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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30/12/2015

Good Tidings of the Human Jesus

Below is the sermon I gave on 27th December 2015, known as 'Quiet Sunday' for some in the church as it tends to attract a low attendance. At Oldham Unitarian Chapel, the numbers were actually slightly up on the Christmas Carol Service the week before.

The sermon below is probably one of the most classically Unitarian I have given to date. For those well-versed in Classical Unitarianism / Unitarian Christianity, you will see William Ellery Channing's influence - indeed, I have borrowed directly from his sermon, 'Jesus Christ, the Brother, Friend, and Saviour'

We included the 'Nativity Story in Cross Line Drawing' at the start - a beautiful video that helped settle us into worship. The service also included a reading from Alfred Delp, reflecting on the character of the shepherds - how they worshipped with a simplicity and honesty that lead to openness.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Pupil of Rembrandt (1646)


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Christmas Day has been and gone once more. A day devoted by the majority in this country to present giving, feasting and time with family. 

As I discussed last week, the Christmas season is a development of festivals from other traditions. Christmas most likely draws on the Jewish festival of Hanukkah and the story of the Persian deity Mithra – mixed with the natural instincts of peoples living in the northern hemisphere to celebrate the passing of the darkest day and the coming of daylight.

I put it to you last week that this festival does not necessarily have to be a compulsory part of our religion – but it would seem, even in these modern times, we still seem to have an inclination to turn our thought and hearts towards ancient Bethlehem. An inclination that goes beyond conformity, an inclination towards experiencing that divine love we call God.

We read in the Gospel of Luke that famous passage, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

For most Christians, the good tidings of great joy reflect their understanding of this event as a unique point in history – the coming of God into world in the deity of Jesus, who is understood as a co-equal member of the trinity, the God who is one and three – father, son and Holy Spirit. Such Christians are in the majority across the world and we call them 'Trinitarians'.

I know many Trinitarian Christians, as I'm sure we all do, and I certainly cannot say their faith is any less in quantity or quality than ours. I have also encountered a number of Unitarians who say they can accept Trinitarian language as mystical poetry, as something to meditate upon - and I would count myself as one of them. 

Yet, having said all this, we Unitarians don’t subscribe to the Trinity as a defining creed. Instead, the traditional Unitarian understanding is to focus on Jesus as a human being who became our master teacher and exemplar. I repeat, became – the implication been that there wasn't necessarily a great act of predestination here.

So can we Unitarians feel the same great joy at this babe lying in the manger? After all, at this point he is simply a newborn – not necessarily a blank slate, but certainly lacking the character and capacity of a fully grown prophet, and from our Unitarian perspective, most probably not a deity.

The question might be answered threefold.

First, the very act of a baby being born is a miracle. The birth of Jesus was the result of a successful pregnancy. The pregnancy depended on his parents, Mary and Joseph, surviving long enough in their own lives to conceive a child. From there, the ancestors of Mary and Joseph might be considered – 100s of generations of strivers and survivors working to bring about a new creation, with all its possibilities. 

The birth of Jesus is a miracle, just as each of our births is a miracle. The emergent star of Bethlehem, set against the backdrop of a seemingly dark, empty universe - a void - is a symbol of human life as a whole. And at Christmas, during a time of darkness and dormancy in our natural surroundings, we can experience simple joy in being reminded of this wonder of life – behold a child is born.

Second, we can rejoice at the fact that because Jesus is born, we have a saviour who is not sent down to Earth from the clouds of Heaven, breaking the laws of nature, in some one-off act of God - but rather that this saviour is ultimately just like us.

It is the doctrine of many Trinitarian Christians that Jesus existed before his human birth as a deity. And therefore it is of great joy to them that he chooses to enter planet earth. But we Unitarians generally do not subscribe to this. Instead we take joy that our deliverance was clothed in humanity, not partially but fully. The flesh of Jesus was the same flesh as ours, he was born of a man and woman, nursed in his mother’s arms, and he experienced the life of a child, a teenager and an adult. At a basic level, he experienced the same experience as us in terms of being a free, self-conscious species growing and acting in a world which we are shaped by but also have freedom to shape.

The power we find in the stories of Jesus Christ is brought nearer to us because he is human, just like us. He experienced the wants, desires, passions and sensations we experience – both positive and negative. This Jesus figure is made all the more precious and compelling because he shares the same condition, because his self-realisation - his life infused with divinity - is within reach of all of us.

If we frame him as a supernatural being – as a heavenly stranger - can we say with the same confidence that he connects with our condition – and we with his? But as our kin, as our brother, as our friend, the life of Jesus – a life of goodwill - becomes something we might dare to strive for ourselves. We probably will not reach his stature, but we can journey on the same path towards it.

It is stressed by Trinitarian Christians that Jesus is Immanuel – which means 'God with Us' – and therefore we should accept him as a unique manifestation of a God out there coming down for a short time to here. But to borrow the words of James Martineau, 

“The incarnation is true, 
not of Christ exclusively, 
but of Man universally, 
and God everlastingly.” 

The way that the human Jesus felt God in him and all around him – to the point he declared God in intimate terms as ‘Abba’ – is something available to us. There is great joy to be found in this.

Third, joy can be found in that Jesus is born into the lowliest of circumstances - cradled in a manger. The manger was likely to be dirty, smelly, cramped place - not the sort of romantic place we see on cards. We can look upon this situation with sympathy – ‘oh dear, poor thing’ we might say. We might even want to turn our heads away and pass on by, as we sometimes avert our eyes to television ads of starving children. But amongst all of this there is joy to be found.

The manger in the story of Jesus is significant. Yes, it is humiliation, it is discomfort. Yet we know that amongst this kind of misery there often grows a seed of peculiar strength. The manger is a precursor to Jesus’s mission to the poor and marginalised, culminating in the event of the cross. We can find great joy in knowing that out of the first trials of the manger grew the man they called Christ, Word made Flesh, Son of God, Light of the World, Prince of Peace... Saviour. Would this coming of age have been as great had Jesus been born in a palace? No, there is something dangerously joyful in the circumstances of his birth - unsettling and inspiring at the same time because it points to the depth and breadth human potential, and what that potential could be directed towards.

Friends, the nativity story is multi-layered, it is rich in symbolism – parts of it were likely added in the aftermath of Jesus’s death as his followers attempted to make sense of him – as they tried to place him in the reality of their world as they saw it, to locate him in the legend of humanity as they knew it. Yet the nativity story is also real - it is real because it encapsulates reality.

There is a time and place for deeper analysis, for critical thinking, for scepticism even, but we can almost become too clever – during this season, let us find the simplicity of the shepherds. Let us draw inspiration from the story of a successful and highly symbolic birth, the beginning of a life lived purely for the common good and the fact it arose out of such circumstances. 

These are indeed tidings of joy - tidings of comfort and joy.

Amen.

21/12/2015

Love to the World

Blog posts have been few and far between recently. I feel I have much to report and reflect upon, having been immersed in local politics these past few months alongside the challenges of the day job. Finer details about these things will have to keep for now - I am inclined to think they will just filter through rather than become standalone pieces of writing. 

Christmas is now upon us and I've been called to help my good friend, Bob, with services at Oldham Unitarian Chapel. I am taking services for three consecutive Sundays which is certainly not something I have done before. Below is the sermon from my first service, taken Sunday just gone (20th December). The readings were 1 John 4:7-16 and a shortened version of Eberhard Arnold's 'Where love breaks in'. I should also add that the sermon was inspired greatly by the writings of John Lindell.

~

Here we gather today for our Christmas Carol service but I want to ask you - why are you here? 

We are pretty certain Jesus was not born on the 25th of December - or at least certain enough to say that it could have been the 25th of December just as much as any other day. 

What many people also do not know is that "Advent” and “Christmas" are based on traditions that are centuries older than Christianity. As the Christian movement ventured out into the diverse cultures of the Middle East and Mediterranean, the movement encountered traditions which were both adopted and reinterpreted through a Christian lens.

In ancient Persian culture, the deity called "Mithra" was the "god of light" whose "birthday" was celebrated on December the 25th. Similarly, in Judaism, the holiday called "Hanukkah," or the "Feast of Lights," is observed in December, commemorating the Jews' uprising against their Greek-Syrian overlords in 168 BC and the renewal of their religion - symbolised in the re-dedication of the temple. 

In the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, there was also a tradition of miracle births being ascribed to their leaders – there were many sons of Gods. It is likely that the miracle birth story was borrowed by Jesus’s followers after his death to give him extra prestige, to raise him up alongside figures such as Horus, Mithras and Perseus

From history we also know that there are two times of the year instinctively celebrated by human beings in lands north of the equator. One is in the winter, in December - the other is in the spring, around March or April. From their observation of nature in the Northern Hemisphere, human beings recognised that the longest night of the year occurs in December. After that night, the hours of daylight increases. This natural cycle came to symbolise the "coming of the light" in various religious traditions. A fatty, energy-rich feast around December also helped preserve our ancestors until the first crops of early Summer.

So, to speak plainly, it seems the time of year we call "Christmas" which celebrates the "birthday" of Jesus who is called the "light of the world” is actually, at surface level, little more than a mish-mash of borrowed mythology - matched with the ancient customs of peoples living in a time where the winter darkness and hunger, without electricity and supermarkets, was keenly felt.

So I ask you, why do we persist with Christmas? Is it just because it is something we have always done? 

I ask this also in light of research which shows the family and financial pressures of this period can actually have a negative impact on people.

A Samaritans worker has been quoted as saying:

“Christmas can be a poignant time, bringing issues people face all year round to the surface, and can leave those normally strong enough to cope, struggling to do so.

"I listen to people telling me that they're alone, or that they've recently lost their partner, or that they're in huge amounts of debt.

"And it's even harder to deal with because it's Christmas, and the expectation that everyone is having a good time. It's so important that we're able to help these people through the festive season.”

So, if Christmas is all based on an inaccuracy and has the potential to inadvertently cause swathes of people to feel low, why do we Unitarians - we proud rationalists and dissenters - uphold it? 

I put it to you today that although habit and conformity probably motivates much of our yearly Christmas, there is a deeper inclination that still exists within us. It is why we are stood here today in this chapel, rather than the Trafford Centre. It is that inclination within us to encounter that strange, stirring, warming force that seems to sit behind material reality, that which we call God – and to somehow know that force and what it means for us in our daily lives.

It is a remarkable fact that we find in the Gospels very little specific detail to the nature of God. The story and teachings of Jesus instead directs us towards considering the relationship of God to humankind, and by extension the relationship of human beings to one another. 

And it all starts with a young woman giving birth to a baby in humble circumstances. The story of mother and baby then grows into the story of a Jewish prophet to the rich and healer of the marginalised before reaching a dramatic conclusion – unique amongst all of the major religions – with Jesus of Nazareth laying down his life for his people and, in turn, becoming a universal symbol - becoming an icon which has inspired billions over two thousand years.

The great statement about God that comes out of the Jesus story is simple yet compelling: God is Love, and to know God you must know love.

The ancient Greeks, whose civilisation developed along the lines of architecture and the arts said, 'God is beauty.' 

The Romans, led by the Caesars on a thousand battlefields to victory, said, 'God is strength.' 

The Jew, inheriting from Moses, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments, said, 'God is law.' 

Yet in the life of Jesus – whether we view him as God incarnate or as a human being who had found enlightenment – the message is, 'God is Love.' 

We might not always sense this love so immediately and readily – it is easy to get caught up in the demands of our ego and that of others, it is easy to let our hearts become hardened. And at Christmas, we might well find ourselves journeying further away from this love rather than nearer to it, as we try to meet the cultural, secular expectations of this time of year. It is easy for this inclination towards something deeper to get drowned out.

This is not to say the present buying and the eating and drinking is all bad – for we see in Jesus’s own life that he was generous and enjoyed a feast. But if Advent is going to have any spiritual value, we also need to balance the merriment with reflection - considering once again the nativity story and what it means for our lives. 

Let us look at it through the eyes of Mary – the young woman who didn’t feel ready, who felt confused at her place in the world - suddenly being handed a gift and responsibility. 

Let us look at it through the eyes of Joseph – the man who wanted a quiet life, who wanted to maintain his status and respect according to the custom of the land, but was compelled to follow a dream. 

Let us consider the stargazing Magi, nobles called from their speculations to set foot on a long, arduous pilgrimage.

Let us consider the shepherds; those with the seemingly lowliest of tasks who became the first witnesses to the King of Kings. 

Let us consider the child, a fragile, seemingly insignificant moment in time that becomes an earthquake – to use a cliche, a little acorn that became an oak. 

All point towards the movement of God in the world, to the ongoing creation being worked through humanity, the potential within each and every one of us. Jesus is ‘light of the world’ because he shows us the way. Right from the story of his birth and all the way to the story of his death, he shows us the way to our truest nature, and in doing so, reconnects us through love to that deep well of life we call God. 

Let us hold onto this in the coming week, in the coming year.

Amen