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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31/01/2016

Wine and Vinegar

Today I returned to Oldham Unitarian Chapel to lead worship there. It was really good to see all the regular faces and catch up with them - as Christmas now strangely feels a long time ago. I put this in part down to my frenetic day job and to the daffodils arriving early in our garden, giving a false sense that spring is here.

The service focused on the story of the wedding at Cana, as found in the Gospel of John. It also drew on 'The Vinegar Tasters', as touched upon earlier this week on this blog.

What I like about Oldham Unitarian Chapel is the feeling that I am 'comfortable in my own skin' there. This is testament to the each and every person who attends their regularly and makes it the warmly welcoming place it unfailingly is.

The video I used to accompany the readings was David Attenborough reading lyrics from Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' to a montage of nature clips.


It's perhaps all a bit cryptic at this stage but hopefully if you have the time to read my sermon, you will see how it all threads together!

~~~

 

Friends, let me first wish you again a good morning. It is great to see you again since the services I led at Christmas. I know you have been in the good hands of other worship leaders since then. Having not been here, I do feel in some ways I am coming into unknown territory. So I just hope I’m not going over old ground with today's service. Instead I hope the benefit you get from different visiting preachers is a tapestry of views on similar themes - which, we should remind ourselves, is encouraged by our Unitarian and Free Christian tradition.

Today we heard the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This miracle, taken from the Gospel of John, is quite an interesting one because it is regarded within the Christian tradition as Jesus’s first public miracle. We also heard a reflection on the ‘Vinegar Tasters’, a relatively famous piece of art from China, which we will come to later.

There are a variety of approaches - as you know - to reading the Bible. For some Christians, theirs is a more literalist approach – taking most, if not all, of Biblical scripture to be factually true. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we perhaps find the ultra-rationalist approach of the likes of Thomas Jefferson – the American president who had some links to Unitarianism. Thomas Jefferson took it upon himself to re-write the story of Jesus - producing what is now known as 'The Jefferson Bible'. He believed the very reasonable moral and ethical teachings of Jesus were being clouded out by outlandish miracles - and as a result, he stripped all the miracles away.

I should be clear, before I go any further, that I probably do sit on this spectrum somewhere nearer to Jefferson than to out-and-out literalists. However, I cannot simply dismiss the miracles like Jefferson did. Instead I take the view of liberal Christian scholar Marcus Borg that the miracle stories of Jesus are rich in metaphor. And like any metaphor, whilst not being literally true, if we can get behind the imagery we can nonetheless find truth. Truth arguably more powerful than surface-level fact.

So, to be clear, I speak to you today as a liberal Christian with an eye for Biblical poetry rather than Biblical science. And I speak to you personally, with no greater claim to spiritual insight than your good selves. Again, let us reaffirm to ourselves that this is our Unitarian and Free Christian tradition.

So what are we to make of the Cana miracle? What truth can we find with today’s reading of this well-known story? For me, I go back to Marcus Borg who says, "The point is not to believe in the Bible, but to see our lives with God through it.”

The first basic observation is that Jesus is at a wedding, which in his time just like ours, would have been a huge celebration – a party. The wedding marks the coming together of existing creation in the form of a young man and woman. And according to the traditional view of marriage, the readying for new creation in the form of children. It is a setting that exudes joy and hope.

The setting reflects our reality today that we too live in the midst of an ongoing work of creation - the ongoing creation of the earth, the universe, and life within it – with humanity seemingly at a central point. 

From there we might also observe the significance of the wine running out. In Ancient Jewish society, a wedding would run on for days with the groom and his family expected to provide food and wine for the duration. To run out of either wine or food at a wedding was a disgrace and embarrassment for the groom and his family – it could even result in a lawsuit on behalf of the bride and her family. It all sounds a bit Jeremy Kyle! But there is a serious message here - when the wine runs out, it is not just the dry end of the party, but a potential catastrophe. 

In this drying out, we might reflect on our fluctuating condition as human beings – the sense of emptiness we may sometimes feel, the sense of emptiness we might sometimes reap on one another through our words and actions.

At the point of the wine running out, we read also that Mary beseeches Jesus to act. Jesus, there with a small band of newly recruited disciples, appears to be reluctant to get involved – “My time has not yet come.” He says. 

Yet he ultimately feels compelled to act and, on instructing the servants to fill the jars with water, transforms the contents into wine. The transformation is not just a small one either – it is one of magnitude, six stone jars each holding twenty to thirty gallons. If you’re wondering what that looks like, imagine two large pallets of wine!


How do we interpret this transformation? Perhaps in this we can see our own potential to be transformed? Perhaps also, we might recognise in ourselves the reluctance to get involved in the wider transformation of the world, particularly when the situation seems hopeless – it’s not my job we might say, there’s nothing I can do about it we might say. Or like Jesus initially, we might even say, “hey forget this small stuff, I’ve got bigger fish to fry...” It would seem there is the message of interconnection and humility here - I cannot be brought into being if I do not bring others, no how matter small my act of bringing is.

And finally, perhaps most significantly, we can find significance in the fact Jesus upsets the prevailing order with his first miracle. The servants take the wine to the master of ceremonies who is startled after tasting the wine, remarking “A host always serves the best wine first. Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!”

The first become last, the last become first. Just like the stories of the manger we heard a few weeks ago, it is made clear that we must abolish any hierarchy of deservedness for the wine – and for life itself – for we all have a rightful share.

So, having reflected on the jars of wine, how does this tie in – you may wonder – with the jar of vinegar?

As we heard in the reflection earlier, the three vinegar tasters – an ancient and highly symbolic piece of art – is viewed as a reflection of the three ancient spiritual traditions of China. The Confucian monk tastes the vinegar and finds it to be primarily sour - reflecting his belief the beauty of the past has been lost. The Buddhist monk similarly tastes the vinegar and recoils, finding it to be bitter, reflecting his understanding of the world as one of suffering. The Daoist monk, unlike his fellow travellers, tastes the vinegar and smiles – reflecting his interpretation of the world as one that is ultimately sweet. 

As a side note, we should acknowledge that this reflection is reportedly a Daoist perspective - it may well be that some Buddhists and Confucians will take issue with it. Although I have also read that this apparent tension in views is also a representation of the whole Chinese mind.

Reflecting on the story from the Gospel of John, let us consider what a fourth figure - a Christian monk – would do on tasting the vinegar?

It strikes me that our vision, rooted as we are in the Christian tradition, would ultimately be similar to that of the Daoist monk, one of joy. We see the world as one in which there is a fundamental goodness - the goodness of a wedding in which there is an ongoing act of union and creation. The goodness of a world infused with God.

Yet it’s also not as simple as that – we are not simply here to passively get drunk on life, to consume without consequence, to consume without making our own contribution. Indeed, if we do, we too may well find ourselves run out – spiritually dried up and empty.

Instead we are called to taste the sweetness of vinegar with the one hand, and offer it outwards with the other. The turning of the water into wine is the first major act of Jesus’s ministry and within it we also see the founding truth – and task – of the Christian life. Life is at heart good, but this goodness is only made manifest through the open hand of generosity to others – particularly to those most in need. In both his teachings and the stories of his miracles, Jesus points us the way, let us each be transformed by his truth, and truly become who we were made to be.

Amen.

26/01/2016

Momentary Brightness

I am currently preparing my service for this coming Sunday, at Oldham Unitarian Chapel, and have found this beautiful poem by RS Thomas:



I have encountered RS Thomas before - he appears to speak to me just at the right moment. The full text of the poem can be read below. It strikes me he is showing us that mysterious, loving power we call God is always there, if only we would see. And sometimes we do see for a moment, but then we tend to pass on by and somehow forget - such is ordinary man's experience.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

25/01/2016

The Vinegar Tasters

Below is a short story I've borrowed, tweaked and embellished - ahead of a Unitarian service I'm delivering this coming Sunday. It's based on the 'Vinegar Tasters', a traditional subject in Chinese religious painting. 

The picture and the accompanying story are reportedly written from a Daoist perspective. Whereas some view it as a Daoist critique of Confucianism and Buddhism, others view it as an affirmation of the way these three ancient Chinese spiritual / philosophical traditions converge together to represent the Chinese mindset.


Three wise monks were travelling across the country, going from town to town to teach wisdom. They were age-old friends, even though they saw the world very differently and would sometimes fall into dispute.

At one town in particular, they were welcomed warmly by the townsfolk, and offered gifts of the town's produce. 

The grandest of the gifts was a large pot of vinegar. The first of the wise monks, a Confucian, dipped his finger into the vinegar, tasted it, and a disapproving expression came across his face. "This vinegar is too sour," he warned, going further to instruct the elders of the town, "Please, be careful how you use it, and make sure others use it carefully too…" 

The second of the wise monks, a Buddhist, dipped his finger into the vinegar, tasted it, and a concerned frown came across his face. "This vinegar is sharp, it leaves a bitter taste,” he observed, before advising those who cared to listen, “Please, use it sparingly - do not come to rely on it….”

Then the third monk, a Daoist, dipped his finger into the vinegar, tasted it, and smiled. "Mmm!" The other two monks looked on at him, confused. He remarked, "Now, this vinegar may seem sour and sharp, but I see there is sweetness within it… This is vinegar!”

The original version of this tale can be found here. You will note, if you care to look more closely at the two versions, that I have included a nod towards how these three traditions approach the transmission of their ideals. This is based on my (admittedly somewhat simplistic) understanding that Confucianism values the elder as guide for the community, Buddhism seeks to work with those called - a self-selected few essentially, and finally, the Daoist tends to travel more individually and has no real concern for proselytization

The Unitarian and Free Christian tradition is one that welcomes insights from other faiths - encouraging its adherents to explore and borrow from other faiths. It is richer, I think, for doing so but there is also a risk that we can ultimately pillage other faiths. For this reason, I am happy to take criticism of my attempts with this story and to try improve it.

10/01/2016

Fragments and Signposts

Today, beset with some kind of ear-nose-throat infection (a 'common cold' or 'manflu', some might say), I avoided going to church. Part of me wished not to pass it on to any of my older Christian friends at the local Methodist church, some of whom are in their nineties, and part of me simply craved a bit of solace. This need for solace was perhaps borne out of simply feeling washed out but also, I think, due to the various looming deadlines I have on my shoulders relating to the dayjob.

Having made this decision, I journeyed with my wife into the Peak District for the second day in a row. I am a Yorkshireman born and bred - albeit now living in Stockport (o'er wrong side o' pennines) - but growing up on the western fringe of Sheffield meant that Derbyshire was always my playground. And so it remains, as an adult.

Yesterday we undeetook a short twilight walk around the Derwent Valley, taking in the Howden Dam wall which in winter becomes a huge waterfall.


From there we also took in the 'Ladybower Plughole' which I find even now, in my mid-thirties, to be a fascinating piece of engineering.


Today we journeyed back in a similar direction but this time to more civilised, quainter parts. We journeyed out this time to Ashford-in-the-Water, paying a short visit to Holy Trinity Parish Church. The church was rebuilt in the 1800s but is still very much of Norman style. The church is one of those ancient places, hallowed by ordinary people's prayers for centuries, where you can almost smell the spirituality.


Inside I found a small stall and bought a bookmark with the following words inscribed on it:

I shall pass through 
this world but once. 
Any good therefore
that I can do or 
any kindness that I
 can show to any 
human being, let 
me do it now. 
Let me not defer or 
neglect it, for I 
shall not pass this 
way again.

The words I have since learned, via the power of Google, are those of Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet. I also bought another small bookmark of a favourite image of Jesus, introduced to me by my Unitarian friend Bob Pounder - the highly symbolic 'The Light of the World':


On the back of the bookmark is the line which inspired William Holman Hunt's painting - "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)

On leaving the church, I quietly thought, "all I need now is a book to put them in..." (although I have dozens at home as yet unread!). As it happened, we left sleepy Ashford and made our way down the notoriously steep 'Cat and Fiddle' road to the market town of Bakewell.


In a bookshop on one of the high streets, I happened to stumble upon a small portion of shelf dedicated to Bakewell's very own Christian mystic, John Butler. I had never heard of him before but was taken in straight away at the thought of a local farmer turned mystic - as such I bought myself a small booklet titled 'On Meditation, Prayer and Infinite Resources'.

On the back of one of his other books - 'Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment' - I also found myself lingering on the following verse:

The sun within

It is obvious enough when one looks a the sky
That the sun is obscured when clouds pass by,
With the natural fact I’ll endeavour to show
How the problems of life can diminish and go
For problems arise when we take by mistake
Changing scenes for our permanent state

Within each of us shines a similar sun
Dependent on nothing, beholden to none,
In all things sufficient, with freedom and bliss,
It’s there from our birth, and it’s what a man is.
Now that you may query, but look and you’ll find.
How your sun gets hidden by clouds of the mind.

What does this all mean? Nothing right now, I would say, but sometimes I do think God speaks in fragments, in whispers and nudges. I have become aware my prayer life has been somewhat lacking recently and I just wonder if these are signposts forward.

03/01/2016

The Uncomfortable Truth of The Nativity

This morning was the final service of my 'Christmas Trio', having been called to support my good friend Reverend Bob Pounder at Oldham Unitarian Chapel. The readings used today were Matthew 2, split into two parts - 'Visitors from the East' and 'Escape to Egypt'. 

We also looked at drone footage from war-torn Damascus and flood-hit northern England, which triggered some good contributions from our younger members about how we are often aware on the one hand that it's happening, but oblivious on the other in terms of the scale of destruction.

At my local Methodist church, which I now attend in-between my trips to Oldham, the minister on Christmas Day morning encouraged the congregation to 'Discover a little more this Christmas' (borrowing a slogan from the Co-op's Christmas ad campaign). This is something I have found myself doing this Christmas, having been given the privilege of preaching at Oldham Unitarian Chapel.

For now, the day job beckons once again and I hope to take the real spirit of Christmas with me in my actions, following the example of Jesus.

The Wise Men and Herod, James Tissot (1899)

~

Today, many churches across the country will be telling the story of the wise men or Magi. It is a story we heard today from the Gospel of Matthew. 

It is a story rich in symbolism, and rich in hope – a magical story of stargazers in a foreign land who are given a sign, and from there, travel hundreds of miles to pay homage to a little baby in a manger, a baby predicted to grow into a hero. 

Yet, within this famous story, there is also some troubling detail.

According to Matthew, when the Magi came looking for the Christ-child, they first visited Herod the Great to ask if he knew where the baby was. On hearing the Magi ask for 'He that is born King of the Jews', Herod, the Roman client king in Judea - feeling that his throne was in jeopardy - asked the Magi to find his whereabouts and return to tell him, so that he could also pay homage to him. But of course he really intended to assassinate the baby Jesus as soon as possible. 

In dreams, God warned the Magi of Herod's true intentions, so they returned home by a different route and kept secret the location of Jesus. When Herod discovered this he ordered the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under.  Fortunately, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, Mary and their young son had fled to Egypt after they too had been warned in a dream. 

Now this horrific event happened in ancient Bethlehem, which at the time was a small village, and it probably meant that around twenty children were killed, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas. 

It has to be acknowledged that this event, known as the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’, is not recorded in secular history sources. Nor is it mentioned in other gospels – significantly, it is not mentioned in the Gospel of the Luke which in trying to bring the story of Jesus to poor gentiles, to non-Jews, perhaps sought to downplay Jesus’s roots in Jewish nobility. 

But, having said this, we shouldn’t doubt too much that Herod’s foot soldiers were capable of visiting a backwater town and committing mass murder without too much spotlight.

At this time of year, we perhaps don’t want to hear this side of the Nativity - this tale of Old Testament prophecy and bloodletting. Indeed, it has been a habit amongst liberal Christians such as Unitarians – freed as we are to make sense of the Bible how we see fit – to bluntly edit out the more uncomfortable bits. But maybe - standing at this point in the season – we need to face up to this darker side of the Christmas story.

The 'Slaughter of the Innocents', like so many incidents in the Bible, highlights that in some ways our world – with all its undoubted splendour and wonder – contains a perpetuating, frightening level of brokenness. And most if not all of this brokenness has root in humankind – as a free, conscious species with the capacity for destruction as much as creativity.

Herod was faced with a choice to pay homage to Jesus or reject him. He chose to reject Jesus and in turn ordered the killing of the children of Bethlehem, intending for Jesus to be amongst the forgotten dead. We tend to look upon Herod as a cartoon super-villain - but maybe the choice he made was not such a simple choice, maybe it was one riven with deliberation. In deciding to do what he did, Herod may well have convinced himself he was protecting the state from a potential usurper. He may well have convinced himself he was protecting the nation from bloody Roman intervention should the baby born of David’s line trigger a grassroots rebellion. But this was also to do with Herod personally and spiritually - to do with his ego, to do with wanting to hold on to his personal power, status and privilege.

What is stark is that there is ultimately nothing redeeming in the story of Herod. Herod is certainly not redeemed. He had a choice, to pay homage to Jesus alongside the Magi – to bring him his gifts – or to keep his gifts to himself. He chose the latter and it led to the worst kind of destruction – the destruction of children.

Some Christians do indeed try to redeem the event as a whole by declaring the children of Bethlehem to be the first martyrs of Christ - commemorating them with the Feast of the Holy Innocents. But these young Jewish boys didn’t choose to bravely die for Jesus like other Christian martyrs; their deaths were entirely forced on them and they would have been completely unaware of the greater cause. Nor did God come to save them, as he had saved Jesus and his family through Joseph’s dreams. 

So it is no wonder we find it discomforting and naturally leave it out of Christmas. Yet perhaps, as we stand at the end of the Christmas period’s festivities, we can include it now as a timely and fitting reorientation to the core business of Christianity? Because ultimately, the 'Slaughter of the Innocents' strips away all the tinsel from the Christmas story and places the child Jesus squarely in a world which contains chaos and carnage. 

And this was precisely the world Jesus acted in reaction to – setting out God's agenda for a loving, self-giving way of living. The word joy is often displayed at Christmas - perhaps this is out of habit but within it there is also good reason. Jesus saw the potential for joy in the world and wanted to bring people into the joy of living - particularly the most downtrodden of people. Not just the poor, but the hard-hearted, cynical rich. This is what he meant about becoming like little children. And because of this, at just 33 years old, he was killed by people worried about his challenge to their hierarchy and privilege.

As we look at the world, at the close of 2015 and start of 2016, I’m sure we can see parallels with Bethlehem, with the Magi, and with Herod. The story is real, it is reality.

With Bethlehem’s slaughter, I’m sure our thoughts will turn quickly to Iraq and Syria, to the helpless dressed in orange, knife pressed against their necks, to the lines of refugees seeking to escape. And whilst I am not trying to create an equivalency, I also put it to you, if we look more closely to home to the flood-stricken towns of northern England – to the families most likely facing the true cost of our carbon consumption - might we also see something of Bethlehem’s weeping?

It’s probably more comforting to view ourselves, particularly as Unitarians, as Magi-like people – as seekers, as pilgrims - but maybe we are also Herod-like people? After all, if we are honest, we too have a capacity to be rejecters and destroyers, to selfishly try to protect what we have. And perhaps not deliberately, but at least carelessly, perhaps we too might be taking part in a slaughter of innocents?

You might not want to do this right now, and I certainly find it uncomfortable, but let us think about all we have consumed this Christmas – the wide variety of food shipped from across the world, the luxury gifts made in anonymous foreign factories, the oil burned to keep our Christmas ornaments sparkling – can we really disinherit Herod as someone over there, whilst we stand over here? And if we do want to disinherit ourselves, how can we do it? Cars, supermarkets, energy supplies – we are all hooked in and it’s clear there are no easy, straightforward ways out. It’s complicated.

But I put it to you today, that following Jesus is a way of helping us navigate this complex, beautiful yet brutal world. Looking to his teachings and example, using the gifts we have for the cause to which he used his gifts, might mean that we are lifted up as our journey continues on into 2016 – lifted up from merely consuming, to being people who do genuinely put something back, to being people who genuinely bring light to the darkness.


At Oldham we see this already in the collective work that is being done with the most vulnerable. It is inspiring to know that on Christmas Day the chapel was open, giving food and warmth to the vulnerable. But this also requires a personal sense of responsibility, a personal commitment to giving to the cause. 

And it is not just a practical endeavour – the object of the journey is surely also spiritual – to kindle the Christ-light within us, to become as 'little children' and thus to achieve greater unity with God. So it requires not just money and material offerings, not just time and energy, but our mind and hearts.

As we look ahead to this New Year, let us recommit ourselves to living life with Jesus at our side – let our biggest resolution be to help make the world a better place for the Holy Innocents who will come into it.

Amen