Thursday, 30 June 2011

"That which reveals also hides"

I wonder sometimes if my Unitarian tradition is too fixated on words. I wonder if we in fact worship the word to the detriment of other forms of expression. I think I do. I’m more comfortable with words than with silence, music and imagery. Even the music I love and listen to is song. I don’t really listen to music without words, I’ve never fully appreciated music for music sake. As a young man I detested dance music I saw it as far less worthy than song. I know today that I was missing out.

Paul Tillich claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” (“Others call it God”) also hides it. If this is the case then worship that neglects artistic expression and imagery fails to fully reach those experiencing it. During my time at Altrincham and Urmston I have become increasingly aware that the worship I create is predominantly word based; granted nothing like as much as it use to be, but still too much. I am learning the value of space and other media but I do not yet think I have fully learnt the value of the image or sound, although I am more open to it than I use to be. “Progress not perfection.”

There is of course a history of distrust of artistic expression within some strands of religion. Within Christianity, there have always been those who have been suspicious of art and aesthetics in general. This essentially stems from the fear of idolatry and the physical form. Throughout the church’s history attacks on art have been made. The early church faced the iconoclast controversy. Here biblical authority was drawn on to support the claim that to venerate icons in worship was idolatrous. During the reformation figures such as Calvin claimed that there was no place for images within worship. The fear stemmed from the belief that imagery would be a distraction from listening to the word of God through scripture. The word has maintained primacy since the reformation, certainly within the Protestant tradition. Even within my Unitarian tradition where authority is held within the conscience of the individual and not the scripture, the preached word is still central to our worship.

Surely, if Tillich is correct in claiming “that which reveals also hides” our worship must be lacking something by focusing primarily on the word, spoken or sung. Is there enough space for mystery and imagination in our worship? Have we fallen into the trap of idolising words or worse still the preacher? Have we become “preacherphiles”? I hope not. The word alone is limited because it fails to connect with people in a truly holistic manner. It fails to reach those parts at the core of a person’s being that aesthetic communication can. Art reveals a greater reality that cannot be achieved by the word alone.

A few years ago I experienced several life changing spiritual experiences. As a result I began to explore religion and spirituality in an attempt to make sense of what had happened to me. One of the places I use to visit was the Holy Name church opposite the university on Oxford Road in Manchester. I would go there almost every lunchtime, just to sit quietly and pray. While there I kept being drawn to “The Sacred Heart” Icon of Jesus. I became fixated by the glowing heart at its centre; it brought me an incredible sense of peace and connection. At the same time I was meditating on some words in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”. The words were: “We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us.” My problem had been my inability to fully accept this reality within me, but I could see it in someone else my friend Claire’s son Ethan. Over the weeks of meditating on these three things together I began to accept that the sacred heart in Jesus and in Ethan truly was in me. As a result I was finally able to make some sense of the changes that had taken place within me. Today I see that of God in everything, not separate or distant from life but within it. I do not believe that I could ever have reached that conclusion by simply reading or hearing words alone.

I agree with Tillich in his assertion that that which reveals “Ultimate Reality” also blocks it. Nothing, whether that is art, the written or spoken word, personal experience or nature can fully reveal ”Ultimate Reality”. I suspect that it is actually beyond our human capacity, I know it’s beyond mine. That said I believe that we can move closer to our own true natures, one another, all that is life and that that runs through life, which I call God, by fully engaging all our senses and appreciating and expressing all the gifts that have been bestowed upon us. Whilst at the same time not making idols of any of them.

Experience has taught me that imagery and artistic expression enhance my experience of the Divine and yet I still create worship that is almost wholly word based. Hopefully in time I will have the courage to create worship that touches those parts that the word alone cannot reach.

Rev Danny Crosby
Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel, Altrincham
Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Welcoming the Stranger

"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again come, come."
— Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi
These words by the Sufi mystic Rumi speak powerfully to me.

I believe that they teach us what a religious community should be about. Such communities ought to be about welcoming people – whoever they are and wherever they have been.

This welcome is an invitation to join fellow travellers on a journey together. A journey of hope and not despair, that keeps on inviting the wanderer to keep coming back. The invitation of course is universal, it is open to all.

The importance of welcoming the stranger is at the root of all the great faith traditions. The ancient Greeks cultivated the concept of “Xenia” or “guest friendship” They believed that the guest may well be a God in disguise and thus treated them accordingly. In Genesis Abraham is visited by three guests, who he treats like royalty. These guests are later revealed to be angels; in fact it is implied strongly that one may well be God himself. They tell the childless and aged Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son.

Being a gracious host is a primary requirement of Islam. The Qur’an 4. 36-37 reads:
“Be kind to parents and near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbour who is of kin, and to the neighbour who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveller...Surely God loves not the proud and boastful such as are niggardly, and bid other men to be niggardly, and themselves conceal the bounty that God has given them.”
This welcoming of the stranger is deeply engrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The classic example of this is the parable of the “Good Samaritan”. The story tells of a Jewish man who lay on the side of the road beaten, robbed and left to die. He is passed by a Jewish priest and temple official, who both ignore him. Then a Samaritan passes by, a despised enemy of the Israelites. He looks after the man and pays for his shelter at the inn. He welcomes the stranger.

Mother Teresa, an often vilified and dare I say mocked figure, took this teaching to heart and believed that in every suffering and needy person was something of God, she saw Jesus in human suffering. She and others like her saw it as their life task to offer hospitality to the stranger.

The monastic tradition has cultivated the practise of caring for the stranger and the poor and needy. Hospitals began in such places. The word hospital comes from “hospitable”. The best example of this has to be the monastery of St. Benedict. Benedict created what has become known as “The Rule of Benedict”, which was a book of rules by which a monastery ought to live. Many monasteries today live by this rule, including some Buddhist ones. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with ear of your heart “.

To welcome someone into our lives we need to listen deeply. This is a concept which the Dalai Lama promotes in contemporary time. It is not some ancient practise lost in the annals of time, it is living and breathing, it is contemporary and it is most urgently needed in our time.

In my time at Altrincham and Urmston I have been warmly welcomed by the various faith traditions. I have certainly felt listened to. Inter-faith relations and respect for those who think about religion differently is healthy and strong here. Sadly this is not the case the world over. I suspect that this is why there is so much anti-religious feeling in 21st Century Britain.

Sadly not all people of faith are welcoming of all, whoever they are. Perhaps this is why so many people have rejected religion all together. How often do we hear “I’m spiritual not religious”?

I think people are rejecting religion because they see it as authoritarian, unbending, dangerous and not a source of loving compassion for your fellow man or woman. My experience of religion has been very different, both within my own Unitarian tradition and through my encounters with the other faiths here in Altrincham and Urmston. I consider myself to be both spiritual and religious. I am religious because I join with others on a spiritual odyssey seeking truth and meaning. My fellow travellers often do not hold the same beliefs and yet we are able to journey together in compassion, helping one another along the way. I am also spiritual because I do not seek authority over others and no one has authority over my conscience in matters of faith. The religion I practise is free and it is deeply spiritual.

The 16th century Unitarian Francis David once proclaimed “We need not think alike, to love alike.”
I have found this to be true among the faith communities I have encountered during my short time as a minister. They have made me, the stranger, most welcome.

Rev Danny Crosby

Friday, 24 June 2011

"The Charter For Compassion"

One winter’s evening whilst gathered round a blazing camp fire, an old Sioux Indian chief told his grandson about the inner struggle that goes on inside people.
“You see” said the old man, “this inner struggle is like two wolves fighting each other. One is evil, full of anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, deceit, false pride, superiority, and ego”.

“The other one,” he continued, poking the fire with a stick so that the fire crackled, sending the flames clawing at the night sky, “is good, full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith”.

For a few minutes his grandson pondered his grandfather’s words and then asked, “So which wolf wins, grandfather?”

“Well”, said the wise old chief, his lined face breaking into a wry smile, “The one you feed!”

Religion for me is a simple matter, its sole purpose is to awaken our natural goodness and enable each human being to develop their compassionate natures. I do not believe that anyone is wholly bad, nor am I so naive as to believe that we are perfect either. We all have the capacity to be selfish and we can all be deeply compassionate too. Whichever aspect of ourselves flourishes, depends primarily on what is nurtured.

Karen Armstrong has stated “that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness” She has spent many years studying the great faith traditions of the world and has discovered a common value that lays at the heart of all of them, compassion. She claims that the true purpose of religion is to develop our compassionate natures. Sadly though these traditions have often become lost and or hidden and over powered by fundamentalist strains within them. In her Book “The Case For God” she disputes the claims of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, writing that those three “insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion.” In fact, she argues, it is “a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.”

Armstrong views the Golden Rule, “love your neighbour as yourself”, as the essence of religious practice; claiming that it is a universal principle and that versions of it are at the core of every single one of the major faiths, theistic and non-theistic. She does not advocate one tradition above any other; she just states that at the core of all of them is the “Golden Rule of Compassion”

Armstrong recently launched the Charter For Compassion to help promote what she sees as the essence of religion. At our denominational annual meetings, we Unitarians and Free Christians voted unanimously to sign up to the charter. As a result of this I have pledged to promote the charter in my ministry. Over the coming weeks and months I will begin this process. Come and join me and thousands of others. All are welcome

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.

Examples of “The Golden Rule” found in the major faith traditions:

Christianity All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Matthew 7:1
Confucianism Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. Analects 12:2
Buddhism Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Udana-Varga 5,1
Hinduism This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you. Mahabharata 5,1517
Islam No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. Sunnah
Judaism What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. Talmud, Shabbat 3id
Taoism Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
Zoroastrianism That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself. Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

Friday, 17 June 2011

New Facebook app

I have now created an embedded UK Spirituality application in Facebook which pulls the events from UK Spirituality, and where people can register for the event by clicking on a button in the Facebook application.

The application is part of the UK Spirituality page, but it can also be used separately.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Boost for social justice from an unlikely source

Credit where it's due. David Cameron appears to be committed to defending the international development budget and although the Guardian puts it down to a cynical calculation to shore up his image, I'm not so sure - I suspect most voters probably agree with the charity-begins-at-home sentiments expressed by the Daily Mail.

In his most high-profile intervention on overseas aid since becoming prime minister, Cameron will host the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) conference in London on 13 June.

The conference, discussed by Barack Obama and Cameron last week, is regarded as vital to efforts to lower child mortality in Africa. In a sign of the scale of pledges being sought, the Obama administration is being asked to give $450m to the programme over three years.

Britain will also announce a substantial extra contribution to help reach the $3.7bn required to scale up immunisation programmes between 2011 and 2015, and save an estimated 4 million children's lives.

The funding will specifically enable Gavi to distribute two vaccines, pneumococcal and rotavirus, tackling the two biggest killers of children in the developing world: pneumonia and diarrhoea. It is thought the vaccines will save more than 4 million lives by 2015. Pneumonia accounts for 20% of all deaths of children under five.

Britain gave £150m to Gavi in March last year, and since 2005 has been the second most generous contributor to the alliance after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As Alan Duncan puts it: aid-bashing does not actually get us anywhere. If we were to cancel the aid budget altogether it wouldn't solve all the other problems, so this sort of balancing of the aid budget versus all other problems isn't entirely logical.

The fact is, if you had a pound, would you give a halfpenny to stop someone dying in the street? The answer is you probably would, and what we are doing is stopping millions of people dying from disease, we are helping educate people and make them healthy.

Britain now spends more on overseas aid as a proportion of GDP than any other G8 nation, with a planned 34 per cent increase by 2014.