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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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)