Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

31/12/2012

The Gate of the Year

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still: 
What need our little life 
Our human life to know, 
If God hath comprehension? 
In all the dizzy strife 
Of things both high and low, 
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years 
Which wind ahead, so dim 
To our imperfect vision, 
Are clear to God. Our fears 
Are premature; In Him, 
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until 
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures 
Our mind shall fill.

-- Minnie Louise Haskins

(Inspired by the Facebook page of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain.)

30/12/2012

The Road Ahead

This morning I gave ministry at Meeting for Worship. As with other Sundays, I had no real intention of speaking today - yes, I inevitably gave thought on my journey up there of what I might speak about should I feel moved and what others might speak about, but what I came to speak about surprised me. 

Put simply, standing up and breaking the silence at a Quaker meeting does not come easy for me, in fact I try to avoid it, but there comes an unsettling shaking and a 'whooshing up' which I feel I cannot resist. A Friend once commented on the Quaker process, "it's weird but it works" and another Friend today commented how she was agnostic about what brought Quakers to speak. If I am honest, as much as I believe in a notion of God and as much as I am finding the Quaker path to be 'home', I share much of these views - I have doubts and I have a level of self-consciousness, and embarrassment, about taking a lead (albeit momentarily) at a church gathering. 

Having said this, I'll now put to print my thoughts shared this morning, obviously not like-for-like but continuing on the same theme.

I didn't know Alan Greaves nor his wife, but my wife and I were in Sheffield on Christmas Eve. We stay in a hotel over there every two years to be near one half of the family, alternating between Manchester and Sheffield, and very much look forward to seeing out Christmas Eve together by having a 'posh meal' and a few drinks in my home city. Before heading out that evening, our concerns were ordinary - discussing what we might eat and whether we would be able to stay awake long enough for the Midnight Mass at Sheffield Cathedral. As it happened, we went out to eat and returned home at around 10pm to have a few drinks overlooking Victoria Quays, before heading for an early night filled with excitement at the day ahead.

Unbeknown to us, Alan Greaves - a church organist from High Green - also headed out that night to help lead the Midnight Mass at his local church, St Saviour's. He would have probably also have been mulling over similarly ordinary concerns, perhaps thinking of his wife or his four grandchildren, hoping the service would go to plan etc. Shockingly, he was assaulted on his journey to the church and died later in hospital leaving behind a family and community who dearly loved him - the Bishop of Sheffield has since described him as a 'shining light'. There was no clear reason for the events that occurred, it's been declared by various people as 'evil', 'random' and 'senseless'.

I was reading an article about Alan Greaves this morning, amongst the many other deep troubles being talked about in the papers, when the following comments from his wife Maureen Greaves really struck home to me:

“Every Christmas Eve he would bring me a huge bunch of flowers and they are still inside. He put on his coat and hat and said ‘bye love’ as he always did and they were the last words we spoke together."

“Life sometimes produces things like this. It’s a shame but you have to look for the good.”

These words were remarkable really given the level of sudden and total devastation this lady faces. There is a faith in her that many of us can only aspire to.

Reflecting on this also brought me to a conversation I had with my grandmother yesterday. She was due to come visit our home yesterday, as part of a Christmas family gathering, but was taken ill with a virus and didn't want to pass it on. Sat in the house alone had given her time to dwell on my beloved grandfather's absence, following his very difficult passing to lung cancer in February 2010 and her third Christmas spent without him. As we talked, she broke down in tears and expressed a fear that she would not see out the year ahead - and would not get to see the three newborns who are due in Spring (adding to her collection of sixteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren).

It seems to me that there is much to be sad and fearful about from this conversation but in relaying this to my mother yesterday, I commented that hope could be drawn in that amongst the darkness she continues to see there is still much to live for. My grandmother often says, "As one passes, another one comes..." - again in this there is a hope expressed in the face of destruction.

From there a somewhat odd thought had come to mind during the meeting; Jesus was 33 years old when he died, I wonder how he felt looking ahead at the age of 32 years old, as I look ahead now at the same point age-wise. Did he see only uncertainty and possible desolation ahead or did he in fact continue to walk with faith in the Greater Good? And if we can say this is how the Master Teacher & Great Exemplar approached things during troubled times, then can we not be re-assured and resolved to keep walking forward with faith through each of our lesser but nonetheless potentially consuming troubled times?

In many ways this season and the coming days are only more important because we human beings have placed great expectations and values on the 25th Day of the Twelfth Month and 31st Day of the Twelfth Month as religio-cultural events. And when I see people hurting because these expectations aren't met, I have a growing empathy with earlier Quakers who rejected the notion of holy days and seasons for this reason. But as an event that our majority culture participates in, it is nonetheless hard to ignore. 

There will be many of us, in varying circumstances, looking to the road ahead in 2013 with a mix of contentment, sadness and regret for what has passed - and fear and hope for what is to come. In thinking about the coming year, we must try to follow the examples of our Christian tradition and of our present day living, and cling on to the lights of our lives.

And as the news of his terrible passing no longer makes the headlines, we must also keep a special place in our prayers for the loved ones of Alan Greaves - particularly his wife Maureen Greaves - in the coming year.

The fight for peace and justice is not yet won.

Following the meeting there was a discussion amongst Friends touching upon both our own particular, everyday difficulties and the great tragedies we see. Thought was given to the Amish school shooting in 2006 and the manner in which the families of those shot showed love and care towards the shooter's wife. I added to this my memory of the grace shown by many of the families of the young victims of stabbings in London over the past few years. 

The belief in forgiveness as necessary in the process of being able to continue to live hopefully was expressed. We talked about how events occur beyond our control but we can each shape our perception and understanding of them, that this is a battle we must each undertake within. In this sense, although we cannot protect ourselves from troubled times - what will be will ultimately be - we have influence over the narratives and meanings we attach to things.

Later, having returned home, I sat with my wife watching a DVD of the Luther television series -  a detective drama set amongst a dark London underworld. One of the protagonists quotes John Milton's Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

2013 will come and we have to accept some of us will face great trials as others will experience great joy, but we must each continue to walk together with hearts and minds of faith.

28/12/2012

Christmas in the 21st Century

My internet browsing, deep reading of various books and subsequent blogging have all slowed due to the Christmas period - and that's a good thing. I've said it many times on this blog before, I'm sure, but those of us with inquisitive, analytical, whirring minds need to take time just to be otherwise we exhaust ourselves and fail to appreciate the simpler, often finer, things.

However, I thought I'd log on this morning to quickly give mention to two articles about this time in the traditional Christian calendar. I don't necessarily agree with them, but they are provoking.

First, there is Daniel Hannan's 'Christmas celebrates the defining event of our civilisation'. Daniel Hannan is a libertarian, often dissenting member and MEP, of the UK's Conservative Party. He argues, drawing on his own Peruvian connections, that the narrative and history of European Christianity finds a constructive connection with Paganism rather than it simply being a case of conquest and replacement - and that Christmas, which is clearly Pagan-rooted, is an example of this. He also argues that the Jesus Story of Ultimate Sacrifice continues to be the defining narrative of European / European-rooted civilisation.

Second, there is Mike Ghouse's 'Interfaith Christmas: Making God Boundless'. Mike Ghouse is writing for the Huffington Post, a liberal-left online newspaper, and is an advocate for religious pluralism. He argues that Christmas, the Christian version not the Capitalist one, need not alienate those of other faiths due to the universal religious value of forgiveness and generosity it expresses. (In trying to re-find the article by Mike Ghouse, I also found an article by Petula Dvorak, 'Christmas for Christians, Muslims and Jews', which expresses similar sentiments.) This seems to be more a Jesus Story of Continuous Service.

I am unsure how these fit with the debate over whether Christianity is culture-central or counter-cultural in terms of its relationship with Western societies. A longer discussion for another time I think.

I guess what we ultimately find in these are two views is an exclusive, harder-edged view of Christianity and a milder, more inclusive one. I am not sure where I stand, I think the Jesus Story does represent a key turning point in European history, and world history for that matter, but for me it's not necessarily all about atonement - it's the idea of an emerging 'prophethood and priesthood of all believers', a building of a 'Commonwealth of God', that the story of Jesus's life and teachings acts as a catalyst for. 

I guess that might make me a milksop for some, and maybe an ordinary radical to others.

25/12/2012

Happy Christmas!

(Created from the various ministry given at Quaker Meeting on 23/12/12)

22/12/2012

Finding Home for Christmas


The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh have had a big influence on me over the years and I often find myself returning to his teachings despite becoming more distant from Buddhism. This week I came across the Christmas sermon, 'Home is the Way', from Thich Nhat Hanh - I have read over it a couple of times and I'm still digesting it. However, as work ends for two weeks, my thoughts are turning back to home and family - with anxiety as well as excitement - and this extract certainly speaks to my condition, offering comfort and challenge:
"Christmas time is a time for the family, when family members return to their home. Wherever we may be, we try to find a way home to be with our family. It is like the Tết holiday in the Vietnamese culture. We decorate our house and find ways to make our home warm and cozy. We all yearn to have a home that is warm and loving; where we feel that we do not need to go anywhere, or to do or to pursue anything anymore. It is what we can call our ‘true home’. We all have this yearning, this deep desire to be in our true home.
Jesus, as soon as he was born, had to be on the run right away and to be a refugee, a runaway without a home. When he grew up and became a young man, it was the same; he was still a wanderer with no real home to return to. In one of his discourses, he protested that even the birds have their nests to return to or the rabbits and squirrels have their burrows; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, no place to call home.
Siddhartha, as an adult, found himself in a similar situation. He was born into a royal family that was wealthy and privileged. He could have anything he desired. He had a beautiful wife and a good son. He had a bright future ahead of him; destined to be king and ruler of a great empire. But still, he did not feel comfortable even with all this. He did not feel at home. He was not at peace. Therefore, one day, he decided to leave his family in search of his true home, in search of inner peace.

Both Jesus and Siddhartha were searching for their true home. They wanted to find a warm abode where they would not have to search for anything anymore and where they would feel truly at home and at peace. Western people have a saying, “There is no place like home” that expresses the feeling that there is nothing like coming home after being away. Yet still, some of us do not feel at home, do not feel that we have a home to return to, even in our own families. It is because in our families, there is not enough warmth, not enough love, ease, peace or happiness.

Some of us have a homeland, living in the country where we were born, yet we still want to escape and go somewhere else. We feel like we do not have a homeland. Some Jewish people feel that they still do not have a homeland. They have been wandering and searching for a homeland for thousands of years – for a place, a piece of land to call home. Even to this day they have yet to find their homeland. And we – the French, the Americans, the British, and the Vietnamese – we all have a country to call our homeland, but still, we do not feel contented and some of us want to leave. This is because we have not found our true home in our heart. This season, even if we buy a Christmas tree to decorate our home, this does not necessarily mean that we have found our true home or that we are at ease living in our homeland. For our home to be true, there needs to be love, warmth, and fulfilment.

In the end, Jesus found his true home in his heart. He found the light in his heart. He taught his disciples that they too have their own light and he taught them to bring that light out for others to see. Siddhartha taught that one’s true home can be found in the present moment. He developed practices for his disciples so that they too could find their true home. He taught that we each have an island within that is safe and secure. If we know how to return to this island, we can be in touch with our blood and spiritual ancestors, with the wonders of life, and with our own self. In the island of our true self, we can find peace and fulfilment."

17/12/2012

More Census Geekery (for Unitarians)

I always actively try to approach human communities by seeking to establish what various groups hold in common - it is all too easy to reduce groups of people we don't know to a series of observations, often misplaced, about how they are unlike ourselves. And in framing these differences, we also tend to judge ourselves as better (or worse) which is equally misplaced - not to mention potentially destructive.

On this basis, it is worth noting that according to the UK Census 2011, approximately 73% of Britons identify with a 'mainstream' faith, and approximately 65% have an Abrahamic theist-rooted faith.  Whether those within this literally believe Jesus ascended to heaven via a Star Trek style transporter beam or Muhammed rode there on a magical horse or Enoch walked there with God (presumably) via a worm hole is not known, nor knowable. On top of the 73%, you could probably count another 1 - 2% in terms of those who identify with the 'minority of the minority' faiths, plus there will be some who adopted the 'Mind Your Own' position in relation to the religion question. 

The point is, the majority of Britons hold a sense of a God in common, the vast majority hold a sense of some kind of underlying / overriding divinity or greater meaning to life in common.

However, if you flip the things-we-hold-in-common approach around, it is also interesting to see in particular the diversity, and peculiarities, of the 240,000 responses outside of those identifying with the main Abrahamic and Dharmic religions. The Guardian has produced an interesting, if not slightly geeky, breakdown of the smaller religious groups which includes the following responses:

- 23,500 Mixed Religion
- 500 Free Thinkers
- 1,200 Deists
- 800 Theists + a further 2,900 who state 'Believe in God'
- 1,900 Individualists ('Own Belief System')
- 900 Universalists + a further 400 who state 'Church of All Religion'

The reason these stand out for me are, speaking as someone who for a long time affiliated with the Unitarian & Free Christian denomination, is that this can be roughly interpreted as a clear 32,000 people who may find the current form of British Unitarianism which mixes liberal Judeao-Christian faith with a more universalistic 'all big religions are ultimately the same' approach appealing - aside from out-and-out liberal-minded Christians of course (an initially unintentional double entendre but one I am now proud of). There are also 14,000 who identify as 'Spiritual' which might be an added potential recruiting ground as most of these will likely have a Judeao-Christian upbringing.

If you consider the 'Earth-centred spirituality' responses, you add potentially another 75,000  - a quick totalling of those who identified as Pagan, Druid, Animism and Wiccan etc. Although I would argue firstly, that these are less compatible with Unitarianism in terms of it being a faith deeply rooted in monotheist theology (particularly if you have actively rejected this upbringing) and secondly, why potentially be a competing minority voice in one group when you could form a relatively unified group of your own (and much larger)? The Pagan Federation seems a more natural home. There are also 2,300 Pantheists which could be linked in with this group or those more Judeao-Christian leanings, depending on whether they are truly Pantheist or more Panentheist.

There will also be a not insignificant number within the 25% of 'no religon' responses that are nonetheless receptive to faith. Research undertaken by the Theos think tank titled 'Post-religious Britain: The faith of the faithless?' highlights 23% of self-identifying atheists believe in a human soul, 15% in life after death, 20% in the supernatural power of ancestors, 7% in angels - it is probable many individuals responding to this research answered yes to a few of these so we cannot add these up and say a majority of atheists believe in the supernatural. But it does perhaps throw water on the celebratory fires of more militant, purist atheists. And it does suggest these agnostic 'no religion'  types might also find the Unitarian church naturally appealing.

The final group worth a mention - and which now find voice under the umbrella of the Unitarian denomination, particularly so in the United States - are Humanists who come in at 15,000 on the UK Census 2011. Again though, as with Pagan-types, I find it hard to see how they can peaceably fit with the church - at least given the anti-religion, primarily anti-Christian, tendencies of the British Humanist Association. It might be they would be better served and put to service joining this organisation's 28,000 members (I admit to smiling at the Church of England's mischievous reference to the BHA at the end of their official response to the UK Census 2011).

It's all just a thought really in terms of British Unitarianism re-finding its way and maintaining enough growth to survive their predicted extinction. And inevitably written with a pinch of salt if you consider these surveys were the result of simple tick box exercises rather than explanation or discussion.

I have yet to work out what the immediate potential market for the Quakers is. Maybe the Jedi Knights would be the first ones to look at, as talk of 'The Force' seems similar(ish) to how some Quakers talk of 'The Light' and 'The Spirit' - although I see this impersonal 'sacred electricity' God as a limiting notion rather than one to be fostered, preferring to view God as 'transpersonal' or 'metapersonal'; That is, a God consisting of some personal aspects we can relate to, and more abstract, mysterious aspects which the human mind struggles to understand.

Finally, I am not sure how the 6,000 'Heavy Metal' disciples fit in. I am not sure the Unitarian churches I have visited would cope with a praise band, let alone a hardcore rock band... And of course, the silence-loving Quakers are effectively their arch-enemy!

12/12/2012

Christians, Welcome the Census

Yesterday the initial wave of UK census findings were released with mainstream news outlets tending to focus on 1) the increasing ethnic diversity of the country 2) the increase in people stating no religious affiliation 3) the decrease in numbers and percentage of people identifying as Christians, and 4) the increase in people identifying as Muslims. 

There is a great deal more information and nuances to be uncovered yet but these were the headlines of TV news, and followed more or less by the British press today.

Looking around the internet at various comments on blogs, social networks and message boards, there was two noticeable currents I came across. Firstly, in terms of ethnicity and the apparent dramatic rise in Muslim residents, there was a general pessimism and concern from commenters that migration was changing Britain too fast and to the detriment of native peoples and cultures, however they might be defined.  

Secondly, I noticed what could be described as a  'crowing of victory' from the self-proclaimed Disciples of Atheism (or at least, the Science-is-God ideologues) and 'sigh of resignation' from self-proclaimed Disciples of Christ (or at least, the servants / beneficiaries of the long dominant churches).

Here's my take on both...

The 'World in One Country' Scenario

I can understand the fear over the change in ethnic and cultural make-up of Britain to a point. 

In some towns and cities, such as those in Yorkshire and Lancashire, the cosmopolitan, upbeat nature of central London is not felt. In particular there are many smaller northern towns, such as Dewsbury and Oldham, where there seems to be stark segregation between Muslim and non-Muslim residents. They live side-by-side, more or less cordially, but do not really engage with one another other than on an economic basis - working together, using some of the same shops etc. There might not be anything particularly 'wrong' with this, but as I've discussed previously on this blog in my observations of Bosnia, this can lead to a strong sense of the 'other' and related misunderstandings, which in turn can eventually lead to outright conflict. 

There are also those who view migration through a purely economic lens in terms of equating more people with less public services, houses and employment.

I don't think either concerns, when expressed reasonably, should be dismissed as 'bigotry' or any other pejorative term.

However, I also believe - and hope - that what we are witnessing in Britain and much of Western society is the natural birth of a globalised society, and that the rest of the world will follow. I didn't read The Sun today but thought it's headline was fitting:

 Consider the world today. 
  • States based on a narrow definition of ethnicity or ideology (usually religion, but including communism) have proved time and time to fail - they cannot contain their diversity, and any attempt to 'de-diversify' ends in disaster.
  • Improvements in transport have brought diverse peoples physically closer to one another - for example, journeys that could take weeks such as those between Europe and Asia, now take hours.
  • The dawn of the Information Age, triggered by telecommunications and invigorated (or put more accurately, turbo charged) by the internet, has brought diverse peoples intellectually closer.
  • A prolonged wealth gap between societies has inevitably resulted in largescale migration, borne out of the human instinct to both survive and thrive, and see their offspring do the same.
  • A continued gap between societies of the 'freer world' - in which there is a reliable level of liberty, justice and peace - and the rest has again inevitably resulted in largescale migration, again borne out of the human instinct to both survive and thrive, and see their offspring do the same.
Just as settlements became tribes and tribes became nations and nations became superstates (and are still doing so), so it is that I think we are now very slowly- but noticeably so - moving to a position where humanity is the common denominator, and within that we will find overlapping networks of identities. Identities not necessarily just defined by ethnicity or religious affiliation. It is as I say above, a 'natural birth', that will not be without moments of pain for those most impacted by the process.

That said, this perspective is interesting and potentially exciting as a Christian. I have been reading William Barclay's 'Insights' commentary on Christmas just recently and he talks about Nazareth being a nondescript town within a very significant area through which various trade routes between the cultural division of Eastern and Western civilisation, and the geographical division Northern and Southern hemispheres all passed. He contends that this would have surely played a formative role in the emerging worldview of Jesus and the vanguard movement he was to found. 

There are many takes on what Christianity was and wasn't in its early phase or since then - and I am happy to admit this usually depends on your current position, and I am no different.

My understanding is that Christianity started off as a spontaneous Spirit-fuelled grassroots movement, triggered by the Jesus event, that increasingly stretched across ethnicities and cultures, taking elements of their various insights, practices - and perplexities - along the way. And it was precisely this creative tension, this spark in the melting pot, that has resulted in it gathering more and more momentum, and from there marching on and on and on over the centuries contributing much to progression of the human species (though not always). Conversely, when 'Christianity' has found itself neatly fixed as a banner above a society, it has in turn become stifled and subject to an inevitable decline.

The 'Post-Christendom' Scenario

This leads to my second point about the decline of Christianity in Britain.

However, before we go further, let us consider Richard Dawkins's comments on the census and his glee at the apparent eventual vanquishing of Christianity from Britain's shores. In an article for The Telegraph today he contends that the 59% who ticked 'Christian' contain a huge swathe who are in fact not really Christian because they in turn do not tick the various boxes he defines as what it takes to be a Christian (and admittedly, perhaps what the more dogmatic Christians might also define). Aside from the issue of defining a Christian, what he misses is that if the 59% do not have enough shared belief to represent a bloc, it is highly unlikely the 25% who identified as 'no religion' have a shared viewpoint. Put simply, the 25% do not necessarily buy into his science-based belief system either - intellectually speaking or book sales speaking.

When placed under the microscope, I think we can reasonably say even the most seemingly united group of people retain a fundamental level of complexity and diversity - such is humanity.

Having said that, I do think Dawkins is touching upon a fair point about the discrepancy between 'nominally Christian' and 'actively Christian' which is not reflected in a simple statistic of 59%, but is highlighted when comparing the number of people who answered Christian on the census compared to average weekly church attendances.

In addition, yesterday's news of the political establishment's decision to press ahead with gay marriage - supported by leading figures across the political parties but opposed by the majority of Christian churches - highlights the decline in Christianity as the state-sponsored religion and preferred ideological community. Britain, as with much of Western Europe, has well and truly entered a 'Post-Christendom' era - a transitional phrase from a Christian-centred state and public culture to something else. It is as yet unknown what the something else will be.

However, again I think many contemporary, active Christians can be heartened rather than dismayed by this. If we go back to the context in which Christianity thrived, it was as a grassroots movement led by the convinced few. It was a committed movement not concerned with earthly power but the bringing about of a more fulfilling individual and communal way of living, and sharing it with others, through connection to that sacred something we call 'God', 'Christ' and 'Spirit'.

For me, I would much rather be part of a community energised and convinced by the Spirit rather than what we often see now in church buildings - stale communities moved only by procedure (the 'right and proper order of things' mentality') and a sense of position (the 'local worthy' mentality). And there is evidence of radical, positive-minded communities emerging - you just have to go looking for it.

In short, the census provides opportunity for Christianity to both get back to basics and to renew itself. I don't imagine it going back to the exact mindset and practice of 2000 years ago - times have changed, it has grown and progressed along the way by the millions of people who lived in a deep relationship with it. But now is an opportunity to rediscover that original small 's' and capital 'S' spirit that shaped the early communities and spurred their descendants on to achieve many good things for the whole of humanity over the past two millenia, and to be renewed by it.

11/12/2012

Norcliffe Chapel on Facebook

 Spot the chapel!

It's pleasing to see Norcliffe Chapel, the Unitarian & Free Christian congregation we were married by this summer, have now ventured on to Facebook. The church is situated approximately 50 yards off the main road in Styal, an old mill village.

I've put a few photos on the page to show off the fantastic interior of the building (and my wife!). We have some treasured memories of the day, with the service shaped greatly through conversations with the minister Alex Bradley - and we continue to look forward to visiting for worship from time to time. 


The church has existed there since 1823 and has a plaque next to the main entrance stating it is for, "The worship of God; and the furtherance of Christian life; free from the fetters of any written and unwritten; declaration of doctrine".  We have this as part of a Neil Rowland created collage of photos on our dining room wall. The modern-day ethos of the chapel, in our experience, is generally liberal, open-minded Christianity with space provided for reflection on both theological themes, the human experience and social justice issues.

Although it always seems to have a long queue of couples wanting to get married there (partly because of its proximity to nearby reception venues, partly because of its beauty), it's location means that it remains in many ways a hidden gem.

09/12/2012

2nd Sunday of Advent

I didn't go to Meeting for Worship this weekend due to a cold or flu bug which is laying me low. I think the sense of closeness to one another that occurs at a Quaker meeting, which I personally experience much more than sat in the pews of a traditional church, also brings to mind just how infectious one can be!

Instead I stayed at home helped my wife re-put up the tree, inbetween periods of laying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. Our tree is an artificial one, not one of the reported six million real ones cut down for the event. However, I'm not sure the plastic variety has a smaller carbon footprint so won't get self-righteous about this. 

This year our tree has a small nativity set within it as a discreet reminder for us to try remain in-tune with what the season is really about for us as Christians - although having said that, the links with other religious festivals at this time of year are also worth considering (see here and here).


As part of this attempt at a 'more meaningful Christmas' we took time this weekend at the shops to put together a donation for a local food bank. The reason I mention this is not to boast about our apparent good nature but to encourage others to do the same - we too had to be reminded, and without being prompted would have probably taken it for granted the number of neighbours who will go hungry this winter. Today the Guardian reported on Glasgow's poorer citizens and the approach to Christmas, and whilst this former powerhouse of the British Empire has struggled particularly in the new economic era, breadline living is evident across the UK.

Me and my wife have also adopted a (seemingly) Scandinavian tradition of giving one another a small gift each Advent Sunday rather than going for one big lavish splurge on Christmas Day. In doing so we are attempting to mark and enjoy the whole season rather than getting as caught up in a frenetic build-up to the 25th. The patiently waiting on and appreciation of smaller gifts, I think, also reflects a pattern we can adopt throughout the year and so again, the period acts as a time of re-dedication to a a way of living - a way of discipleship - ahead of the new calendar year. This seems to have roots in the earlier traditions of Advent, as discussed in a recent blog for HeraldNet.

Next week at the Quakers there is a card giving event after the Meeting for Worship - each member brings one card and places it on the central table, and then takes another away (hopefully not accidentally taking away the same one!). It is a small way of engaging in sharing goodwill without being overly wasteful. The card I will be sharing reads on the front:

As the wise men were led
by the star above -
May we always be led
by the light of His love.

If Christmas is to mean anything more than a Pagan-rooted feasting period during the darkest, hungriest part of the European calendar, it's about taking time to re-focus on the Inner Light, and to proactively practise acting out of love - ready for the year ahead.

02/12/2012

1st Sunday of Advent

Today is the 1st Sunday of Advent. I spent my morning at Meeting for Worship with Cheadle Hulme Quakers, as I now spend most Sunday mornings. It was a deeply moving meeting, one in which the silence was deep and nourishing - and the ministry both challenging and enriching.

It feels too early to order and express my full thoughts on Advent and Christmas. There are all sorts of questions and issues around this period in the traditional Christian calendar, for Christians and for wider society. And as I move further into fellowship with the Quakers, there is even a thought that I should perhaps even reject any special religious meaning for this time of year - although that was not the sentiment of others at Cheadle Hulme Meeting House, which today lit an Advent wreath and made plans for a carol service in two weeks time.

Anyway, I received an email this week from Free to Believe and it contained the following poem:

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

-- Rowan Williams

This has touched me but I cannot put fully into words why. It coincides with a passage in the Bible, which I came across in Luke 1 - 2 whilst settling down during the first part of this morning's meeting. The passage says:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

It is interesting to note that an article by John Shelby Spong was also attached to the email, 'debunking' the concept of the Virgin Birth. In the past this would have been the focus on my attention, but it passed me by. Not because I don't agree with Spong, I just feel it's not necessary for me personally at the moment to be engaged in this kind of theological wrangling.

As I sat in contemplative prayer / meditations, the thought of Jesus as a Light of the World rolled around in my mind along with unanswered questions of what it was about him that continues to grasp our intuition and imagination -  and then, from ministry, a hint of Jesus as 'Immanuel' - the clear sure sign of 'God with Us', of our unity with God. Yet from there, a Friend also rose to speak of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, a symbol of the pain of existence, of our brokenness and loss, the source of much grief and grievance.

Two different yet interwoven images of Comforter and Confronter. 

Then, from there, it struck me that this great set of ideals we find in Jesus of Nazareth - regardless of what we really do know about him and what we really don't - acts as a mirror. We are this. Both light and darkness. But sometimes through the glass we can only see gloom.

And perhaps if we strip down Advent, a period not just coincidentally situated in the darkest season of the European-rooted Christian calendar, it should be just this - a time to actively rededicate ourselves to revealing the light amidst the darkness, to re-affirming unity with God and one another, a time to see past our troubles collected over the year.

And these are not just noble words.

The Quaker ministry given today, as practically-minded as it so often is, advised we can do this through making time with others - spending it in simple joy, through acts of goodwill towards those less fortunate, through helping others distract from their sadness - that this month really is in many ways no different from how the Christian's pattern of life should always be, one defined by kindness. But because we so often fail to live up to this, we perhaps need a month to really spend time practising getting it right.

25/11/2012

If...

This famous poem was read at the end of my Grandfather's funeral just under a week ago, as part of the Jehovah's Witness contribution - it summed his character up perfectly, and I think, points to a Buddhist way of thinking that we could all do with at least a little bit of.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

 
--Rudyard Kipling

21/11/2012

Goodbye Humble Joe

On Monday we finally said farewell to my Grandad, Jospeh Henry Grant. The service was split into two, with the first half being held at the Anglican church - according to the wishes of his wife, Norah, who wanted to ensure the community who knew him had chance to pay their respects. From there, he was travelled to the crematorium where a short memorial service was delivered by a cousin of mine, who is a practicing Jehovah's Witness (his immediate family are also mostly affiliated to this denomination).

Over the past two weeks I have crafted a journal-entry-turned-eulogy, returning to it at various points to add and amend. I now feel ready to publish this and share it with the world wide web, as a public record and celebration of his life. 

On Saturday morning, 3rd of November, I received an early morning phonecall at around 8.30am. It was my mother. She started immediately with, "I've got some bad news..." It's the kind of much-dreaded opener that often goes through your mind when someone close to you rings at an unexpected time. On this occasion though, having not spoken to my mother for a few weeks, it did not - I just assumed she was finding time to catch up in-between work and other family commitments. 

The news that followed was the passing of my grandfather, Joe Grant, at the age of 91 having suffered breathing difficulties the night before. I fell immediately silent, and my wife took over the conversation. The initial wave of sadness at this news was quickly mixed in with a growing sense of regret knowing that I had pencilled in to see him just the week before, during a week off work - but had found myself instead drawn back to the office to catch up on paperwork. It was easy, I guess, in that moment to quickly turn from grief over his loss to anger at myself, knowing that the window of opportunity to spend that one last treasurable time with him was missed. 

I ventured out for a run shortly after and took the time to allow the news to settle in further. I reasoned with my grief and anger, knowing my Grandad had led a long life and had died relatively peacefully, and knowing that the sense of a missed opportunity was not healthy to dwell upon nor something not readily felt by so many people who lose loved ones. We often look to our elder relatives as invincible, even as the years creep up on them, and it is all too easy to take for granted their temporary presence in our lives. 

On my return from the run and gradually over the weekend, a quiet, still sadness settled over us as a family. It was noticeably not an outpouring of shock and grievance at the time and manner of the passing as happened with my other beloved grandfather, Roy Jackson. It brought me to thinking that my Grandad would approve of this, that he would not want any 'fuss', that he would have considered himself as having a good Geoffrey Boycott-style innings - cricket lover that he was. 


My Grandad was in many ways an unremarkable man, leading an unremarkable life - at least on the surface. He was the classic working-class northern Englishman - I seem to remember he even wore a flat cap at one point, to protect his fair skin and bald head whilst out gardening tending to the tomatoes and tending to the pet rabbit Marmalade. He had worked ordinary jobs, lived in an ordinary house, drove an ordinary car and so on. But for all his ordinariness, taking time over the past two weeks to piece together and reflect on Grandad’s 91 years has brought, for me at least, many insights about life and what it means to be happy. The kind of insights you'd usually expect from reading some great figure’s biography. 

See, Joe Grant was a quiet, jovial man who spoke little of his life to his grandsons, and it was only in the last year or so that I gathered the courage to persist with getting to know a bit more of his life before I was born - with direct questions posed via a small whiteboard due to his profound deafness. My Grandad would often switch between reminiscing readily in response to my promptings, to dismissing them with a casual bemusement, "why do you want to know such things?" Often then Auntie Norah, his wife, would step in– and he’d look at her with a suspicious smile, not being able to hear but knowing she was filling in the gaps. 

I don't know if he had always been this reserved about his experiences and feelings about them, as I guess what a grandson sees in the man that becomes his grandfather, is very different to what the son saw, what the wife saw, what the father and mother saw, what his brothers and sisters saw, what his workmates saw, what his drinking pals saw, and so on. Certainly, it would seem many others had the same experience of this 'friendly man of few words'. 

What little I do know about my Grandad beyond his life as a grandfather is that he was born to a broken and patched up family living in the aftermath of World War One in Hull. It is likely he took the surname of his mother's husband, but took his first name and lineage from a businessman from Louth named Jospeh Kingswood - his mother's 'lodger' who is said to have died relatively young following a cut to his finger from a rose thorn (we can guess he caught tetanus). It seems at some point early on his mother was forced to abandon her youngest three sons, with Little Joe being placed in a Barnado's home. We could be judgemental about this but 1920s and 1930s England was a harsh place both in terms of economic circumstances and the social customs, which were not long out of Victorian times.

From there I am told he was fortunate enough, if you can call anything fortunate in this situation, to be rescued from the Barnado’s home by his elder sister after being scheduled to be shipped to Australia for a new life – he narrowly escaped becoming one of the child migrants which the Australian and British governments apologised to a few years ago due to the widespread abuse they suffered in their new homeland. As a young man, my Grandad, like many of his generation, was enlisted in the armed forces during World War Two and is said to have driven lorries across Egypt, Jordan, India and Burma. He recalled to me one day, very casually, how he had to dodge bullets whilst fixing his lorry as their convoy passed through Anzio, Italy, which I later found out was a relatively famous World War Two battle. My father recalls that he also once told a story of refusing his superior's orders to dig a trench because it meant certain death - and that he and his comrades escaped court martial because army officials recognised they had a point, it would have meant certain death. Another close call I heard just recently was the story of him struggling to get his lorry onto the army ship he was scheduled to sail on, resulting in an ear-bashing and a long wait for another, only later finding out that the original vessel he was due to travel on had been sunk by German bombers. Again, my Grandad experienced a morsel of fortune in a time of grave misfortune. 


The heroic side of Joe Grant is one I never really knew or recognised until a few years ago. To me he was just my big jolly grandfather who would come with Auntie Norah to babysit us every other weekend and give our parents a break - with faint memories of us bouncing on his belly. My Grandad, I suppose, could be described as a reluctant hero. He is said to have thrown his medals away from World War 2 stating that there was nothing to celebrate about war. He did not glorify his efforts against the Nazi Regime and their allies, but seemingly, nor did he make a show of his principles - it was just common sense. 

Having married his Elsie, and brought two sons up into the world, Joe is said to have left her, having fallen for Norah. It would be easy to be black and white in our judgements of this, more so having witnessed the bitterness that seemed to consume my Nannan Elsie until her final days. But it was before my time and knowing my Nan as well I did, I can see how they may have initially complimented one another - Elsie the passionate, perfectionist young woman, daughter of an over-bearing mother perhaps, with Joe the easy-going gentleman, son of no mother. And I can also see how they could have eventually found themselves in perpetual conflict, and all that followed. This is perhaps summed up by a second-hand story told to me just recently, of Joe and Elsie at one time attending Jehovah's Witnesses meetings together with their two children in tow - only to then suddenly stop going because Elsie argued for new clothes ahead of each big event, perhaps eager to support her husband and make a good impression with the various new faces, whilst Joe insisted it wasn't about materialism. 


But what has struck me over the past few years is how at peace my Grandad seemed to be. He seemed to harbour no ill will or worries, there was a sense of acceptance about him that I have not seen in many other people, if any. He was a man of simple tastes, he was a man who didn't indulge in luxury - he enjoyed watching sport on the telly, having a pint or so in the afternoon, and spending time with whoever was stopping by. Of course he would always insist also that visitors shared a pint or other drink with him. Interestingly it is these kind of people - the seemingly most simple unadventurous, unambitious folk - who are often the most cherished, perhaps because they radiate something the busier, striving folk don't. 

I think Grandad Joe's sense of contentment for what he'd got probably came from experiencing life as a child on the poverty line, and by the near misses he had as a young man. Grandad didn’t smoke or drink heavily, and he is even said to have had a full set of teeth – unlike most of his peers. But for all his wholesome living, it was ultimately Auntie Norah’s love and care – particularly in his final years - which helped him to keep going for as long as he did. Looking at how they were together, perhaps that's what the term 'golden' in 'golden anniverary' really points to - not the number of years the relationship has existed, but the condition of the relationship at that particular time of life. Around six months ago I remember my Grandad saying, again in his matter of fact way, that he was ready ‘to go’.


Again there was that something about him that said he had no nagging regrets and was grateful for the life he'd had. I guess he was blessed to reach such an age where you can feel like this, but I also think it was also testament to whatever it was beneath those old watery yet still sparkling eyes and that wry smile - a reflection of a strong inner substance which he didn't readily reveal too much of, but which you just knew was there. 

As I say, my Grandad was not remarkable in the way society views remarkable these days, but he was remarkable in many other ways. Much of what I have said about him today is through piecing together the little glimpses he gave me and those around him - some of it may even be legend. But one thing that comes from all of this is an indisputable fact - as my father said the day after his passing - "He was a good man." 

I feel blessed to have had Joe Grant as my Grandad, and my hope is that a little bit of him carries on into my own life. He will be missed.

18/11/2012

Uniting Churches

Today I visited Heaton Moor United Church to participate in a Christening / Baptism service for a young relative. I'm not in full agreement with this practice, but living in the free pluralistic society in which we now do, nor am I passionately against it. Ultimately I feel it is more a public celebration of the child's birth and a public committment made by the parents about how they intend to nurture their child, rather than a constraint on the child's future faith who will naturally go on to make their own choices. I guess it could also be seen as a renewal of vows between the married couple.

The church itself is a fantastic example of a modern church building, interestingly with the main hall situated on the upper floor, and the service itself was inspiring.The minister spoke about the need for Christians to observe the world around them and think carefully about how they engage with it, neither rejecting it as wholly corrupt nor becoming swept along but its trends. The minister also, quite tellingly, made a point of saying fantastic buildings were not enough, we ourselves need to be conscious vessels of the Spirit.

Interestingly enough, the church is a partnership between the United Reformed Church and Methodist Church, and sits almost bang opposite the neighbourhood Anglican church. It struck me as I watched a small flow of people leave each church, that maybe there needs to be much more collaboration as church participation decline - perhaps like what we have see with the Uniting Church of Australia.

Finally, a quick note about hymns. The hymns from the service were a mixed bag played to an organ. I am certainly not all for Jesus praise bands blasting out guitars but do think the congregation should understand the hymns, and some quite franky, are well past their use-by date in terms of the language used. This in turn results in half-hearted congregation participation, a 'head down, mumble through it' response, which undermines the very idea of worship. I have since decided, having reflected on this, to make a note of hymns of hear that do rouse the congregation, should I ever find myself in the tricky position of having to select hymns. 'I, the Lord of Sea and Sky' was sung well yesterday and within it there is a relevant theology, the 'Almighty God' of the surrounding universe is also the 'still, small voice' that speaks to us from within.


11/11/2012

Peace Sunday

What follows is a bit more rambling than usual but do try staying with me...

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a time for reflecting on those affected by violent conflict - primarily the soldiers who fought in the 20th century's total wars - The Great War and World War 2. This includes my grandfather, Joe Grant, whose body we are currently waiting to lay to rest.

It is also a time to consider the casualties of more recent 'limited' wars which continue to cause physical and mental damage to those involved. My thoughts today during the silence were particularly with the late Mark Evison, having recently watched a harrowing programme about his final days in Afghanistan, partly based on the war journal he left behind. They were also with brave Ben Parkinson who suffered grave brain injuries soldiering in Afghanistan - a stark reminder that the struggles of survivors with the scars of war are more than the physical, as terrible as these are.

As well as a way of sharing our grief and publicly honouring the fallen, the day also has a focus on prayers for a world of peace.

But is a peaceful world really possible? What do we really mean by a world of peace?

Ahead of today, during the week a colleague, providing an opening reflection to our staff meeting, spoke about Martin of Tours - regarded as a saint by the Catholic church and celebrated with a feast day on November the 11th - who, according to legend, rejected life as a Roman Empire soldier to become a Christian monk and missionary. The colleague looked to the weekend before, which featured Bonfire Night events, and the events of the coming weekend, reflecting that the week was about putting conflicts behind us and moving towards reconcilliation.

This resulted in me going away and taking some time to read up on Martin of Tours.

From my own background and perspective, it was interesting to note that the words 'chapel' and 'chaplain' derives from one of the various stories of Martin of Tours, in which he said to have given part of his cape to a beggar. The beggar, according to the legend, was Jesus Christ in disguise and this simple act of giving led to a spiritual awakening and renewed sense of purpose, including a rejection of violence as a way of action.

The piece of cape is said to have become a relic treasured by Frankish kings, carried with them into battle and housed in a tent known as the 'capella', with the clergymen who led services in it being called 'capellani'. This eventually became 'chapel' and 'chaplain' in the English language. Although Martin of Tours is said to have led fierce campaigns of proselytisation against Pagans and Arian Christians (forerunners to the Unitarian church and the Jehovah's Witnesses), it is perhaps significant that in Britain the word 'chapel' gradually came to regularly designate a dissenting places of worship as violent sectarianism subsided. The dotting of chapels across our landscape signified Britain's faith communities had finally agreed to peacefully disagree (in England, Wales and most of Scotland at least). In this, it is also worth highlighting that similarly Martin of Tours rejected violence, but nevertheless continued to engage in a form of conflict over ideas and practice.

Another point to note is Martin of Tours is known as 'The Bridge of Europe', due to the fact he is held in high regard by Christians of Eastern Europe primarily in his homeland of Hungary, and by Christians of Western Europe primarily in France where he is viewed as intimately connected to their development and struggle as a nation. It is of course not without deliberate significance that Remembrance Day falls on his feast day. For all the crises facing Europe in the 21st century, we can be thankful that our continent no longer resorts to violence as a way of resolving political conflict and that a greater sense of togetherness - no matter how begrudging and befuddled - has grown amongst us.

There are various threads of meaning we can pull from the story of Martin of Tours - and perhaps my encounter this week, as I find myself increasingly drawn into the Quaker traditions, was a reminder of the value of remaining open to other traditions, to other voices.

As it happened, I didn't make it to Quaker meeting this morning, instead spending some time at the local war memorial in communion with others as the local Anglican church led a service for the community - including the two minutes silence at 11.11am.

There may well be some Quakers, and other radical Christians, who view Remembrance Sunday as a glorification of war and possibly even something to discreetly boycott. For me, it was a short, simple service which allowed enough space for a diversity of views from the defenders of 'just war' theory to those opposed to any form of war to feel included. There was a greater Spirit and Truth brought to work than notional arguments, as important as they may be.

From there I returned home, and found myself stumbling upon the site Experiment with Light (a site I intend to spend a great deal of time on over the coming weeks) stopping at a document by Rex Ambler. In the first page of the document, there is a call to use periods of silent prayer to examine our lives, to allow for the 'ripping up' of those things that lead to troubles, and that this is a way that eventually leads to peace.

This brought to mind the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the temple (Matthew 21:12).


And from there, it got me reflecting further on the idea that some forms of conflict are not necessarily evil or destructive; conflict within ourselves and conflicts with others are often necessary.

Rather, it is the method in which conflict is pursued, in thought & deed. Our hopes and prayers for peace should perhaps not be for a world without any conflict, but a world without destructive and hateful conflict.

This past week I have felt tensions and opposition building in me, and have felt anxious about how to approach the points of conflict in my life  - how to express my views, how to challenge others, how to respond to their views and challenges - in a way that leads to something better.

Today was a timely reminder that the work towards peace is a personal, private project as well as a communal, public one - and that neither are easy roads to travel.

We perhaps all need to regularly take time to reflect on these things, and more than once per year.

05/11/2012

Rest in Peace, Joe Grant


My Grandad passed away on Saturday. He was 91 years old. Today I shared a poem on AllPoetry.com about the last time I saw him. This follows a poem written over 6 months ago after an afternoon spent talking with him. He will be missed.

"Although death appears a dark hopeless passage, it leads back to the eternal spirit. Therefore death should be viewed not with despair. 
It is a turning over of a soul from our worldly time to the infinite. And this is our comfort, the grave cannot and does not hold them."  -- adapted from William Penn

28/10/2012

Amongst The Dust

I struggled to get to Quaker meeting this morning. Apart from the driving rain and bitterly cold wind, and the prospect of cycling 4 miles in it (my lovely wife had taken the car to visit friends), I think my monkeymind was trying desperately trying to keep control. I had a strong impulse to sit at my laptop and continue working, despite having spent the past 5 official days of 'holiday leave' working at it.

As it happens, I am a big believer in some kind of synchronicity and it was not lost on me that shortly before bed last night, the following quote from Quaker Faith & Practice appeared on my Twitter feed:
"28. Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness."
With this playing on my mind, I threw on my rainproof jacket and navigated the hostile roads to the Meeting House.

The meeting itself was one in which nobody gave ministry, one hour of pure silence. I spent the initial 10 to 20 minutes resisting stillness, and on picking up Quaker Faith & Practice to search for the above quote, found myself pouring over the section on social responsibility. The irony, if you could label it as such, was that I had come to the book looking for affirmation that life had become too busy, and was seemingly being told to get busier.

Having settled down, the minutes then passed slowly but nourishingly so. 

Towards the end I felt moved to speak but decided to hold back, partly out of nerves, and partly out of reverence for the silence. It somehow felt necessary to let the hour pass uninterrupted. 

Had I given ministry, I would have spoken about how the meeting felt like it had given me chance to let the dust settle around me, dust that I feel was coming close to choking me. By dust I mean the combination of anxious thoughts and nervous energy, which when acted upon, tend to get stronger and stronger until exhaustion and despair temporarily breaks them (and you, and those around you). 

I would have spoken about the need to not simply withdraw from our responsibilities, that the pursuit of our calling, our deepest dreams, cannot be ignored - but nor should we become a slave to our sense of responsibility, and more accurately, to a misplaced sense of responsibility rooted in fear of personal failure and a desire for individual success, as defined by others. Also, our priorities - which responsibilities are to take precedence - surely change over the years and we must somehow stay tuned into this.

The idea of proactively relinquishing responsibilities, of letting go as a positive decision, would have also surely surfaced in my words, as it had in my conscience. I have felt a great burden of responsibility in my working life and family life these past few weeks, a responsibility in particular for others - with the longer roots of this surely going back years. I often find myself taking on responsibility that should be left to others to undertake, even if that responsibility is then left unfulfilled, even if the much-fretted about 'failure' occurs. During the meeting, the story of Jesus rebuking his sleeping disciples (Matthew 26:40) touched my conscience - maybe Jesus was also prone to a bit of control freakery and rigid expectations of others, maybe he struggled with similar issues?

I guess that's the beauty of the Quaker story of Jesus (the Unitarian story of Jesus also) - he is fundamentally human as well as sacred, he is relevant to our condition, he is somehow more reachable as a conflicted, though nonetheless iconic, figure.

To finish, my thoughts turned to the need to not just trust in others, but trust in God, and I would have given voice to this. To be clear, I am not a classical theist believing in the old puppet master sat amongst the clouds - but I do believe in a greater overarching consciousness, a governing power that grounds our being, seeping into every part of existence - neither personal or impersonal in nature, transpersonal perhaps. We need to be patient and discerning, allowing Divine Will to emerge out of the dust, rather than turning our already frantic minds to solving where our lives should be going and creating even more dust in the process. We need to trust that things will be OK, one way or another, and things may in fact be that little bit more OK if we just stop trying so much.

This is where I'm at right now. And speaking to a fellow attender afterwards, it turned out she was in a similar place. Such is the way Quaker meetings seem to occur.

If you feel anything of the same, then I implore you to try something similar this week;

imagine yourself as a hod carrier,

and rather than loading even more bricks on,
                                                   take some off,

stop and stand still every now and then, take in your surroundings,

dust yourself off,
                      let the breeze carry it away,

trust the house will still get built in the longrun,

and with less hurry, it might be built on stronger foundations,
                                                                      and be that little bit comfier inside.

22/10/2012

Attending

I've not blogged for a while mainly because I have been so busy with the day job, which as a teacher, inadvertently becomes the 'life job' in that it can come to consume every waking hour. I think this is something that the naysayers about teachers and their working conditions simply don't understand.

Things have also changed spiritually speaking. I have pretty much given up on my local Unitarian church, as thought-provoking as the minister's sermons are and as special as our wedding service was. I've also drifted away from the local Baptist church, although I do still feel called to go back there at some point - mainly because they were so warm and welcoming. Instead I've found myself attending the local Quaker meeting pretty much every Sunday. In doing so, I think I've moved from 'enquirer' to 'attender' status. I call it a change but I think it was something I'd felt deep down for a while, ever since I stepped foot into Sheffield Quakers a year or so ago to be suddenly hit by a wave of 'unspeakable something', ever since I read the biography of George Fox and the writings of Rufus Jones, and ever since I read John 15:15 through Quaker eyes.

I am not at the stage to declare myself a Quaker. I still miss communion (no-frills Baptist style), I still miss hymns (when done properly - and classically) but the silence is calling me right now - I think partly because of the hectic weeks I'm going through. The silence is my sabbath. I have been to modern, guitar-centred churches and find them simply too noisy - I need a space to reflect and reconnect - a space not just for rumination or for some rigourous attempt to negate the self, rather a sanctuary for focused, prompted, affirming contemplation.

But attending the Quakers is not simply a passive process - it's not 'chillaxing' as my students would say. The process of giving ministry can prove to be deeply inspirational, both challenging and affirming. 

A few weeks ago a Friend stood up, recalling her journey to the National Memorial Arboretum and an unexpected encounter with 5000 bikers also making a pilgrimage that day. She spoke movingly about the idea of God in everyone, and everything, and how she was challenged to recognise this through this visit. 

It made me reflect deeply on the Hebrew names of God. On becoming a Unitarian Christian I used to think El-Echad, 'The One God', was the 'correct and proper' name for God, conveniently ignoring the fact it appears rarely in scripture aside from the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith. Now I find more power in the names Immanuel, 'God With Us', and Elohim, which can be translated something like 'We Are God' (this has historically created some controversy in that it seems to mean both unity and plurality). I am not fluent in Hebrew or a Biblical scholar, but the idea of Elohim - the God of Many Voices - is something I have rolled over and over in my mind for the past few weeks since the Friend gave her ministry.

Yesterday's meeting also proved significant with reflections given on 'What it means to be a Quaker?', triggered by a badge that is currently being given out amongst Friends which has written on it, "I'm a Quaker, ask me why." The reflections looked at the need for somewhere to meditate, a sanctuary, a community in which we seek meaning both individually and with other people, particularly during tougher times. This got me recalling the 'Life Shape' triangle from the book 'The Passionate Life' by Mike Breen.


It seems to me this offers a pattern and process with which we can re-model our busy lives on, whether we are religious or not. I think it also offers an answer (though I hasten to add, not the answer) to the 40 Days of Prayer for the Future of Friends initiative from Friends United Meeting in the United States.

25/09/2012

Manchester Musings

Tonight, journeying through the pouring rain on a train from Bolton into Manchester, I felt moved to write a poem, 'New Mamucium'. 

The central Manchester landscape is a wonderful, eerie place - particularly on a wet, misty day - with its mix of red-brick leftovers from the industrial age and glassy, slightly-experimental developments from the information age.

23/09/2012

Universal Priesthood

This morning I visited a local Quaker meeting, in Cheadle Hulme, and was warmly welcomed there. I explained I felt like I was responding to their 'invite', as they had very recently sent me a calendar of events in a re-used envelope. I had a strong urge to read Romans 12:2 during the meeting, but didn't find the courage to pick the Bible up from the central table. During tea & coffee afterwards, a Quaker elder approached me to say I was more than welcome to 'give ministry', "be it first time, fiftieth time or endth time." There's something quite radical in this, when you think about it, as in most churches you will have needed years of training or to at least be in with the church hierarchy / dominant clique to be permitted, and encouraged, to take to the pulpit.

Hometown Blues

Yesterday I journeyed back to Sheffield, to cheer on my football team, and found myself going for a wander around one of the city's industrial valleys after the match - not far from where I grew up.

During the walk I wrote a poem, 'Local Boy Done Gone', to give voice to the mixed feelings I have regarding 'home'. I typed it out on my mobile phone, putting it in a text message and sending it myself to save it. I'd like to think that's what Walt Whitman would have done - not that my efforts are as noteworthy, I hasten to add.