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.

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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.


Joining the White Feather Brigade

'Canada's Golgotha', based on the World War One legend of 'The Crucified Soldier'.

It’s been a noteworthy week or so. One that could be described as ‘vision forming’, to use a phrase that might draw a few groans due its propensity to be used by the visionless! (This may well include me, though of course I wouldn’t know.)

I visited Oldham Unitarian Chapel not last Sunday but the Sunday previous, to take part in the service there and to see the work being carried out on the One World Café. The chapel doesn’t appear much from the outside, a flat-roofed sixties or seventies building surrounded by a ‘moat’ of a car park. Yet it proved to be a hugely encouraging experience to witness a Unitarian and Free Christian congregation working at the very heart of a post-industrial town long neglected by central government, bringing together a broad mix of people towards a vision of a better future.

The One World Café will eventually reach out to the local community, local charities and – quite importantly in terms of the future of the chapel, which exists within a denomination currently suffering a terminal decline – the opportunity to reach out to the next generation attending the sixth form college next door, some of whom may even become active Unitarians and Free Christians.

The week that followed was marked particularly by the build-up to Remembrance Sunday with the prevalence of poppies being a pressing reminder. In many ways, Remembrance Sunday is one of the few times when British people genuinely take part in an act of worship. As a student of modern history, I have given particular attention over the years to reading the testimonies of soldiers, pilots and civilians caught up in World War One and World War Two. In turn, I found myself – even during years where my faith had waned – making an effort to attend remembrance services.

Last year, having started attending a Quaker meeting on a regular basis by this point, I broke off from attending meeting for worship to gather with others around our local war memorial. I still felt a draw and duty to take part, even if my thoughts around the most recent military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were starting to become far more critical. This position – shifting from tacit support to conflicted passivity to active opposition - can be traced back to the BBC One documentary ‘The Fallen’ from 2009, covering the grief of fallen soldiers' families. Watching the documentary, I found myself particularly struck by the story of Aaron Lincoln – who joined The Rifles to escape limited employment prospects – and the continued suffering of the family he left behind after being killed by a sniper in April 2007. At 16 years of age, facing an unknown future and limited employment opportunities, I considered joining the Army, getting myself signed up as far as the fitness tests before pulling out. The fate of Aaron Lincoln could have been mine.

The more recent documentary - 'The Lost Platoon - from the BBC Three ‘Our War’ series which covered the last moments of Mark Evison who bled to death from injuries sustained fighting in Afghanistan also had a huge impact. Not long after leaving university I again looked to join the armed forces – this time as an officer – with a view to putting my education to good use, to making a difference. The fate of Mark Evison could have been mine.

I highly recommend both documentaries, although I would add a pre-warning that the grim realities these films depict will leave the viewer shaken to the core.

In Quaker folklore there is a story of William Penn in conversation with the prophet-like George Fox. William Penn, a powerful Englishman and early convert to the Quaker faith, was struggling with his conscience over the carrying of his sword. On seeking the advice of George Fox, he is said to have been met with the response, “Wear it as long as thou canst…”

It seems to me that there is a common perception from the perspective of the outsider that the pacifist holds a solid, unshakeable objection to all forms of violence, all forms of war. Whilst the outsider might view it as a principled stance, they may also look at the pacifist as naive – as having made a snap judgement that does not stand to the realities of history, the realities of the modern world.

Admittedly, this was my view as an outsider. However, I now find myself viewing things as someone who increasingly feels like an insider. Pacifism, for me at least, is a growing commitment to working things out differently - step by step, inch by inch - rather than a simple, fixed position.

I read Harry Leslie Smith’s piece 'This year, I will wear the poppy for the last time’ published this Saturday just gone in The Guardian and felt a great relief as someone – with much more life experience and credibility than myself, as a former RAF veteran of World War Two – expressed their concern over what the poppy has come to represent in 2013 and what it will come to mean even more so in 2014, the centenary of World War One.

“Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector. We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.

I can tell you it didn't happen that way because I was born nine years after the first world war began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain's population in 1913.

This is why I find that the government's intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.”

It appears to me that increasingly we live in a culture that refuses to honestly question the worth of the fate of so many young people who for various reasons – through genuine calling to serve their country, through a thirst for adventure, through a wish to escape their social-economic background – join the military and have their lives either drastically altered due to injury or their lives ended by the flash of a bullet or explosive device. The Sun recently published a piece by Katie Hopkins known for her ‘straight-talking’ - if you can call someone who deliberately seeks publicity and profit from voicing contentious views as ‘straight-talking’ – which denounced conscientious objects, including those who served in previous wars as medics and firefighters and miners, as cowards. Although an extreme opinion in some ways, it is not far from what is regarded as the ‘middle ground’ in this country which tends to view all those who have fallen as having fulfilled their God-given purpose - with an undercurrent that those who have actively opposed war are somehow avoidant, somehow disloyal.

With the approach of World War One, I have felt the pressure literally building inside of me. And just as William Penn eventually found, I have worn my red poppy – my support for war - for as long as I could.

It is not an easy decision, it does not offer easy answers. I admit I still cannot answer the easily-put question to pacifists, “So how would Adolph Hitler have been defeated without military force?” However, we can – albeit with the benefit of hindsight – note that had the Treaty of Versailles not been so suffocating of Germany's post-war recovery, the rise of extremism in the following decades may have been prevented. Indeed, we can point to a cycle of repeated violence across the 20th century which finds root in the so-called Great War. A cycle that continues until the present day and needs to be broken in some way.

In adopting a pacifist stance, nor does it mean I ignore or dismiss the huge sacrifices made by men and women serving as military personnel. I think my perspective on their loss has subtly changed. I mourn not their defeat in the name of great causes but rather, mourn them as victims – as victims of the successive failures in leadership by our governing elites, as persons each with a potential for greatness that could have stretched beyond their name being carved on a plaque somewhere.

This sympathy also extends – without attempting justification or excuse – to those who, having being trained intensively to seek and destroy, experience hellish tour upon hellish tour of doing just that and eventually overstep the boundary between what is seen as a ’just war’ and what is seen as a ‘war crime’. I found some agreement with Kevin Godlington’s piece ‘The Royal Marine Murderer’, published by the Huffington Post, which ends with John 8:7, “Those who are without sin, cast the first stone.” It seems to me the sins of that camera footage shown to a restricted-access military tribunal last week stain many more than the man known only as Marine A. And those sins arguably go beyond the military hierarchy and policymakers, reaching across our entire culture – from Hollywood, to HBO box sets to the latest Grand Theft Auto computer game. What is more, who can be sure that the fate of Marine A, the terrible deed he committed, could not have been ours had we been in the same situation? 

I write this as a human being concerned for my kind. But, I guess, I also write this from a particular frame of mind and state of heart – one informed by the Christian faith. The Christian world clearly continues to be divided on the issue of war, which is why we have army chaplains sharing the same faith as CND members. However, I find the arguments of the peace church movement – of which the Quakers are a founding member and of which a significant number of Unitarians & Free Christians find affinity with – to be persuasive. Put simply, their argument is that there is no Christian basis for pursuing change through violence - alternatives to war must be sought, and sought, and sought.

This does not mean the Christian faith is ultimately one that is so adverse to conflict it is rendered impotent in the face of injustice. After all, according to Matthew 10:34, Jesus did warn his followers his Way may cause dispute and division, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And there is a fairly credible argument that Jesus may himself have been part of the militant Jewish insurgent group known as the Zealots before beginning the last stage of his life. Yet Jesus also spoke of forgiveness and reconcilliation, resisting the urge to meet violence with violence and praying for – which for the non-religious can be rephrased as attempting to emphasise with and understand through reflection – those deemed to be enemies.

I drove to the Quaker meeting on Sunday morning just gone, resolved in my decision not to attend a remembrance service this year. I had decided to go sit in the stillness and reflect quietly with my pacifist Friends on those lost. As it happened, en route I found the road blocked arbitrarily by a car and a crowd gathered around a small war memorial. Any other day I may have expressed irritation - daily life navigating the overcrowded roads of Manchester has this effect. Instead I looked on with a level of recognition and respect – a sense that for many this is the still the right thing to do, yet no longer for me – before turning around and journeying back home.


Seeking Jesus in Mansfield

On Saturday I made the journey over the Pennines from Stockport to Mansfield for the Unitarian Christian Association’s Autumn Gathering. I have had a connection with the UCA for nearly a decade although my involvement has for the most part been that of a silent member, picking up the latest edition of The Herald and keeping in touch with one or two members online from time to time.

Prior to setting off, I recalled to a friend how the last time I had visited Mansfield was to run a half-marathon, during an early summer when temperatures were hitting 32° celsius. The lasting memory from that day was how eight miles in, believing I was approaching the mental and physical breakthrough of nine miles and being over two thirds of the way to the finish, I somehow hit another eight mile marker and immediately slowed to a walk, head down dejected. It was the sheer heat, I had become dehydrated and confused. I completed the route that day with a time of just over two hours dragging myself across the line with a fellow runner who – on seeing my plight - had put his arm around me at eight miles and got me running again. We had ran the last third together, helping one another overcome points of difficulty and doubt along the way. Retelling this to my friend, I rounded the story off with, “…and I was sick for three days after that, and swore never to go back to Mansfield again!” 

It’s funny, no matter how strongly we say ‘never again’, it tends to somehow often mean ‘probably again’. Maybe that’s simply human nature or maybe that’s an indication of living under a God of surprises, a God of return. Either way, I couldn’t help smile at one of the first sights as I entered Mansfield – the very field in which I lay in agony after the trials of the previous visit!

The Unitarian Christian Association’s theme for the day drew on the ‘Embracing an Adult Faith’ course by Progressive Christian scholar and popular author Marcus Borg, with a further focus on how we – as Unitarians, as Free Christians – understand the place of Jesus in our lives. The challenge put to us, during the Taize-infused service, was to answer Jesus’s reported question to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” which I tend to read in a more demanding tone, as “WHO do YOU say I am?” It is, of course, a difficult question that has challenged - and enriched - Christians from Paul of Tarsus to the present day.

It is a question, if we are to be frank, which has in recent years – as British society has become more of a marketplace of religions whilst simultaneously more demanding of hard evidence – resulted in some Unitarians replying to with ‘pass’ and from there, proclaiming themselves to be ‘Post-Christian’ and so on.

During the discussion session which followed worship, it was interesting to sit and simply listen as fellow UCA members attempted to explain why and how they related to Jesus, not in intellectualised, overly-elaborate language but in simple, everyday terms. The general feeling was that for many of us, the ‘Pre-Easter Jesus’ – the guru Jesus of the Parables, of the Sermon on the Mount, of the Great Commandment, of the Healing and the Footwashing as portrayed in the New Testament alongside the revolutionary Jesus of Ancient Judea under the Roman Empire as portrayed by ‘Historical Jesus’ scholars – was perhaps easier to set our hearts upon and articulate for than the ‘Post-Easter Jesus’. By ‘Post-Easter Jesus’, we mean the belief many Christians hold to – and sometimes vividly experience - of Jesus as an immanent deity, literally walking beside them.

As I took part in conversation, what struck me was the healthy eclecticism at the heart of the Unitarian Christian Association, the depth and breadth of Christian understanding it can draw upon. Sat to my left was a lady who could trace her Unitarian ancestry back over 350 years, sat opposite was another lady who had left her childhood Catholicism to become a Unitarian during university whilst to the right side of me sat a long-serving Unitarian minister who had eventually come to serve the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. And there was I, an Anglican and Methodist by child, now in my thirties and something of a Quaker-Unitarian hybrid.

There was no conclusion to the discussions. The conversations finished distinctly unfinished. No epiphany or eureka moment. No ‘great, let’s bottle this up and sell it’ answer. Jesus remains too complicated, too messy, too paradoxical, too faded around the edges for that. Yet there was a real sense from the gathering, huddled together in this ancient chapel encircled by well-ordered traffic lanes prescribing one route or another, car parks with clearly-defined spaces and shopping centres offering an array of get-now-feel-goods, that this continued ambiguity does not render the great archetype of Western society irrelevant and worthless.

As I drove back through the Hope Valley and up into the peaks, with the radio deliberately switched off to allow for a period of silent reflection, my thoughts turned to the famous Quaker picture ‘The Presence in the Midst’. The question I always have with this piece of art is whether the Quakers within it are portrayed as meditating on Jesus’s teaching and example or somehow being subject to Jesus’s ethereal presence in the room?

The picture offers no easy reading but it does, I think, signpost to why Jesus continues to have a hold on us, even when we feel confused and doubtful – and perhaps even ready to say something along the lines of ‘I give up’ and ‘never again’. The idea behind the practice of stillness amongst Quakers is to allow for the Holy Spirit to descend, for God to be realised – but this is quite an abstract concept and process to get your mind around. However, as Marcus Borg says, by centering our focus on Jesus, we often find he acts as a mirror reflecting our deepest dreams - our divine potential - as human beings, and a glimpse into the wider, holier realm of that we call God. With our ever-changing lives, set within ever-changing times, what we come to see may well also change in terms of those things that emerge to fore and those things that fall into the background - but the figure of Jesus remains a gateway to Spirit and Truth; the figure of Jesus continues to provide a Light during periods of darkness, the figure of Jesus continues to map a Way forward for the lost, the figure of Jesus endures as a Friend on the long, winding road of life. 

We may not be able to fully say who he was or is - but we can speak fully of what he offers.


The Weeping Church

This post is a hopefully a set of fairly simple reflections on the past fortnight, one in which I have attended a Unitarian chapel and listened to a honest, thought-provoking sermon about the situation for Christians today in Western society and one in which I have attended a Quaker meeting where two fellow worshippers were openly suffering, having received grave medical news about their respective loved ones.

The Unitarian sermon from two Sundays ago drew upon the experiences of pilgrims, modern and of old. Through the experience of being cast out into an alien, often-hostile land, it was observed how pilgrims commonly found themselves spiritually reignited. It was also a sermon that acknowledged, in front of a fairly packed chapel of churchgoers as it happens, that 'ours is a minority pursuit' - drawing upon the imagery of Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept..." It was interesting to learn from the sermon that it was in fact during the exile of Jewish peoples from their homeland between 587 to 538 BCE that the Torah, the Biblical scripture we Christians call the Old Testament, was refined and shaped into the version held dear today.

Following my visit to Dean Row Chapel, this most recent Sunday I returned to the Quaker meeting I attend regularly. I had already received word of one Friend's sad news that their beloved grandchild was critically ill. As they entered and sat, I already seated with eyes half-closed, I became aware of their distressed breathing and tears. The rest of the meeting remain poised whilst another Friend discreetly went to sit near her - I am sure it was something we all too felt inclined to do. Often over the past year meeting for worship has come to focus on the 'big issues' of government, society, theology - as reading back through the archives of this blog will perhaps attest to - but this meeting for worship became centred simply on the suffering of our Friend as we each put aside our other concerns to keep her in our thoughts and prayers - to use a traditional Quaker phrase, 'hold her up in the Light'. There was just one act of spoken ministry which saw another Friend reaffirm the meeting's duty to care for one another, and for the surrounding period there was a stillness - but noticeably not one easily wrought, one in which you could sense the whole meeting struggling to settle itself. It struck me that this is much like the process of a healing wound, as each side of torn skin strives to reach the other, in a battle to reknit itself together.

At the end of the hour there was a moment of group conversation, in which another Friend shared the sad news of their husband's degenerative illness. I was struck by the observations made by one Friend that the New Testament is to an extent problematic with regards to how we understand suffering and healing - noting a literal reading can lead to diseases and disorders being viewed as rooted in our own faults or sin, as something we can definitely heal if we only follow a Godly course of belief and action.  It's difficult to hear so bluntly about how the Bible can be potentially so damaging, even as someone who takes a liberalised, contextualist view of the Bible - yet it is something we must hear and pay heed to. The Friend went further, however, to note that Christian communities have always had a very real sense of some healing taking place amongst their members, and we can continue to gather in aid of this.

To finish this reflection, I have decided to share a 'vision statement' I have recently written as part of an ongoing, private though not confidential, conversation I have been involved in regarding the future of Unitarian & Free Christian congregations. I thought I had it down to a tee until these insights of the past two weeks. I have now added what I think is a crucial aspect in terms of envisioning a church that can survive and thrive in these times. The added statement is identified in bold.
"The Church we see is not a Church of bricks and wood and glass. The Church we see is not a Church of doctrine, hierarchy and ritual.

The Church we see is simply a gathering of people, from a variety of backgrounds, finding unity and common purpose in the Spirit.

The Church we see is a Church centred through practice. A Church which learns together, confesses together, rejoices together, sings together, weeps together, heals together, prays together, breaks bread together.

A Church whose God is too big to place into the words of a creed, yet not too far to grasp.

The Church we see is a Church built on our hopes and dreams, and those that came before us. A Church which encourages our individual strengths to spring forth whilst providing support for our weaknesses. A Church that provides a space for each one of us to step back for a moment before we step further forth. A Church that recognizes the unique spark at work within each human being yet invites us into something greater than myself, yourself, herself, himself.

The Church we see is a Church contributing to the local community, serving wider society, reaching out to the world beyond.

A Church following the example of Jesus of Nazareth, loving its neighbour as it loves itself.

A Church set on fire with the call to help bring about a new era of justice and peace. A Church drawing people from seemingly impossible situations into a life of faith and freedom. A Church raising up new generations of disciples, shaped to act as both leaders and servants – and as friends. 

One day, this Church we see could be our Church."


One year with the Quakers

I continue to not have enough time to write anything substantial for this blog - it is regrettable but I also think this is part of the natural pattern of life, the ebbs and flows of creative periods and contemplative periods. At the moment I am on a steep learning curve work-wise and I am busy 'going and doing, and simply being' - but there will come a point where the experiences I am having now can be reflected on fully and written about.

However, I have made a point of pausing now - before the memory fades and the thought passes - to note that last Sunday marked a year, there or thereabouts, since I started attending a Quaker meeting on a regular basis.

As it happens, last Sunday (what traditional Quakers would call 'First Day' having eschewed the Julian calendar due to its connections with old times Roman religion and empire) was also 'bring a friend to Quakers day'. I duly participated by bringing along my best friend - my wife! - and the meeting that ensued was not one of complete meditative silence, as had been the case when she last attended, but one flowing with ministry. The ministry focused on what it meant to various members to be part of a Quaker fellowship, as a distinct school of Christianity, as a gathering of people who sensed there was something more to life and were working it out together, through both words and deeds.

I too felt called to speak, recalling the first time I had entered a Quaker meeting in Sheffield and what I could only describe as a 'wave' hitting me as I walked through the door - like the wave of energy one might encounter were a bomb to be exploded in the centre of a room, yet clearly without the sound or the destruction. I recalled that it was at this point I realised that 'something was going on' in Quaker meetings and wanted to find out more - no meeting since has had this in-your-face experience, but certainly this sense of something powerful has continued.

I explained my journey to the Quakers was on the back of a decade of questioning mainstream Christian doctrine. During this decade I explained how I had attended Unitarian & Free Christian churches on an on-off basis, emphasising it is a denomination I continue to hold very dear, one that has matured my outlook and provided a point of stability - a lighthouse amongst choppy waters - when my faith was in turmoil. As it happens, my wife and I visited Dean Row Chapel this morning, a beautiful and distinct Unitarian house of worship in Wilmslow, to meet fellow members of the Unitarian Christian Association - it was admittedly a starkly different experience to where I usually spend my Sundays these days, but nonetheless enriching.

I went on to note that the big questions that had triggered my doubts over whether I could continue to be a Christian - questions around doctrine such as the Trinity, around who and what God is, what God's role in the world is, how historically accurate / literally true the stories around Jesus were and so on - all continue to remain unanswered.

But, through the process of joining a Quaker community, the questions about what it means to be a Christian had in fact changed. I found the stillness of each Sunday to be one where I reflected on my relationships, on my successes and sins, a space to look beyond matters of the self and hold others in focus, a place to contemplate the path ahead - informed by the wisdom of those around me, by the Bible and by the Quaker voices of years gone by.

From there I read aloud the following excerpt from Quaker Faith & Practice, which I felt summed up this change which a year of Quaker practice has wrought:

"Do not look for such great matters to begin with; but be content to be a child, and let the Father proportion out daily to thee what light, what power, what exercises, what straits, what fears, what troubles he sees fit for thee; and do thou bow before him continually in humility of heart... Thou must join in with the beginnings of life, and be exercised with the day of small things, before thou meet with the great things, wherein is the clearness and satisfaction of the soul. The rest is at noonday; but the travels begin at the breakings of day, wherein are but glimmerings or little light, wherein the discovery of good and evil are not so manifest and certain; yet there must the traveller begin and travel; and in his faithful travels ... the light will break in upon him more and more." (19.43)


Constructive death?

It's proving hard to write entries for this blog at the moment with my mind focused almost totally on the new post. I am having to create a lot of learning programmes from scratch and deliver them within a short timeframe - it is proving to be an exciting but demanding period.

This week I have been asked to create a 10 to 15 minute presentation for International Day of Peace, aimed at a bunch of adolescents nearing adulthood. I am using the photograph 'General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon' as a focus for a discussion which will lead on to conflict resolution within our own lives - based on the teaching of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, 'peace begins with you'.

In search for various bits and pieces around these two themes, I happened across the following letter from Thich Nhat Hanh to Martin Luther King Jr. I find it particularly thought-provoking when reflecting on the seemingly passive acceptance, active willingness even, shown by Jesus in the face of a brutal death - one which we might reasonably argue he could have himself prevented had he changed course. The letter goes as follows:
"The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The Press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one, or more, small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one's heart and mind, and carry much greater weight. 
The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, say with all his strengh [sic] and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one's life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one's people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: - lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties - defeat by life and loss of all hope desire for non-existence (abhava)

This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire non-existence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives — as told in a story of Jataka — who gave himself to a hungry lion which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama... is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself. In our unfortunate father land we are trying to yield desperately: do not kill man, even in man's name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.

Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world's greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself can not remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth's expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war — and you know that war is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien was about to sacrifice herself in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is the war for, then? And whose is the war?

Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: "Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance." In writing to you, as a Buddhist, I profess my faith in Love, in Communion and in the World's Humanists whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.

June 1, 1965 NHAT HANH"


Trust the Road

Having started a new post in an unfamiliar environment this week, I have admittedly been prone to moments of doubt, some rational and some due to being thrown out of my comfort zone. On hectically searching through a multitude of bits and pieces in my spare room for some materials I felt would practically help me in the new post, I happened on a book given to me during the first few days of my previous role - 'Trust the Road' by David O'Malley, a Catholic Salesian priest. It was a book I had often looked at and thought 'I should read that' but had never gotten round to giving it due time and attention. Anyway, this time I stopped, paused my thoughts and turned open the first few pages to read the introduction:

"The road of life unfolds each day in familiar patterns, new challenges and opportunities. Sometimes the pattern works out beautifully, at other times it makes as much sense as a game of snakes and ladders. Plans, relationships, work and choices all combine to make each life a unique journey. For Christians the challenge is to trust the road however it twists and turns. 

 Christians believe that, in the ordinary moments of each life, God is walking alongside each person. The goodness of God is locked into every life, and the gifts each person needs for their journey are already within them or available along the road ahead. The road takes each of us through time, but it is also eternal. The road takes us outwards, into a challenging world, but also leads us inwards, into who we really are. The road will take us out of ourselves, but deeper into relationship with others and the whole of creation."

It is in these unexpected moments when we hear the still, small voice at its loudest.


The Practice of Trust

I recently read comments from a Unitarian, posted on a messageboard, that they found a Quaker meeting they had attended to be often dominated by people who simply liked to be heard and at times, due to small numbers of the faithful, somewhat empty. I don't doubt this tendency occurs in some Quaker meetings and it is admittedly just one person speaking on a messageboard, but I did feel a little saddened at the way the Quakers were being characterised by a Unitarian, especially given their close ties and shared understanding. I do think this penchant for an approach to religion overly-centred on critical and comparative analysis is a problem for today's Unitarians (and Progressive Christians also, as it happens), keeping in mind I consider myself to be Unitarian in part and therefore sharing some of the responsibility.

Within the Quaker meeting I attend I have found a less intellectualised approach to liberal religion, a more fulfilling and 'growthful' practice, and yesterday was an example of this. And it is something I have previously witnessed at Unitarian chapels, those of a 'simply Christian' variety I attended before finding fellowship with the Quakers.

It's funny (not in a 'ha ha' way I hope!), but yesterday I realised, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I in fact have a need for meditation - and a need for prayer.

I have spent the past four weeks away from the Quaker meeting house I attend, and during that time, have certainly felt my sense of perspective and sense of being rooted dip. There are of course very real reasons for this dip based around exiting a highly stressful job and trying to prepare to walk into the relative unknown of a new job. So in that sense it is not the lack of meditation and prayer that is causing the dip - it's not a case of God, somewhere on a cloud, taking umbrage at being ignored and prodding me.

Rather, I have come to realise meditation and prayer acts as a preventative and protective measure. And whilst meditation appears to be an accepted 'in word' these days, I do deliberately recognise prayer as an equal - if not greater - component to this practice. For me, I find meditation is the opening gambit, and from there the more important process of prayer follows.

But, of course, that leads to the question,

"Well, what do you mean by prayer?"

And again, I am sure for many the image conjured up is of someone kneeling with hands clasped and head bowed believing they are talking to an imagined old man up in the sky, listing their various wants and whims that need answering, ideally within the next 7 days so they don't have to have an awkward conversation the next Sunday about why it hasn't been done yet!

Although I cannot give a comprehensive, convincing definition of prayer and its power, yesterday's Meeting for Worship provides an insight.

We sat in silence yesterday for around 40 minutes and I personally found myself alternating between periods of rumination and periods of settled, focused contemplation.

During the ruminative periods, I became aware of just how much my mind was preoccupied with planning various tasks from the important to the mundane to the bordering-on-ridiculous (a plan to make an irate call to a football phone-in even sprung to mind!). I returned each time to a quote, which I cannot remember word for word, that I had read before Meeting for Worship began in Quaker Voices - it was a quote from Thomas Kelley which basically said we need to cease our noisiness, outer and inner, to the point we can only hear our own pulse and, from there, we might just hear the whispers of God.

As the entire meeting became increasingly gathered - with the sounds of the odd page of the Bible turning from time to time, the traffic rumbling outside, and indeed my own breath and pulse, all seemingly becoming louder, a Friend rose to speak. She began by noting that Jonathan Sacks, 'Chief Rabbi' and de facto spokesperson for the Jewish communities of Britain, was retiring after long service as one of the country's most prominent ethical and spiritual guides - following this by stating her own personal respect for him and love of his teachings. The Friend went further to note Jonathan Sacks had recently made comments that he believed an increasing individualism with British society - where persons work to their own personal code of ethics and operate primarily for their own betterment - was a factor behind the recent crisis in economic institutions, and subsequent social ills (see here for the BBC news summary of this). From there, she discussed how Jonathan Sacks had argued faith communities can provide an example of 'trust in action' and its consequent benefits. She felt she had seen a marked decline in trust within British society during her own life and that membership of a Quaker community needed to continue to be centred on trust - trust in one another for insight and for practical support matched with trust in the teachings and practices of our particular tradition.

This prompted prayers of my own to be more trustful, including a confession of my sin that I tend not to trust others, even those closest to me, all in the name of 'being independent'. And whilst this might mean I talk proudly about how I am a 'self-starter' on my CV, it does lead to issues when things perhaps get tough and there are breaches I cannot fill - and this can sometimes lead to 'culpable disturbance of shalom' as I rebut offers of support and compound problems by plodding on. With thoughts around 'what if it all goes wrong' with reference to my new career direction, I have tended to try and problem solve how I might contingency plan when in fact the people around me - family, friends, fellowship - are my ever-ready contingency plan.

As I silently offered up these prayers, another Friend rose to speak. He acknowledged the opening ministry and its connection with his own contemplation of a radio slot looking at the use of psalms for helping people going through troubled times and crisis. He explained he had felt particularly moved by Psalm 91 and in light of the ministry, felt that in the plea to trust one another, we must also recognise our need to trust in God - from there he recited the first part of the psalm which brought forth tears;

"Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, 
“He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."

A first impression of this snippet, particularly in the cold light of day, might suggest the need for adherence to a narrowly defined God - and from there a cerebral conversation might take place about the whats, whys and wherefores. But it is in fact a deeply poetical and metaphorical plea - yet also a straightforward plea - to trust in 'a greater scheme of things beyond the self'. 

Put simply, yes you have to do your bit - try your utmost to do what is required of you, try your utmost do what is right - but then must come a putting of trust in others, and The Other, to do the bits you cannot do. Meditation and prayer, particularly when rooted in a fellowship and a tradition, is a vehicle for encouraging this mindset.

James Martineau once observed,

“Religion is no more possible without prayer 
than poetry without language, 
or music without atmosphere...” 

and perhaps this could be followed with,

Life cannot be lived fully without trust 
just as a swallow cannot fly without wings,
nor without its kind,
nor without the movement of the heavens...

or something along those lines...

As I left the meeting house, I resolved to place more trust in the flock and more trust in the flow.



Sorting through some old bits of paper recently, I found the following Catholic prayer which was once used to open an otherwise very dry policy meeting I attended. It provides a good definition, I feel, of how a modern Christian community might function.

We welcome each other,
We open ourselves to God's presence,
We welcome the opportunity to commune with one another,
We welcome fresh ideas and new insights.

Together we pray:
As Jesus taught his disciples,
as Jesus encourage his friends,
that where two or three gathering in God's name,
God's Spirit will be with us.

Help us to become more aware,
that you are with us and among us,
as we share, listen and work together.
May our work develop into action
that promotes justice, peace and love.

We choose to continue our journey
by listening and discerning the needs of the world
by being patient with the unknown and the uncertainties,
by living the questions
by listening gently to the chatter of our own desires and fears,
our angers and anxieties.

We call each other
to become more centered
to become more deeply tuned into the richness of existence
to reflect on our own experiences
to accept the challenge of shared vision
to continue asking questions.

We commit to supporting each other
to shape our future
to walk where there are no paths
to enjoy the wilderness
and occasionally to remind each other

to do what God requires of us:

to do justice
to love tenderly
to seek peace
and to walk humbly.


Semantics and Pedantics

Following on from my post earlier today - drawing upon Rob Bell's 'Rhythm' video - on how we can come to understand God as 'The Song', and from there, seek to live in-tune with God by looking to the general example of Jesus, I also want to make a quick note of this other video which featured alongside it on Youtube.


In an interview with broadcaster Premier Christian Radio in May of this year - also featuring Andrew Wilson - Rob Bell affirms the potential quality of homosexual relationships as equal to the potential quality of heterosexual relationships. He does not comment further on gay marriage but nonetheless he has gone much further than other evangelicals (it's also worth noting that Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has since started to tread a similar path).

Rob Bell's argument could be interpreted as follows:
  • Christianity, as a tradition, as an outlet of God's Spirit, has both transient and permanent aspects;
  • There are aspects of Christianity that change - emerging, shifting and passing - according to the culture and time. This could be applied to the mechanics of sexual relationships, for want of a better phraseology!
  • There are scriptures that pass comment on the particulars, including prohibition of homosexual acts of intimacy, but these should be approached with reference to the historical context and to the weight given to them across scripture as a whole.
  • There are aspects of Christianity that are timeless - recurring, thematic - which continue to apply. These include monogamy, fidelity, nurturing of peace, the ending of idolatry and so on.
  • The scriptures of the Christian tradition - particularly the New Testament - give greater weight to such things.
So for Rob Bell it is an issue of interpretation and emphasis, borne out of an exploratory approach to the Bible that views this text as a complex conversation, as a layered narrative on humankind's journey towards greater spiritual understanding - God-inspired but not God-dictated.

For Andrew Wilson, he attempts - in trying to argue against Rob Bell's position on this specific issue - to make a clear distinction between sealed revelation and continued revelation. This is borne out of viewing the Bible as a fairly straightforward list of God-dictated moral teachings, and rules, to be held to literally for all time - placed within historically accurate events, including the actual resurrection of a man said to be clinically dead for three days.

What is also interesting, and saddening, is the manner in which Rob Bell - having been brave enough to be open on such things, when other Christian leaders with similar views keep quiet for fear of discrediting themselves - then finds himself prosecuted by the host and Andrew Wilson on his authenticity and legitimacy as a Christian. The host leads Rob Bell into a discussion as to whether he has, pejoratively speaking,  'gone liberal'. This is continued by Andrew Wilson, albeit in slightly more nuanced and gentler language, that if Rob Bell is saying certain moral teachings set out by figures in the Bible are no longer applicable, then the Bible becomes worthless as a holy book to follow - in other words, "so you might as well put it down, go find something else and let us look after it..."

This is of course, an age old response from the power houses of Christianity towards those Christians who attempt to work through their faith honestly, and in turn take up positions of conscience and reason that differ than the established views. And Rob Bell is right, it is what continues to turn increasingly educated, questioning, information-rich generations away from Christianity.

Just last week, at Meeting for Worship, a lifelong Quaker commented that he had been asked the age-old question, "So, are you a Christian?" by a friend of a friend, an evangelical conservative, after finding out his religious affiliation during an alumni gathering. He noted, "I've always replied with "yes, I am a Christian" when asked this, but when they outline what they see as necessary belief to be a Christian, it would perhaps be easier to just say no..."

It is particularly saddening to observe Rob Bell look so weary at this direction the interview takes. For an individual who has lead thousands back into the Christian faith but now finds himself under attack in this way, it makes me wonder where he goes next? And where do Christians who think and feel similar go next?

The Song

One of the biggest stumbling blocks about Christianity for seekers of a different way of living are the ideas that they think lie behind the terminology 'God', 'Lord', 'Father' etc (let's leave the Trinity for now, that's a whole other discussion).

In many ways the new proselytizing atheists have won a significant battle here - framing God as a wise old man up in the clouds, a puppeteer, a wrathful judge and so on - and from there arguing, "Can you believe in this God? No? Well in that case maybe you should join our cause?"

But if you ask many Christians, especially so those who stand within 'unorthodox' (for want of a better term) Christian traditions such as the Unitarians (the more classical variety) and the Quakers, they will likely deny such a God with a similar passion to Richard Dawkins.

The video clip below from Rob Bell, which I discovered many years ago and have now attempted to transcribe during a spare moment, is probably the most resonant explanation of God I've ever come across - and one I feel reflects what many contemporary Christians in Western society are now coming to think and feel (whether they feel free enough to say it aloud or not).

(If the video clip has expired, try here or here)

"I recently heard someone saying that they were pulling into a parking lot and the space closest to the building became available and they said it was a sign God was with them. 

And then around two weeks ago I heard somebody talking about two people who had been sick and one of them had been healed, and they were talking enthusiastically about how God had intervened to heal the one person. The whole time I am thinking, yes but what about the other person? They didn't get healed. Where was God? Why didn't God intervene with them?

And then last night, just last night, I heard somebody say they had been in a store and they had seen something they'd really wanted on sale. And they said, "this just shows how good God is..." If God can help people find things on sale, then why doesn't God spend time doing things that seem more important? Like earthquakes, famines or sickness?

When you think about God, when you hear the word God, what images come to mind?

An old man with a white beard behind a curtain working the levers? He's healing some and finding parking spaces for others. For many people, their concept of God is built around a God who is outside of everything, a God who is essentially somewhere else. A God who made the world and then stands back, watching it from another vantage point. A God who is there and from time to time comes here.

The problem with this concept of God is you then have to prove this God even exists. And so what happens is we start with real life, we start with existence, we start with what we all agree actually exists - and then we argue whether the God of somewhere else has something to do with this.

But the writers of the Bible seem far less interested in proving whether God exists and far more interested in talking about what God is like. Like in the book of Exodus, a man named Moses wants to know God's name and God responds, "I am." And later God reminds Moses than when he heard God's voice, he saw no shape or form.

God is beyond anything our minds can comprehend. So what does it mean to have any kind of personal relationship with this kind of God? It's hard to get your mind around. I believe God listens, God cares and God is involved but I find the whole relationship idea hard to comprehend. And then loving this kind of God, what does that look like? What does it mean and how do you do it?

When I think of God I hear a song. It is a song that moves me, it has a melody, it has a groove - it has a certain rhythm. And people have heard this song for thousands and thousands of years, across continents and cultures, across time periods. People have heard the song and found it captivating - and have wanted to hear more.

And there have always been people who have said there is no song and deny the music. But the song keeps playing.

Jesus came to show us how to live in tune to the song. He says he is The Way, The Truth and The Life but this isn't a statement about one religion being better than all other religions. The last thing Jesus came to do was start a new religion. He came to show us reality at its most raw, he came to show us how things are.

Jesus is like God, in the flesh and blood - so in his generosity, in his compassion, that is what God is like. In his telling of the truth, that is what God is like. In his love, forgiveness and sacrifice, that is what God is like. That's who God is, that's how the song goes.

The song is playing all around us, all of the time. The song is playing everywhere. It's written on our hearts and everybody is playing the song.

The question is not whether or not you are playing a song, the question is whether you are in tune?

In the Book of Acts it says God gives us life, breath and everything else. God is generous. So when I am selfish, stingy and I refuse to give, I am essentially out-of-tune with the song.

Later in one of John's letters, he says God is love - unrestrained, unconditional love. So when you see someone sacrifice themselves for another, for the well-being of somebody else, they are playing in the right key. That is why it is so inspiring and powerful. They are in-tune with the song.

Some people know all sorts of stuff about music. They know stuff about pitch and modes and keys and instruments, so they can hear things that other people do not - they may hear subtlety and nuance in the song that other people might miss, they may appreciate things others might miss. But it is also possible to be so caught up in the technical aspects of the song that you miss the simple, pure enjoyment of the song.

There are people who talk as if they know everything about being a Christian and yet they can seem way out-of-tune. And then there are others who say they don't know much at all about the Christian faith and yet they can seem very in-tune with the song.

I've met lots of people who struggle with what it means to have a relationship with God - but they haven't lost faith, and love, and hope, and truth, and compassion, and justice, and generosity.

You may have this sense that you have no relationship with God because of all these ideas about what that should mean, because of all these things you've been told what it is or what it isn't. And an infinite, massive, invisible God is hard to get out minds around.

But truth, love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion - the way that Jesus lived - I can see that, I can understand that, I can relate to that, I can play that song.

So may you come to see that the song is written on your heart. And as you live in tune with the song, in tune with the creator of the universe, may you realise that you are in relationship with the Living God."

Amen to that.


Start of a sabbatical...

Having just started my six-week summer sabbatical, I am currently experiencing the now familiar drop in energy levels and mood. This roughly 2 to 5 day drop as soon as a school holiday starts, which I know many educators experience, is one of the reasons I feel the current model of school holidays in Britain needs some kind of reform. I also believe it is why the current styles of leadership and methods of accountability within schools needs to change (see here, here and here for insights into this).

I believe the collectively-adhered-to cycle of rushing towards deadlines and targets, borne primarily out of a fear of not reaching them, and then suddenly stopping creates an unhealthy working culture (the same could be said of the NHS). I am not sure how credible the research base is, but I have often heard it said that the incidence of teachers dying within the first 18 months of retirement is higher than other careers. Again, I wonder if this is a result of the sudden and permanent drop in activity for a mind & body tuned into highs and lows of adrenalin?

Whilst I use the half-termly breaks for work, I spend most seasonal holidays (Christmas and Easter) and the summer break catching up with family, travelling, re-engaging more seriously in sport and reading. Work in schools can be so consuming, so regimented, so intensely-focused that it feels like your own life has been put on hold and so these periods feel like a re-emergence. I even have one colleague who sends his family away for a week (somewhere nice!) then from there stops washing, grows a beard etc. until the time comes when he says he feels he can 'resurrect himself'! I have another colleague who takes to his bike in the first week or so stopping off at silent monasteries (Buddhist and Christian) along the way.

In terms of my own experience, after a few days of feeling at a sudden loose end matched equally with a distinct lack of desire to get tied up in something, I tend to start cleaning the house, exercising and reading - taking in a mix of weighty and more light-hearted material - and at some point head off abroad. This will be the pattern this year.

My first book this summer is 'Mindfulness Plain and Simple' by Oli Doyle. As regular readers of this blog will have noted (if, that is, there are regular readers!), I have a longstanding interest in aspects of Buddhist practice although my theology is still very much rooted in Christianity. 

I try to quietly practice Buddhist-rooted mindfulness everyday - and ultimately I would argue the benefits come from the practice, not the philosophy. However, from time to time I do read a book on the subject to freshen up my focus and understanding. This is important particularly so this summer having left one teaching post, with all of its high and low points becoming memory, and awaiting a new teaching post in September. It is particularly important in this transition phase to avoid slipping into fearful narratives about what lies ahead. This is what Oli Doyle has to say about fear:

"Fear of the future is seen as a normal and natural part of being human, but if we pay close attention, we can see some scary, painful thoughts at the roof of that fear. Without these stories, there is no fear, but if you believe those stories, you will scare yourself stiff! Fear, which includes tension, nervousness, anxiety and worry, is seen as helpful by many people, who believe that without it we would lack motivation, becoming listless and lazy. This is partly true: fear motivates many people to do many things, it is the driver behind much of our activity. Some of us continue to go to work out of fear of losing our job, we buy our partners gifts, scared they may leave us and as a species our fear of losing economic wealth drives the continuing push for growth at all costs. I believed that much domestic violence is driven by fear, as people who use violence try to maintain control of their partners and children because they are terrified of losing them. This example shows the destructive effect of action that is motivated by fear, but because our fear of negative consequences motivates so much action, it seems logical to the mind that this fear is needed and useful. This is based on the assumption that without fear, we would not be motivated to do things, which is not the case in my experience. 

What if your best, dearest friend invites you over for dinner? You know that they will completely understand if you can't come, so there is no fear. Will you go, or will you lie at home on the couch? No fear is needed for motivation here, but fear might drive you to go to that boring, dry work dinner instead of seeing your friend, worried about what the boss would say if you weren't there. In my experience working with mental health issues, in particular anxiety, it appears that fear is what keeps people from doing things they want to do. Fear of negative consequences keeps people in the house, keeps them in the same job, keeps them from talking to new people and making new friends. Fear of the future is a limiting factor, not a driver for growth and activity, and it is also absolutely unnecessary. 

Without this fear, you can pursue activities not to avoid unpleasant consequences but to enjoy yourself, which fundamentally changes the character of life..."

Obviously, this does not mean the complete abandon of practically weighing up the consequences of our decisions and actions, but there is a need to avoid overly-detailed projection. All this kind of internal storytelling ultimately achieves is, apart from tiring your mind out, the habitual avoidance of adventure - and in turn, long-term frustration and regret.

Going further, one of my favourite dip-in, dip-out texts is 'Plain Living' by Catherine Whitmire, a collection of reflections from various Quakers. I recently found myself struck by the following quotes on fear:

"[W]hat is characteristic of human beings is that we do not live in the moment. We look before and after. We carry our past experience with us and project it on the future. And if the past has frightened us, we carry that with us and project it ahead... I wonder if you ever catch yourself, as I do sometimes, feeling anxious, and looking for something to be anxious about? But mostly we don't catch these fears at work. They have become habits and we are quite unaware of them...

The person who is fear-determined is always on the defensive. You will recognise these people when you meet them because either they hide from you behind a facade of pretence or formality, or else they try to dominate you. They are either submissive or aggressive.... They can never be themselves. They have lost their freedom: and losing their freedom they have lost their lives." - John Macmurray


"The Hebrew slaves had imagined that freedom from physical captivity would allow them to live as free people. But they discovered that they had brought their slavery with them. They were enslaved to fear...

The wilderness wandering, this season of repeated failure and renewed stripping, was their time of learning... In the wilderness the people recognised that their food came from God. Their drink came from God. Their very survival came from God. Only as they gave up reliance on their own power did they come to trust God's faithful leading. Paradoxically, it was this detachment from their own power which made them strong enough to enter the Promised Land." - Sandra Cronk


"Christ's major point
throughout the Sermon on the Mount
is to get rid of fears and anxieties.
It might also be said that
the substance of his mission
as a teacher was to
set us free from the slavery of our fears
"Why are ye so fearful?"
he keeps saying.
Stop your unnecessary worries.
Cut out your excessive anxieties.
It has been well said that
the most ruinously expensive
of all our emotions is fear.
It is that very emotion of fear
that has thrown our world out of joint
and brought us to this unspeakable calamity..."
- Rufus. M. Jones

During a conversation with a Unitarian Christian minister this week, he mentioned how Christianity has a psychological value in that the stories of the New Testament point to a metaphorical, rather than literal, dying to aspects of self and process of rebirth. I think if Christianity is to have a future in The West, this is one of the messages - as well as its social & communal messages - that needs to be proclaimed louder.


Great Dictation

My brother pointed me towards this video today. I know little of Charlie Chaplin, I am ashamed to say - despite some academic background in Film Studies - but I was both surprised and stirred by this.


Work upwards...

Following my recent post, I happened upon the following from Quaker Faith & Practice, which bears some relation to the issues and themes discussed:

"I speak not against any magistrates or peoples defending themselves against foreign invasions; or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders - for this the present estate of things may and doth require, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end and its use will be honourable ... but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and to travel towards. There is to be a time when 'nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more'. When the power of the Gospel spreads over the whole earth, thus shall it be throughout the earth, and, where the power of the Spirit takes hold of and overcomes any heart at present, thus will it be at present with that heart. This blessed state, which shall be brought forth [in society] at large in God's season, must begin in particulars [that is, in individuals]."

-- Isaac Penington, 1661

White Envelopes

This week I watched with interest, and a lingering sense of anger, as the murderers of Alan Greaves were sentenced. 

The brutal, senseless Christmas Eve attack on a community man, a man of principles, a humble family man shocked Sheffield - a city which prides itself on being relatively low in the violent crime league tables, a city which refers to itself as 'The Big Village'. Coming from Sheffield myself, it naturally hit home more than other murders (right or wrongly) as I reflected on the fact this could have been my father, my grandfather, my uncle, my neighbour...

The family of Alan Greaves sat in the gallery throughout the trial which eventually led to a 25 year sentence being handed to one young man and a 9 year sentence, for manslaughter, handed to another. The people of the city also watched via the media and, at least on some internet message boards, there were cries for harsher sentencing.

The dignified, clear response of Maureen Greaves went against such cries for what would become an act of retribution rather than a justice more-fulfilled, commenting that she welcomed the conviction and sentencing but had also forgiven them. Maureen Greaves said forgiving her husband's killers had been a laboured process rather than a singular act.

 "It seems so easy to say I've forgiven them, but it's probably one of the hardest things in my life that I've had to do and yet having done it and repeatedly seeking to do it, I've found I've benefited... I've not gone to bed with them on my mind, I've not gone around with shocking feelings over them, I've not gone over and over in my mind the replay of what happened to Alan..."

“It has to be a daily act of saying ‘I place them in your hands, God’, so that I don’t have to worry about them, I don’t have to hate them. After the massive shock and heartbreak, this was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, to go down the path of forgiving them... It has been a wonderful release that I have not had the burden of hatred towards them. I have to do it every day so I don’t lapse..."

It is also worth noting that one of her husband's killers tried to hand Maureen Greaves a 'letter of remorse', just before sentencing, which she has so far refused to read saying it would be 'inappropriate' after so long.

At times I find myself frustrated at the media portrayal of lives lived according to a faith - it's usually a case of reducing religious belief and practice to a spectacle, as something to provoke and to threaten or something exotic and quirky to coo at. The recent case of Channel 4's Ramadan coverage springs to mind here (see Nesrine Malik's on-point critique of this here). Yet in Maureen Greaves we see faith in its most complex, simultaneously at its rawest and most sophisticated, at its most beguiling.

In particular, Maureen Greaves offers us an example of what we, regardless of which belief system we follow, each have to do in our own lives when we feel wronged, no matter how big or small. And it is a delicately-laid uphill path, rather than an abracadabra miracle, in which justice and peace are carried by either arm.

Today I gave ministry on this theme at Meeting for Worship, talking through a recent experience - far, far less in its scale and permanence than the experience of Maureen Greaves - but nonetheless one in which I have had to walk a similar tightrope between wanting to address an issue of injustice in some way - injustice that has hurt me personally and will continue to hurt others if ignored - yet not wanting to be consumed by anger and vengeance.

This six month journey culminated in a 'crossroads moment' this week - in the form of a white envelope containing two pieces of paper competing for airtime; the charges I wanted to lay at someone's door on one versus a short statement positive statement on how good things sometimes are, and should be more, on the other. After much deliberation, and some last minute decisions, I opted for the latter - doing so having critically examined my motives, recognising the first paper was designed primarily to hurt the reader rather than help them.

These past six months have involved a struggle - an often faltering, begrudging struggle - yet also a learning curve of sorts. And on this Sunday, this traditional day of sabbath for Christians, it's a struggle I now feel I can rest from rather than continued to be burned up from the inside by. Certainly my own growing Christian faith and Quaker practice has helped reach this point.


Killing your Buddhas...

Over the years I have heard and read so many times the instruction, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" - it habitually strikes me at face value as an odd phrase, I find myself instinctively going down the line of "...why would Buddhists wants to kill their beloved founder?"

Certainly, we wouldn't likely hear Christians singing "kill the Christ!" (atonement theology notwithstanding) or for that matter, Muslims reciting "kill the Prophet!" (indeed, in some countries, this would probably lead to you being killed for uttering such a phrase).

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his typically accessible and inspirational way, explains this odd phrase in 'Zen Keys':

""lf You Meet the Buddha, Kill Him!"

One of the greatest potentialities of the skilful means is to free beings from their prison of knowledge and prejudice. Man is attached to his knowledge, to his habits and to his prejudices; the language of Zen must be capable of liberating him. In Buddhism, knowledge constitutes the greatest obstacle to Awakening. This obstacle is called the obstacle of knowledge. What is referred to here is knowledge based on concepts. If we are trapped by this knowledge, we shall not have the possibility of realizing Awakening in us.

The Sutra of the Hundred Parables tells the story of a young widower who was living with his five-year-old son and who, one day, returned home to find his house burned down and his child lost. Near the destroyed house there was the charred corpse of a child that he believed was his, and in this belief he wept over his child, then set about the cremation of the body, according to the Indian rites. He kept the ashes of the child in a bag which he carried with him day and night, whether he was working or whether he was resting. Now, his son had not perished in the fire but had been taken off by brigands. One day the child escaped and returned to his father's house. He arrived at midnight, when his father was about to go to bed, still carrying the famous bag. The son knocked at the door. "Who are you?" asked the father. "I am your son." "You lie. My son died some three months ago." And the father persisted in this belief and would not open the door. In the end the child had to depart, and the poor father lost forever his beloved son.

This parable shows that when we have acknowledged a certain thing to be the absolute truth and cling to it, we can no longer accept the idea of opening the door, even if truth itself is knocking at it. The Zen practitioner must therefore strive to liberate himself from his attachment to knowledge and to open the door of his being in order that truth might enter. His Master must also help him in these efforts. Zen Master Lin Chi once said: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet the Patriarch, kill the Patriarch." For the one who only has devotion, this declaration is tenable; it confuses him completely. But its effect depends on the mentality and capacity of the one who hears.! If the man is strong, he truly will have the capacity to liberate himself from all authority, whatever it might be, and to accomplish in himself ultimate truth. Truth is reality itself and not concepts. If we cling to a certain number of concepts and consider them as being reality, we lose reality. This is why it is necessary to "kill" the concepts of reality in order that the reality itself can be realized and reveal itself. To kill the Buddha is without doubt the only way to see the Buddha. The concept that one has formed of the Buddha impedes one from seeing the Buddha himself.

"My friends of the Dharma Way, if you wish to acquire a correct view of reality, do not allow yourself to be deceived by anyone. When you meet someone, either going out or returning, you must kill him. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet the Patriarch, kill the Patriarch. If you meet the Saint, kill the Saint. This is the only way by which you might be liberated, free and independent.""

The Quakers speak in similar terms about the danger 'notions' - fixed ideas which get in the way of the real truth. My understanding of Free Christian thought is it shares a similar view with regards to moving beyond of theology, fossilized in creedal statements, to experience authentic faith.

Whether we hold a particular faith or not, the idea of routinely challenging our fixed ideas of past, present and future - and of people - is clearly a healthy one.


Time ramble!

Following the recent post I made about the potential stress of change, I found myself in discussion with a colleague (one who seems to always casually and inadvertently hit me with a bit of wisdom) about this issue in-between a series of fairly perfunctory meetings we were joint chairing. He mentioned the extract below - well, he mentioned it as something he had a faint memory of, and from there, we raced each other to search it up on the internet!

"The Station by Robert J. Hastings
The station is an illusion - it constantly outdistances us

Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey that spans an entire continent. We're traveling by train and, from the windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row upon row upon row of cotton and corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our conscious minds is our final destination--for at a certain hour and on a given day, our train will finally pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving, and bands playing. And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true. So restlessly, we pace the aisles and count the miles, peering ahead, waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

"Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it!" we promise ourselves. "When we're eighteen. . . win that promotion. . . put the last kid through college. . . buy that 450SL Mercedes-Benz. . . have a nest egg for retirement!"

From that day on we will all live happily ever after. Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion--it constantly outdistances us. Yesterday's a memory, tomorrow's a dream. Yesterday belongs to a history, tomorrow belongs to God. Yesterday's a fading sunset, tomorrow's a faint sunrise. Only today is there light enough to love and live.

So, gently close the door on yesterday and throw the key away. It isn't the burdens of today that drive men mad, but rather regret over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.

"Relish the moment" is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, swim more rivers, climb more mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener. Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough."

I think, on reflection, our belief in a perfect final destination emerges from our traditional Judeao-Christian culture - the longstanding vision of heaven as an afterlife, the premise of a final day of judgement. We, growing up in this culture, naturally tend to take a wholly linear view of time. Whether we believe in a heavenly afterlife or not (as it happens, I do not), we are indoctrinated into the idea of journeying - and struggling - from one fixed point to another fixed point. In our increasingly hypo-capitalist culture, as Robert J. Hastings perhaps alludes to, this spiritual journey has seemingly become fused with primarily materialistic milestones. We become fixed on getting to each milestone, on the idea that we must grab each opportunity on our fixed route or it will be forever left behind, on the belief that if we do X and Y in Z amount of time we will reach our utopia and be forever happy.

Again, I find my dipping-of-toes into Eastern philosophy helps challenge this. In Eastern cultures, particularly those finding root in Buddhism and Hinduism, time is at least in part cyclical.

From here, we can reflect that we are perhaps each locked in a spiral of opportunities for creation & fruition and unavoidable points of destruction, at a universal level, communal level and deeply personal level. We can approach opportunities for change more reasonably, feeling fairly confident they probably won't be the last and similar ones will come again, whilst also being realistic enough to know that even the greatest fruit any opportunity might bare is bound for destruction. We must, as much as we can, simply appreciate and enjoy being part of this process.