be no faith or doubt, nothing but dead certainty’.
Bradley says that there is too much shallow certainty in contemporary Christian worship songs and Carter would have agreed with that, as the title of one of his books of poetry indicates, Nothing Fixed and Final.
The conjunction of those two words, ‘dead’ and ‘certain’ is very appropriate. Certainty is ‘dead’ in the sense it has nothing to learn, it has arrived, no more thinking and questioning needed, the mind has gone dead. How boring, and how dangerous!
Even ‘being certain’ of so-called facts, can be a risky claim. Any married couple will remember when they had a difference of opinion, with one of them being ‘dead certain’ they were right; until it proved otherwise, when a large piece of humble pie had to be eaten (always a good and healthy food!). It is even more dangerous when people are dead certain about God, and about what they consider to be the mind of God. The pages of history are strewn with human wreckage, victims of those who have been rash enough and foolish enough to be dead certain of what they believe.
Certainty is the opposite of faith, but faith is the only way of knowing God. Faith is the trust and the hope that love is eternal. It is a contradiction to say that you are certain of that in which you trust; all we can do is live in the light of it.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2016
Dead Poets Society
Dead Poets Society is one of Robin Williams’ best films. In it, he plays John Keating, an old boy of Welton Academy, who returns to the school as the new English teacher. His methods are unorthodox. He instructs his pupils to stand on their desks to get a different perspective of the world. He encourages them to develop their own individual style of walking. And he instructs them to tear a chapter out of the set text book because he considers what it has to say about poetry to be offensive! Through all his teaching the pupils are encouraged to develop as individuals and adopt the motto carpe diem or ‘seize the day’. The head is deeply suspicious of Keating’s philosophy and methods.
When he had been a pupil at Welton, Keating had founded the ‘Dead Poets Society’. This was a group of students that met, without the knowledge of the school authorities, in a cave and read poetry. Keating’s new pupils rediscovered it and instituted afresh the night-time poetry readings. The poets may have been dead – Whitman, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson – but the poetry was full of life.
The independent spirit, encouraged by Keating, clashed with the rigid school environment with tragic consequences. Seizing the day has its risks. However, ‘the day’ is all that we have. Yesterday has gone and tomorrow is unknown.
Keating is fired, the defaced textbook is reinstated and normal service is resumed. However, the boys and we have glimpsed the value of life lived in the moment. Life is to be lived to the full: ‘abundant life’, as someone called it!
As Walt Whitman wrote, ”The powerful play goes on and we can contribute a verse”.