Monday, 4 September 2017

Cancelled gathering this month Ringwood #Unitarians

For various reasons owing to where we all have to be, we are cancelling the gathering that would usually have taken place on Sunday 10th September.

Our next gathering will be on the second Sunday in October, and we hope to see you that morning between 0915 and 0930!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

August 2017 our gathering for reverence on "self honesty" #unitarians

In this holiday month we were very pleased to see most of our regular participants at our latest meeting, although a couple were absent.  As is our usual practice, during our gathering we lit a candle for absent friends, in recognition of their continued relationship with our group.

Our theme was “self honesty”.  We spoke of a life-long ‘coming out’ that isn't about judging others but about being honest about ourselves.  We reflected on being honest with ourselves, and others, about what we think and feel.  About not protecting those we love from knowing they have hurt us, out of our fear that they don’t care enough about us to change.  About not protecting people in public (and hence ourselves too) from that awkwardness that comes from making it clear their view isn’t shared, so as not to inadvertently – or deliberately – protect them with silence.  Manifestly, the path of self honesty is a hard path.

It is so easy to deny people the opportunity to access new learning about and for themselves by reaching in and prescribing solutions based on our own experience, perceptions and needs.  An old teaching from the desert sages of Egypt was that such denial usually has its source in inattention – not our inattention to the other person, but inattention to ourselves, our assumptions, our needs, our wounds and our blind spots.  A temptation to prescribe solutions for others should instead be seen as an indicator that there is a solution needed for ourselves, and working backwards from that, that there is a need or gap in ourselves that should be addressed.

There is a well known story about three monks.  After their first stage of training, the monks were invited to choose their life paths.  The first chose to devote her life to healing the sick.  The second thought there was a role for him in mediation and peace-making.  The third chose the path of contemplation, and shut herself away from the world.

After some years the first monk was worn out with her labours, and saddened by the very many deaths she saw, despite her best efforts and application of the best medical techniques available.  Exhausted, she needed to recuperate so she went on a journey to find her friends.  On reaching the second monk, she found that he too was extremely weary.  Despite his close attention to the words and arguments of others and his rigorous  shuttle diplomacy, the second monk had found that he could never appease all aggrieved parties and could not fix all the situations that presented themselves.  He was easily persuaded to take a break and to travel with his friend to find the third monk.

When the two companions completed the difficult journey to the abode of the third monk they were so tired that they were just about able to put one foot in front of the other.  Their friend looked up and saw them, then guided them to a small cave with very basic living arrangements.  She motioned them to sit down, and sat down herself.  Lifting a bowl containing dirty water that she had just carried back from her well she placed it in front of them all, and said simply: “Look at the water.”  They were so tired, they didn’t bother talking or asking, but merely followed her instruction, and looked.

They saw that the water was mucky.  They kept watching, and after a while the silt in the water began to drop to the bottom, and the bits of twigs floated to the top.  Some considerable time later the clean, clear nature of the water  the water that the monk needed to live – was evident.  The third monk then said, “There is a benefit in maintaining stillness in the face of all the distractions that the world can place in your path.  No matter our good intent, in devoting ourselves to fixing the never-ending demands of the world we lose the chance to fix the muddy nature of our own selves.” 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

July 2017 our gathering for reverence on "Love" #unitarians

The theme of the day was “Love”.  Our president for the day brought us a reading from Hinduism, a reading and a prayer from Christianity, and a prayer from Buddhism.  We included our usual silent ritual in which a flame, some bread, some water and an item for fanning oneself are passed around the whole circle of participants.  We do not specify what these elements are to signify to participants.  We prefer to act in silence so that people can derive their own meanings and satisfaction from the ritual.  We also lit candles and spoke of our joys and concerns, which has become a deeply moving part of our meeting for reverence, and which allows us to develop our mutual understanding as the months go by.

Our first reading was from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and is the famous passage often used at weddings (1 Corinthians Chapter 13 verses 4 to 8).  We were invited to consider which of its well-known clauses we personally would find hard to live up to.  It was a challenge for this Unitarian to narrow it down to only one!  As one would expect at a Unitarian gathering, there were as many different views as there were people present.

Not everyone present felt able to study the reading from Paul in a detached way, as it was felt to come freighted within a very strong context.  I for one was grateful for the frankness that was spoken aloud about that.  Unitarians find it is important that people feel able to be honest about such matters.  Personal integrity matters a great deal to us and we would not be content for someone to feel they had to pretend, or to conceal their honest dissatisfaction or discomfort.  My own view is that many religious groups of all faiths have a tacit convention that disagreements and discomforts are hidden for the sake of conformity and stability.  This diminishes the richness of the whole experience and can cause individuals to feel rejected in the very place where they most seek – and most need to find – the feeling of being included, and of being at home.

Our second reading was translated from the Sanskrit, said to have been written by the poet Kalidasa, and may not be quite so well known:

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.....

Our music was a Unitarian hymn with words by June Boyce-Tillman (We sing a love) and a rendition by Joe Cocker of Up Where We Belong:

Who knows what tomorrow brings
In a world few hearts survive
All I know is the way I feel
When it's real, I keep it alive

The road is long
There are mountains in our way
But we climb a step every day

Love lift us up where we belong
Where the eagles cry
On a mountain high
Love lift us up where we belong
Far from the world below
Up where the clear winds blow

And we finished with some famous words by Mother Teresa, before staying to chat over hot drinks.  If you haven't tried our gatherings for reverence yet, do consider giving them a go.  We look forward to hearing YOUR take on what life, the universe and everything is all about.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

June 2017 meeting for reverence - what is our role in the face of violence #unitarians

This meeting was held in the days after the deathly attacks in Manchester and London that killed many, and injured and traumatised many more, by people claiming a link between their actions and the faith of Islam.

During our gathering we sang, we carried out our usual ritual, we held our period of silent contemplation, and lit candles marking our joys and concerns.  But overarching all this, the theme was “Death as Teacher – holding to our truth in time of division and falsity”. 

We humans struggle to handle death.  Somehow, at a very deep level, we long that there be no more death.  Despite knowing that to be impossible.

And we do not know how – or what practical actions can be taken – to combat the ideology causing this 21st century violence.  One thing is sure: ignorance and stereotyping will not help.  Perhaps our role, meeting under the Unitarian umbrella, is to do some exploring and learning as a counter to ignorance and stereotyping.  Even if we don’t find any answers.

Building on last month’s gathering, in which the scripture reading came from Sikhism, our two readings today were from Hinduism and a contemporary study of Islam by a Westerner.

We heard last month that Sikhism rejects the idea that strict rules on conduct are needed to bring the soul to salvation, insisting instead that a clear and intentional focus on God throughout all daily activity is all that is required.

The first reading we had today might have been one of the rulings that Sikhism had rejected.  It was a section of the Katha Upanishad that can be boiled down to just these words:

“Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.
...  The wise welcome what leads
To abiding joy, though painful at the time.
The ignorant run, goaded by their senses,
After what seems immediate pleasure.”

We considered that such a passage from Hinduism can be interpreted as meaning “forego pleasure in this life for the sake of a better life after death”.  We compared this with the Medieval western Christian view which was (among other things) a means of keeping order in society, and which was backed up by dreadful physical punishments on anyone who broke the rules.  We also noted that it is exactly this kind of perspective that seems to drive today’s angry young men and women who claim for themselves a disputed alignment with Islam.  Careless of their own lives and others’, they commit heinous crimes of violence in the hope of rewards associated with martyrdom – or so we are told.

But a more careful look at this Hindu scripture reveals something else.  It comes from a tradition that suggests that death occurs only to that part of ourselves which was born; born and launched into separate existence.   And more precisely, the Katha Upanishad portrays a hero who takes the demands of religion very seriously indeed – demands such as
  • obedience to an ideal even in the face of hypocrisy,
  • an emphasis on reconciliation,
  • the need for spiritual practice,
  • and the recognition of the transcendent.
 And this hero is wise enough to comprehend in conversation with Lord Death that
  • it is really only Self, Oneness, pure consciousness, that is the enjoyer – of itself.
  • so that when one realizes the Self there is nothing else to be known and all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened.
Such knowings are more sophisticated and do not seem to be true to a harsh, simplistic view that there is a life after death that is better than this and which is worth killing for

The second reading was an interpretation of the writing of an Islamic philosopher, Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), by Karen Armstrong.  Ibn al-Arabi  provides a gentle, complex view of the relationship between humans and God.  He saw God, the Unknown God, as sighing with longing to be known, with each of his sighs bringing forth another, unique human being, in the form of logoi, words that express God to himself.  Then the Revealed God in each human being longs to returns to its source in the Unknown God, and we humans experience this as a longing for something to fulfil our deepest desires and explain the tragedy and pain of life.  As Karen says, “Divinity and humanity were thus two aspects of the divine life that animates the entire cosmos.”

This is another sophisticated, rather gentle model for how it all works.  Philosophers like Ibn al-Arabi seem unlikely to boil life down to a simple formula that would incite violence for the sake of a different life hereafter.

In these musings we learned that it is not only the scriptures of Islam that can be used as an excuse for violence.  Moreover, that Islamic philosophers from long ago have been developing complex and gentle ideas that do not seem to have been encompassed by terrorists.

We concluded with this thought: this group meets in the name of the Unitarian community, and we say that people are to find what meaning they can in their lives.  So when people struggle in the face of today’s pain and tragedy, what are we to say to them?  It was suggested that, in the words of our last  hymn, if we feel able, we can say this:

We all must say to them
What we all know for sure
That there’s a goodness in the world
Which ever shall endure

We may not give up hope;
We will not give up love.
Our lives are grounded in the faith that
In one God we all move.
(words by Peter Sampson)

Monday, 22 May 2017

May 2017 meeting for reverence - how to DO religion #unitarians

For much of the 20th century, the watchwords of Unitarians were “Freedom, Reason, Tolerance.”  We opened our meeting on 14 May with a striking revamp of these words – which now become “Liberation, Inspiration, Compassion”, thus avoiding some of the sub-texts that the words ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ now come freighted with; and ‘inspiration’ now integrating intuition and spirit with the logic of reason. (Our thanks to Jo James of Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds).

It is sometimes said of Unitarians that we are a church without creed.  But that’s not so – we are a church that does not state a SOLE creed.  Instead, we challenge ourselves to uncover our own underpinning belief system, a model that we ourselves are unable to deny, a personal idea of what is the most important in life.  We each are to believe what we CAN believe, rather than what someone else asserts we ought to believe.  So in Ringwood, after our chalice lighting, we privately spend a minute or two remembering our personal creed, whereas in another church we might be asked to recite out loud a set of words that may or may not hold meaning for us.

We then had the following prayer, written by Tony McNeile:

 After this, our meeting for reverence included all our usual ingredients of ritual, silence and singing.  But as always, there was a linking theme.

We spent the meeting looking at different ways of doing religion.  We listened to a song about John Ball, who was an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.  John Ball’s concept was that God had set us all to be equal in Christian love – no room in religion for the for power hierarchies of church and noblemen , and that

All shall be ruled
By fellowship I say,
All shall be ruled
By the love of one another,
All shall be ruled
By fellowship I say,
In the light that is coming 
In the morning.”

Our first reading came from the Sikh tradition.  In contrast to John Ball’s prescription, this reading suggested that “God has created the creations in countless ways and of countless kinds, colours, and sorts, and it prescribed continuous meditation on the Name of God as the way to salvation.  The Name of God resides within all hearts, but the true saints actually see Him residing within them.  All kinds of gifts will be bestowed by God, if we continuously repeat with affection the Name of God.  God, who pervades everywhere and owns all powers, must be ever remembered.  This will give complete protection and salvation,” (a translation of part of the Sukhmani Sahib).

Paul McCartney helped us out next, with a song he wrote after he had had long discussions with George Harrison, whom I believe to have been a devotee of Krishna, in the Hindu tradition.  Paul’s song is called One of These Days, and it is a sort of hymn to mindfulness.

And then we took a reading from our own tradition, from recent essays by our own Rev Bill Darlison, from The Penultimate Truth and Other Incitements.  Bill argued against “seek[ing] to hear the voice of God either in the words of some guru, in the teachings of a church or in the scriptures.  Some people will follow all three.  All three are, in my opinion, problematic and, increasingly anachronistic. ....  Where, then, can we hope to hear the voice of God in all its freshness in this contemporary world? – In that very source which is itself the source of all bibles, religions, gurus and deities – the human soul, the creative human mind, the genius of the human spirit.....
Dogma divides us, stories unite us.  When people ask, ‘You Unitarians, what is your ideology?  What is your theology?’ I would like us to say: “We don’t have an ideology.  We don’t have a theology.  We tell our stories to one another.”

In our meetings, instead of a sermon we invite the president of the meeting to speak in a personal capacity.  Our president for the day spoke of the trap in religion to do with DOING religion.  She said that we forget that what suits “me” and teaches “me” is not appropriate to people in other life situations or with different experience.  Scripturally-based as he was, and looking for Christian salvation of society, John Ball conveniently forgot that even having a king, under God and above the people, was a hierarchy not mentioned in the Bible (the Peasants’ Revolt was not about getting rid of the king; it was about releasing the king from the power of the establishment and returning to the level playing field of the Garden of Eden).  So being ruled by fellowship alone was never going to be a successful prescription.

We were reminded that in human history, every time a mystic teacher gives some gift to the world, their students try to systematise the teaching and turn it into a practice that will allow the rest of us to have the same experience as the original mystic.  But it doesn’t work that way.

The Sikh advice to keep repeating the thought “God” was offered as a help for focus and humility.  But much of the day we are in conversation with other people or animals.  And when in conversation, repeating the word “God” interiorly can make one rather inattentive to the other person.  Yet the other person also lives steeped in divinity, so our president suggested that not attending to the other person for the sake of saying “God” is rather missing the point.

The contemporary view we were given from Bill’s writings is a humanist view.  His idea is that the sharing of stories is just as holy as focusing on a rule, no matter who the rule-maker was, nor how insightful they were.  Bill says the holy is between PEOPLE, too.  Apparently, Rowan Williams says the same thing albeit slightly differently: he says we cannot have a satisfactory relationship with the divine unless AND UNTIL we have a satisfactory relationship with Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Summing up, the president called to mind a model from the Jewish tradition: we humans are holy by being linked together by our neighbourly relations, like people standing shoulder to shoulder in a ring; noting that a ring, a circle, necessarily has a centre.

Nothing is SEEN at the centre of a ring of people – we can only see the people in the circle; those next to us, those opposite us, those across from us.  But the circle only exists because there IS a centre; something we are all facing, whether we see it or not.  And we each have our own tie, our own relationship, linking us to the unseen, silent, empty centre.

So finally it was suggested that that ‘remembering we are a ring of people, linked together, tied to an unseen centre’, is a contemporary model of how we might best DO religion.