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Tuesday, 24 October 2017

New Podcast

I have neglected this blog in recent years and recently moved on to other technologies so the purpose of this post is just to test how well blogger can cope with embedded podcasts (or whether I can make them work). The name of the podcast is After Church Coffee. Hopefully you will be able to enjoy it below.

Listen to "After Church Coffee" on Spreaker.


Friday, 12 August 2016

Madeira Fire: A View from Above

As I write this I am on holiday in Madeira, which sadly has made international news in the last few days because of the serious forest fires which have destroyed not only countryside areas but part of the largest town, Funchal. Now that the fires are subsiding, tourists are being encouraged to resume their gawping so today we went to Funchal and rode the cable car to visit the tropical gardens.

The fifteen minute ride up the hill was a shocking experience for as we looked down we could see the blackened ruins of homes recently destroyed. The path of the fire, like so many negative experiences of life, defied logic - at one point we hovered over a house that seemed perfectly intact and could see a family sweeping the yard even though the entire neighbourhood around them was gone. It is an image that will stay with me for a long time and which, of course, can be read in many ways. Perhaps we might even see ourselves in this - the world around us seems a crazy, mad place but in our homes and our churches we just keep sweeping up and responding to crises by putting the kettle on. We feel inadequate but what else can we do?

The tropical gardens were as beautiful as people say but there was an awkward, muted feel among the visitors and the smell of smoke was a constant reminder of the destruction around us - no doubt the family down the hill will be suffering this for some time to come. Awkward as it was to be at the gardens, there was some solace in finding beauty amidst all the recent destruction and perhaps in some way the same is true for the family sweeping the yard. Today they swept the yard which looked a little crazy from above but they can see how this neighbourhood used to look; how it can look again if people sweep, and plant and build.

As we think of our world, this Spaceship Earth, may we learn a lesson from the Funchal family sweeping the yard - may we see the beautiful potential in ourselves, our families, and our neighbourhoods and sweep and plant and build to make it so.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

When the Mountaintop Experience is out of Focus

I had a mountaintop experience yesterday but it wasn't very good. Tracey and I were on a one-day tour of the Dolomites in northern Italy and after seven hours on a coach, we were finally given some free time for a cable car ride to the top of a mountain from where we were promised the most fantastic view the region had to offer. Our guide even gave us a guarantee that the experience would be spiritual but there was a catch. Our spiritual experience had to be completed at a pace because in just over an hour we needed to be back on the coach to travel back down the 27 hairpin bends that had taken us to this height. It's hard to have an authentic spiritual experience under this kind of time pressure and I haven't even mentioned the fact that I was in urgent need of a loo stop.

Despite all this I had high hopes for the mountaintop. I recalled visiting the Rocky Mountains for the first time many years ago and getting this incredible sense of coming home in a place I'd never been before. Back in Wyoming I just stopped and stared at the view, drank it all in so effectively that my thirst for that moment is still being quenched to this day. Yesterday I skipped all that and reached for my camera. We were on a schedule and had to be back on the coach. There wasn't sufficient time to drink it all up so I would snap a few pictures and hopefully get something out of the moment later, back at home when the holiday was over.

Is this how we now are? Are we so obsessed with digital representations of the moment that the moment itself is lost to us?

After a few minutes, Tracey took the camera off me to take a few snaps herself. At this moment the camera battery ran out and thinking myself fantastically well-organised, I told her that I had packed a spare battery that very morning, which she could find in the side pouch of the camera case. However, further investigation revealed that I had been less alert than I thought and had, in fact, packed a chocolate from my hotel pillow instead of a battery. Oops.

The absurdity of the situation - going up a mountain only to discover you have taken a chocolate instead of a camera battery - continues to entertain Tracey and the 28 friends who have so far 'liked' my mention of the incident. Still there are interesting points to ponder. How many of us are so digital now that special events are not real, not quite authentic, unless they are photographed, shared or 'liked'? How many of us are so used to being frenetically busy that we habitually hurry through moments that ought to be savoured and in so doing entirely miss their significance, grumbling, for example, because it's too bright to see the view from the mountaintop on the tiny screen on the back of a camera when we ought to be drinking in the moment and not worrying too much about the pictures we take?

Now I'm a day older but maybe not wiser and I'm sitting by the clear blue water of Lake Garda writing this. We had big plans for the day but we came back to the hotel early because it is incredibly hot even for here. Tracey is swimming in the lake along with a duck and her brood of ducklings. The sound of the water lapping against the shore is soothing and the coffee I'm drinking tastes good. I have been sitting here for ages and have no idea what the time is.

If I stay here long enough I think this could count as a mountaintop moment. Good job I haven't got my camera.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Down with that sort of thing

In a recent service at Cheltenham, Cressida invited the congregation to take to the streets and be heard on an issue that matters to us. It was a good message until it became apparent that she meant that we should do it immediately. TODAY. Inspiration turned to perspiration because this wasn’t Selma in 1965 or even the London anti-war marches of 2003. This was Cheltenham in 2015 and people might see.

In the course of the service we had explored that great idea of being the change you want to see in the world. Cressida’s point was that good deeds emerge not so much of their own volition but out of our ‘being.’  I thought of Martin Luther King and the non-violent philosophy through which demonstrators were not only supposed to submit to the violence of those who oppressed them, even when they were physically beaten, but confront evil with the power of love. Non-violence was not just about restraining your fists but training your mind and spirit in the ways of complete compassion. Being led to doing.

In Cheltenham, my being let me down pretty quickly. Cressida had produced a makeshift poster to campaign on behalf of migrants, following the terrible Mediterranean ship tragedy in which up to 900 people died. As we walked out of the church and into the street I worried not about getting the message across but whether the font size on my placard was big enough or whether passers-by would think we were barking mad. A few of us started talking about that Father Ted  scene in which the two priests campaign outside a cinema with placards that read ‘down with that sort of thing’ and ‘careful now’. Would people think we were like them? Worse still, would we be regarded as a strange cult, bent on brainwashing the vulnerable? Would the latte-sippers of Cheltenham consider a street campaign vulgar and out of keeping with the character of the town (I’m not saying Cheltenham is posh but some refer to the local gym as James)?

Such concerns caused most of us to be pretty ineffectual street-campaigners. Ludicrously, our first move was to attempt to set up shop as far from any people as we could because we didn’t want to be a nuisance or get in the way of anyone’s day. Dorothy, our oldest member and a street protest veteran, was having none of it and insisted we move to the middle of the shops AND speak to people as they passed by. We stood sheepishly in a row, like freshly-coiffured teenagers terrified that a hair might be out of place even though for some of us that hair left the premises long ago.

“We need to talk to people,” said Dorothy so we started saying hello and some people ignored us, and a few said hello back and then look bewildered when we didn’t try to sell them anything. After a while, Dorothy started chanting, “Migrants matter! Migrants matter!” We joined in (still sheepishly) and I wondered if the message didn’t need to be unpacked a little more to be meaningful but I couldn’t see how that would work (which roughly translated means I felt a bit of a berk shouting the same two words over and over). Eventually, I made myself raise the volume a little. “Migrants matter!” I bellowed and someone shouted back “Do they?” and a thought went through my mind that you wouldn’t hear in Sunday School and which was hopelessly out of tune with the ways of complete compassion practiced by Martin Luther King and Gandhi before him.

After a few minutes we started to relax. At one point a young man stopped to talk to us about our cause and when he left he asked for a leaflet about the Unitarians because he thought we sounded like an interesting organisation. This was a far greater shock to us than we were to anyone who passed us in the street.

Our street experiment ended because Dorothy’s bus came and we still need her expertise to make us better at this sort of thing. Several  weeks later I’m still thinking about the relationship between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ especially as experienced that day. Sometimes the people we know encourage us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do and those shared activities can transform us, however gradually into better states of ‘being’. It’s not a one way street.

The plan is to take to the streets again, next time a little more removed from our embarrassment and a little more focused on the cause. Thousands of migrants are dehumanized, stripped of their dignity, exploited and condemned to injustice because they conveniently pass under the political radar. Shouldn’t I be prepared to risk a little of my dignity in support of theirs? And in the end, what is more dignified than to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed?

I am reminded of the simple but profound words of Mother Pollard, a famous activist in the long and ultimately successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, a campaign in which the dignity of African Americans was such a central theme. “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Like her, may you be the change you want to see in the world and may your feet be tired and your soul rested.

For more on the Migrants Matter campaign go to:

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Missing the Point?

Today I have been thinking about missing the point. I read a news story this morning about some women who were prevented from breast-feeding in public at a conference about promoting breast feeding. Then someone tweeted a piece about a 12 year old boy who was refused admission to any screening of The Theory of Everything (a new film about Stephen Hawking) at Harrogate Odeon because he is a wheelchair user. At work, a frustrated student told me that she didn't understand how all this reading could possibly help her to teach literacy to children. I wonder, how much of life do we waste, how much energy do we spend, busily missing the point?

An online Unitarian conversation this week focused on the bible with much of the attention devoted to those aspects people found offensive. Sexism, homophobia and slavery all reared their ugly heads. Fair enough. But even as I read these comments my thoughts wandered to some other sections - turn the other cheek, faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians 13, the recurring theme of rebirth and renewal following on from situations that seemed dead, the challenge of living well that is represented in the Sermon on the Mount. There may be aspects of the bible that cause offence and that is worth exploring but to write off all biblical texts as a result of this is surely to miss the point.

One of the strange things about many Unitarians is how much time many of them spend talking about the trinity. Personally, I have always perceived the doctrine as a human construct. It does not offend me in any way, I am neither for it or against it; for some people it is useful and for others limiting - if I said whatever floats your boat I might be accused of flippancy but it's late so I'll say it anyway and hope that anyone who reads this takes it in the right spirit. It does strike me though that for liberal thinkers there is sometimes a danger of putting so much effort into expressing what we don't believe that we neglect to focus on what we do believe.

Personally this leads me to Jesus. I am a Jesus Unitarian and I take a strange kind of comfort from the fact that a defining characteristic of Christianity is not allegiance to a book but relationship to a person. There's a lot that gets in the way. As I've said before, possibly in this very blog, separating the claims made for Jesus with his own actual teachings is a difficult job but it's surely worth a little effort. I can no longer get excited debating whether or not Jesus was divine, not least because my sense of what that even means is far removed from where it once was. However, Jesus is a person to whom I can relate, a radical whose example and teachings make him a character apart from the history to which he belongs, a voice of warmth, love and compassion in a cruel world. At the very least, he is to me the best example I have yet found of what (to borrow some trinitarian-echoing language) the 'spirit-filled' / holy / Godly / Divine / good life can be. Or am I missing the point?

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Staring into the Abyss on Crosby Beach

In the last couple of months before leaving Cheshire, there were a lot of goodbyes. In people’s homes, in coffee shops, in two universities and in church there were more goodbyes to be made than I’d realised. Whilst living in Crewe, it turned out I knew a lot of really nice people. By the time I’d done my round of goodbyes I was heartily wishing I’d done more helloing over the past few years. ‘Helloing’ isn’t a verb, of course, but in future I hope to get better at it anyway. It’s not a good state of affairs when you find yourself saying, ‘It’s a shame we haven’t seen each other in a couple of years but I thought I’d pop in to say goodbye.’ That’s like waking the sleeping patient to give them sleeping pills. Wake up! It’s time to go to sleep! Surely that is not what friendship is about.

As an escape from the trauma of packing and trying to sell a very reasonably priced and luxurious house (see Rightmove for further details), Tracey and I took a drive to Liverpool and ended up on Crosby Beach, home to Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place.’ This art installation consists of 100 cast-iron male figures stretched over a long stretch of beach. The figures are meant to be some kind of reflection on the relationship between humanity and nature. As time passes the wind, rain and sea are changing the appearance of the statues as, no doubt, would be the case with any of us who chose to stand naked on a Liverpool beach for a few years.

These middle-aged metal men are spread fairly evenly apart and whilst they are identifiably a group each has a solitary presence; each seems disconnected from the rest, unaware of others facing the same sea salt plight. I thought of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is always talking about staring into the abyss and I wondered if this was what these statues were doing. Standing on Crosby Beach, staring into the abyss or at least towards Birkenhead.

The scene was made particularly eerie by the fact that even as I joined them in their dispassionate stare into the abyss, some of the figures were gradually becoming submerged by the approaching tide. Most maintained their dignity whilst the waters consumed them but one had a seagull perched on his head. Anyone who has lived a life knows that keeping your dignity with a seagull on your head is a big ask.

I liked the Antony Gormley figures, but I wanted them to be freed from their isolation, to recognise their metallurgical mates, to abandon staring into the abyss in favour of discovering the meaning in each other. Others clearly are moved in a similar direction. Do a web search for images of these figures and many feature some kind of interaction between statue and human visitor. On a daily basis, these metal men are distracted from staring into the abyss by generous hugs, people dressing them in silly hats, trunks and other paraphernalia, silly jokes and kids digging holes around them – ‘Stop digging, he’ll fall over.’ Perhaps instead of staring into what cannot really be seen somewhere slightly out of view on the far horizon, it’s time for these figures to look around, to see and value what’s close to them right now. Maybe that’s true for all of us.

Picture by Gavin Edwards

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

It matters what you believe (New Year address - Chester and Warrington)

A few years ago, I was doing some research on the Primitive Methodist movement in the United States and was amused by this rather serious editorial from the Primitive Methodist Journal:

With some of the readers of the Journal the morning of their existence is gone, with others the noon has passed, while with others the night is at hand. Spring time has gone, the summer sun is setting, autumn days are passing, and the white frosts of life's winter has covered some of our heads. We sincerely wish the readers of the Journal a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

There is something about this time of year that makes people serious and reflective. Christmas has now gone and any new year celebrations we had are behind us. Maybe that makes us sad or maybe we're relieved, maybe it was stressful. We have been through the indigestion of Christmas and we welcome the high-fibre, low-fat possibilities of a new year. I have long thought of January as a time of re-invention, a period when our thoughts naturally turn to how we can be better versions of ourselves than we were before. We make resolutions, we might even start a reflective journal, we are prone to reflecting more on who we are and what we are about perhaps than in the warmer days of summer.

With this in mind, I want to talk for a few minutes today about this idea of reinventing ourselves, particularly in terms of belief, our attitudes towards what we believe and some of the claims that are made about Unitarianism and belief by those who, for whatever reason, don't get it.

One of the anti-Unitarian arguments I have heard is that this is not a religious movement at all – there are no creeds and people can just believe what they want and what use is that? The charge is that because we don't have formal creeds, we don't take belief seriously enough.

The best defence against this charge is the stories of the people who identify themselves as Unitarian. As I have met people over the last couple of years I have been struck by how many, like me, started their spiritual journeys in another denomination but ended up calling Unitarianism home.  Sharing stories reveals that people are Unitarian BECAUSE they take belief seriously, not because they don't. Personally, I still have great respect for Methodism, a church I belonged to from birth to the age of 43 – it's a broad church with many people expressing the kind of beliefs I do – for example advocating gay marriage or, on a more abstract level, thinking of God not so much as a great supernatural being but as a concept of being unifying all that is. In the end, though, I left because I didn't feel I could quite say what I wanted to say when in the pulpit. Over the years I sat in Local Preachers' meetings and training sessions and heard people talking about the need to be wary of upsetting people. 'Don't upset people's simple faith,' was the message. 'Don't rock the boat.' I understood this point of view. It argued that Sunday worships was a time when people should have their faith reinforced not undermined, that we should be about building a community, not get tangled up over our differences. I understood but I wasn't comfortable with it and when controversial subjects came up as they so often do in a religion with writings that refer to a virgin birth, people coming back from the dead, eternal punishment and more, I found myself dancing around the edges, not quite saying what I meant, and avoiding issues that I thought were important.  In the end I left Methodism so I could do what I am doing today. I left Methodism so that I could speak as honestly and openly about belief as possible. I left Methodism because I longed for that ability to be as honest and open about my beliefs in the context of a Sunday service as I could be in a friend in a coffee shop and that is what Unitarianism is doing for me. It is helping me take belief seriously, to share my own beliefs and learn from the beliefs of others.

When I was planning what to say today I found it surprisingly easy to find a counter-argument to each of my points and if I was my own critic at this point I would charge that I am not consistent, that whilst I claim to be serious about belief, I keep changing what I think as I go. This is true. But in the course of a lifetime, everybody changes their beliefs. I found a strange little website the other week where people posted some of the things they used to believe when they were children and here are a few:

I used to think that those masks doctors wear during surgery was to prevent them from vomiting when they saw their patient's insides.

 In my childhood, I believed that when people fasted, it was forbidden for them to swallow their own saliva.

When I was a child, I would always let go of my balloons when I was outside. I was convinced I was sending them up to Heaven to be with my grandparents.

I used to think that as soon as the palms of your hands were together God could hear everything you say, sort of like a walkie-talkie button. I was afraid to say anything bad or stupid if my palms were touching in any way.

When I was little, I used to believe that whatever someone believed is what would happen to them after they died. If they believed in heaven and were a good person, then they'd go to heaven. If they believed in reincarnation, they would be reincarnated. If they didn't believe in any afterlife, than nothing would happen. Then, I grew up and people tried to convince me that one belief was correct above all others and that everyone who didn't believe like me would go to hell. I liked my childhood belief better.

Belief is not a fixed phenomenon. It changes as we change. At this point, my inner critic would say, what about truth? Unitarians include people who draw heavily from many religious traditions. They can't all be right.

I could get very postmodern now and talk for ages about what we mean by truth and whether that is even a meaningful concept but I'd probably even bore myself so let me just say this. When it comes to the beliefs we have and our own faith journeys, maybe being right is not the most important thing. Maybe the most important thing about our beliefs is not whether they are right but what they do to us and how they shape what we do in the world.

Sophia Lyon Fahs was an American Unitarian who became a minster in the fifties, was a great champion of inter-cultural dialogue and racial reconciliation between different countries but also within the United States and someone who, in her day, became quite a controversial voice in children's religious education. She argued that children should learn about religion experientially and not be told what to think. Some of her critics misinterpreted what she was trying to achieve, portraying her work as some would still portray the Unitarian movement, as not being serious about belief but this is what she wrote on the subject:

Some beliefs are like walled gardens – they encourage exclusiveness, the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathy. Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies, other beliefs are bound in a world community – sincere differences beautify the pattern. Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction whilst other beliefs are like gateways opening up wide vistas for exploration. Some beliefs are rigid, like the body at death, impotent in a changing world while other beliefs are pliable like the young sapling ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

My conclusion from all of this is that what we believe matters because it shapes our ability to care for others, to demonstrate compassion for situations and people we don't know well, to be good people of the world community.

So I invite you in the cold, reflective time of a new year to spend time seriously thinking about what you believe or don't believe and how that affects the way you interact with others. May we each also continue to grow through the beliefs and stories of others. And let me conclude by recalling a line from a wonderful Methodist sermon I heard more than 20 years ago which you might find helpful in those times when the universe seems too complicated, you can't quite make sense of it all, and truth is an elusive thing. The preacher took as his text a beatitude that you won't find in the bible. He said, 'Blessed are the cracks for they let in the light.' His point was that when it comes to spiritual truth, spiritual experiences, spiritual insight, maybe we only get brief glimpses but if we are open to them, they can transform our whole being. You might not need to spend weeks and months researching in the library to have a transforming experience that changes your belief. Maybe at this time of year you just need a clear sky full of stars on a winter's night. Look up at those stars and let them fill you with warmth and wonder as they did when you were a child. Then take that warmth and wonder home with you and use it to make the world a better place.