Sunday, February 17, 2019

Darsana - to be seen by the divine

People in relationships do not always need words to communicate. Lovers stare into each other's eyes; a suckling baby looks contentedly to its mother. There is the silence of bodily communion.

This is what contemplative prayer is like. Prayer is to see the Beloved and allow the Beloved to see you. Hindus have a word for this - darsana - to allow yourself to be seen and beheld by God.

There is something about looking into the eyes of another - to see and know you are seen - which is one of the deepest experiences of human existence. It even works with a statue or image, if you look directly into its eyes - you can see it looking at you.

This is part of the practice of Christian icons, who are always looking directly at you. The experience of praying with icons is darsana - it is being seen by God.

I do this a bit, I have an icon that I tend to have there when I pray, but it's not particularly my practice. The practice that I stumbled across really by accident, and use from time to time, is simply to look in a mirror.

If you stare into a mirror for long enough, into your own eyes, you begin to see God looking back at you. Your own image reveals the Someone in all things. You see God and God sees you. You experience darsana - the loving eyes of God beholding you. In this intimacy with God you can stare into the Beloved's eyes, and speak only when there's something that needs to be shared with the Beloved.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Ordinary Religious Experience

For a long time I've been of the opinion that the heart of religion is religious or spiritual experience. I find that both religious and anti-religious writers tend to assume that beliefs are what it's all about. But I'm more interested in religious experience.

But when I read books about religious experience I tend to find they concentrate on peak religious experiences - the kind of thing that happens once in a lifetime - when there's an overwhelming experience of love, connection, oneness, joy. Such things may be important, but their rarity means, I think, that they are less important than what I would call ordinary religious experience.

Ordinary religious experience is what people actually experience in every day practices of prayer and worship. I would maintain that ordinary people experience a quality of inner experience - including joy and peace - in worship every week - and that's pretty much the reason they do it. The reason people believe in God is that they experience God in worship on a Sunday. It's not all lightning and heavenly voices - but there is a sense of beauty and love that, along with the story of a community, gives people a sense of what God is.

I feel like ordinary religious experience should really be the foundation for any conversation about God and religion, yet I don't really know of any theologians or philosophers of religion who approach their task in that way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What is Cardiff like?

It's been a year since I moved to Cardiff. In that year one of my key tasks has been to answer the simple question: what is Cardiff like?

I remember my first official day working in Cardiff, I thought how amazing it was that my "commute" involved walking past a castle. But the castle is just one of the most obvious things about Cardiff. Today when I walk past it I always notice all the tourists. The coaches always park outside the castle and they stream out. And as far as I can see they just visit the castle, take pictures of the animal wall and then get back on their coaches.

That's the tourist side of Cardiff - but what is it actually like when you get down deeper? When you, for example, just go over the bridge to the side of Cardiff on the other side of the Taff?

I still feel inadequate to answer the question really, even after a year. I don't have the insight of a born and bred Cardiffian, or someone who has lived in the area for decades. I can only reflect on my personal experiences.

In many ways Cardiff is like many other places: there's a Costa Coffee on every corner, there's modern redevelopment that's happened since the 1990s, there's modern rented flats everywhere, a shopping centre that looks like every other one.

There's lots of students, there's lots of homeless, parking is a headache, traffic is bad, housing is not very affordable.

There are city centre bars, chain restaurants, little coffee shops.

It is a city. It is a capital city. And yet in some ways it's pretty small. That makes me think that the word I want to use for it is deep. I walk from one side of the city to the other all the time (not entirely, I mean, not including the whole of Cardiff and every suburb, but what I think of as the whole of the city) and so it's a place that feels entirely walkable to me. And yet there are layers and layers under those few miles - layers of people, and languages, and history, and experience. There's history going back to the Romans and there's layers of immigrants defining the city generation by generation.

It's got an accent that takes some tuning in to. It's not what English people would think of as a typical Welsh accent. It has it's own kind of guttural character sort of not unlike a Liverpool accent while also being nothing like a Liverpool accent - but perhaps some other combination of Welsh, Irish, and English making something different from the same ingredients.

It is a greener city than many I've lived in. The River Taff creates a meandering green strip that goes right through the city and gives it deep lungs. I really love this about Cardiff. It has such a massive park right in the middle of the city, something very unusual for an industrial revolution-era city.

I love the river and I give thanks every time I walk over the bridge. It's also great to be by the sea. You can go many months in Cardiff without seeing the sea and can forget that it's actually a port city. Cardiff Bay it not quite the sea but there is something spiritually refreshing about being near large bodies of water. The seagulls, though, are not a great thing about the city, especially in summer when they are very loud. 

It is also a very dirty city with a big litter problem. The system of bags of litter on the street does sometimes mean rubbish goes everywhere. It's a bit depressing.

It's a city big enough so that it means you are always meeting new people but small enough so that you bump into the same people all the time. It's small enough to seem like it could actually be a coherent community.

There's poverty and there's relative wealth, and it's all in quite close quarters.

From my point of view, it is a city where it has been fairly easy to make connections. There's enough going on that I've been able to find things out and go along to different groups and begin to make relationships through these.

As a capital city it is a centre of the arts, politics, broadcasting, charities, out of proportion to its actual size. That gives it a certain flavour.

It's also a changing city I think. I think it will change quite a lot over the coming decades, and they'l be new flavours and layers mixed in.

Cardiff is like this, and more. I really really like it and I think I will live here for a very long time. It feels like home.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Art Lester's Anniversary Sermon 2008

(I'm reproducing this sermon here just because I worry it might be lost if it's taken down from other websites, and I think this sermon shouldn't be lost, because it still says it all for me. It was delivered at the Unitarian Annual Meetings in 2008)

"Reasonless Hope and Joy" Art Lester

There are some things I'd like to tell my friends and companions on this odd pilgrimage we are making together. When I was first invited to preach this sermon there might have been some thought of grand words, of raising issues that affect the whole world. But in the end I decided that I really just wanted to talk about us, about who we are and where we're heading. 

Right now, maybe we're all feeling a bit vulnerable. There has been recent news of a predator that seems to be stalking us. This predator's ghastly breathing is audible over our hymns, and its fearsome head can be seen through our stained glass windows. You know this beast. Its name is demographix*. The perfect name for a 21st century Bogey Man. The demographix will get us. In so many years there will only be so many ministers. The numbers and the age profile of our congregations are worsening. Just look at the charts and graphs if you don't believe me. And listen to what has been said in some meetings. Things that are about as cheerful as a BBC newsreader predicting a pandemic of Bird Flu. 

So tonight I have a question for us. I ask it in as much humility as someone like me can muster. Why is it that we fear we're dying

On the face of it, that's a silly question. All those signs seem to tell us that if things continue exactly as they have been doing that there will be a vanishing point somewhere out there. Numbers are shrinking, age profiles rising, ministerial ranks declining. Oddly, said like that, these things sound a lot like symptoms, symptoms that are affecting the body of Unitarianism. 

If you took this body to a doctor, she might do a diagnosis based on the physical evidence and offer a prognosis that was either satisfactory or dire. She would probably prescribe medicines and give advice. Some of these would be good, old-fashioned tonics: paint the church door, invite a friend to a service, liven up the newsletter. And some would be miracle cures straight from the laboratories of the scientists: market analysis, focus groups, internet visibility, targets and new programmes. Any of these might be good interventions, and it is an unwise patient that ignores doctors' orders. 

But what if the problems were not due solely to physical causes? What if, following hints from such writers as Thomas Moore and James Hillman, they were problems of a deeper kind? What if the dread of loss and dying was really a reflection of something amiss with the soul? 

Ask any psychotherapist about a client whose focus is on the symptoms of illness, and they will tell you that these "presenting issues" often mask afflictions of a more profound sort. The symptoms they experience with the conscious mind are often just an Aunt Sally for an illness nearer the heart; they are urgent cues to address what is actually wrong. So, what if our current obsession with avoiding death by attrition is really urging us - no, begging us - to address a need of the soul? 

If that is so, then we need to face up to that fact, even as we take the new medicines that we are being prescribed. If the problem lies only superficially with the body, then treatment of the body can only have a limited and temporary effect. If the real problem lies with the soul, we must address ourselves to learning how to understand ourselves in a new way. 

Now I would not blame you if you thought, "What cheek! Our little church does its very best with limited resources, and all of us are very satisfied with what we get on Sunday, thank you very much. Besides, we've just begun a new membership drive." I'm sure that if I were sitting out there with you tonight that I might think just that. But I am reminded of something tantalising and mysterious that the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba once said. He said, "The spiritual life is like this. Someone throws a huge snake into a crowded room. Some scream and flee in terror. Others plot and manoeuvre to avoid being bitten. And others, a very few, are filled with a reasonless hope and joy." It is just that reasonless hope and joy that I am appealing to tonight. 

If the problem we face is indeed one of the soul of our movement, what is to be done about it? Physical remedies are to be found on all sides, but there is no neighbourhood Boots the Chemist for deeper ailments. We can read lots of paperback spirituality, engage in the DIY voodoo of awareness sessions, get out the healing crystals and the special teas, bump knees in every kind of planning activity we can dream up, but where is the consulting room for problems of the soul? 

But there is somewhere we could go. Somewhere where problems to do with the soul have always been taken. As I say it, I wonder how many in this room can raise their hands and say they have considered it. I'm talking about what the fundamentalist denominations would have done as a first resort. I can hear them now, can't you? "Brother, Sister, have you prayed about it? 

If that phrase sounds strange coming from a Unitarian minister, maybe we should ask ourselves why. It has a certain frisson of the forbidden about it, a touch of Unitarian infra-dig, doesn't it? But wait a minute - we are religious people, aren't we? If not, what are we? The fact of that question's strangeness to our ears may just point to the nature of the problem. Some church-goers in other denominations might want to ask, "Why haven't you taken this pressing matter to the highest court?" 

Namely, God. If you have a problem with that word, please interpolate. You can call it "ultimate concern", "ground of being" or whatever you want. I prefer to use that three-letter word - not just because it is so easy to spell - but because it links me to the faithful of all religions who feel humbled in the presence of something transcendent and wonderful. And please - this is not just a get-out clause for me. I really don't mind what you call Him, or Her or It, and I suspect God doesn't either. 

It may be that we have stopped viewing God as someone you can really talk to. If that is so, then the happy-clappies have it all over us. Maybe God and the Spirit and all that have become nothing more than an idea, a topic for discussion. Maybe it means that we think that God isn't really there at all, that He has joined the mobs in the great drive-in temples of loony America, and left us to merely philosophise. And if God doesn't make an appearance in church on Sunday, how can we expect to see anyone who is actually looking for Him? 

Our failing is not one of hypnotising the throngs with guitar chords and rhetoric as the evangelicals do; it is that we often attempt to worship an idea. You can't worship an idea. You can't fall to your knees before an opinion, and you can't find yourself weeping with pity and love over a finely-turned philosophical argument. The question of why we are declining may have an answer that is at once simple and complex. Simple because it can be expressed in a single sentence. Complex because it may entail some re-thinking of our customs, our activities and - yes - even our theology. I think I might put it in another question: are we nourishing the soul

In the spirit of honesty as we look at our situation, I ask for a bit of courage here. Emerson once said something like, "Preach to the soul, and the world will beat a path to your door." I need to respond to that for myself: are we really giving the world the kind of spiritual vision it needs? Does what we do animate, inspire, touch the soul? Does it address the questions, both vocal and mute, that trouble the world? Given our hard-won freedom from outside control, can we open it to the purposes of the Holy Spirit? Or have we forged ourselves a new set of chains that bind us to the inoffensive, the vague and the timid? 

I'm not a Christian, liberal or otherwise. Nor am I a Buddhist, a humanist or a pagan. Did I leave anyone out? I'm just a Unitarian, and I want the movement that I love to reclaim some of the spiritual joy that we have left to the so-called evangelical churches. I want the beautiful songs that spring from the inchoate longing we might call the love of God to be heard in our churches again. Not the words; they do nothing but confuse and divide us anyway. Throw out sin and salvation, ignore saviours and saints, use the crucifix in the kitchen to hang potholders on if we must, but refuse to let go of the great ancient tunes of worship. 

Am I speaking about actual music? Maybe. But I am really speaking about the tunes heard not by the ears, but by the heart, that resonate in the human soul. Like the minister of the story, who countered rhetoric with harmony, I would like to see us drop a few of our prideful habits and just let the Spirit flow though us again. 

No, not empty emotionalism; not the hypnosis of happy-clappy preaching reinforced by choirs that sound like backing singers for James Brown, and certainly not the glazed eyes of the born again. But yes, the feeling of being held by something too great to imagine and the trust like that of little children which it engenders. And the sense that sometimes, just sometimes, the heart can be wiser than the head. 

So... am I seriously suggesting that we pray for new members to save us from decline? Well, yes and no. No, because praying for something specific is an invitation to disappointment - it is the theological monkey's paw. But yes, because my hope is that by praying at all we may recover something of our spiritual courage. Ironically, if we do start praying, really praying, that will surely bring in new members. I don't want to imply that some divine bursar is going to top off our balance because He is pleased with our supplication. I mean that any act of engaging with the one true reality carries with it an aura of that which is so often missing from our worship, and in our humility we will have become more worthy of being joined again. And when the new ones come, as they will, we may wonder what the problem ever was, after all. 

I know, I know. We Unitarians have never been all that good at humility. We don't do humility; we're the ones who famously gave up kneeling, after all. But when we humbly admit that we need guidance, the limiting strictures of pride fall away. When the absence in our churches that so worries us ceases to be the absence of all those new faces to take the minutes and make the tea, and starts being the absence of that Spirit that inspired us in the first place, we will be found by those who are actually looking for God - not just talking about Him. And when that happens, chain link fences couldn't keep them away. 

If you were going to ask God about our situation, how would you put it? Would you say, "Dear God, please send me twenty-six new members of mixed ages - including at least one chartered accountant - who have 9.4 children and can drive a car." Probably not. You'd probably say something more modest, like, "God, what can we do to increase our membership?" leaving the details to Him. But, you know, I think the silence would continue to be deafening. I think it would stay like that until you got around to this question: "What can we do to bring your living presence back into this place that we love?" 

As is so often the case, the question contains the answer. Once you stop worrying about yourself and start concentrating on the presence of the spirit, you unlock the miracle you have been seeking. 

The questions never stop; all these factions and differences of opinion are part of life in the slow lane of church-going. But they seem to lose their ability to harm in the over-brooding presence of the spirit. To borrow some lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins, what you are left with is, "Ah, bright wings!" Differences? I should say so; we are composed of differences - we Unitarians eat them for breakfast. The words of the hymns multiply and divide; theological perspectives come and go. But that tune is the same, ancient and eternal. God loves that tune. I like to think that faithful people have always hummed that tune and that others have come and sat around and hummed with them. That they hummed a few bars out of nothing more mysterious than love and God did the rest. I'd like to think that we will do the same.

No, I pray that we will. 


*I am indebted to Stephen Lingwood for this spelling of the monster's name. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Womb of God

When I was in prayer a few years ago I found myself stumbling across an image that has stayed with me - the image of the womb of God.

While trying to meditate I was concentrating on my breath. In and out. In and out. Then I began to try to experience that every breath was a gift from God, every breath an expression of love, every breath the holy spirit going in and of my lungs (I think I got this practice from Anthony de Mello).

The image that came to mind from this was to think of every breath as coming from a divine umbilical cord. I began to think of myself being supported by the body of God. I thought of every sound I could hear (distant traffic, birdsong, the hum of my fridge) as being the heartbeat of God (or maybe the rumbling of God's stomach). 

The world around me is the body of God. The universe around me is God. I am supported and fed by the very body of God in every moment of existence.

I return to this image (though it's a feeling more than an image) of the womb of God in my prayer. Each of us is loved and intimately supported by God in this way. Prayer does not mean striving to try to "achieve" anything. Prayer is simply rest - an opportunity to rest in the love of God, in the womb of God. 

(I don't know the name of the artist who created the above image. I'd be happy to credit if I knew)

Friday, November 23, 2018

Reflections on "A New Mecca"

The following words are a slightly extended version of the words I spoke as part of a performance event called “A New Mecca” marking the eightieth anniversary of the opening of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff on 23rd November 2018.

If there's one thing that struck me about the opening ceremony of the Temple of Peace in 1938 is that it's basically a Christian service. There's Bible readings and there's prayers and there's hymns. It's a perfect example of what we call Christendom – where church, and state power, and culture are seen as being in alignment: one God, one power, one empire, one culture, one story.

Of course it was never that simple, there were always different realities, different stories. But only one story got told. When this place was opened – this was the one story that they told.

Eighty years later that reality has been fractured. Some may regret it, but the truth cannot be denied. And today some of us look back with a degree of discomfort at that Christian service in a “secular temple” - that story is not our story, it's not our reality. We find ourselves in a post modern, post colonial, post Christendom reality where other stories get told, and the Christian narrative has been de-centred, de-throned.

I am a Christian minister, but I rejoice in this de-throning because I believe Christians are at their best when they embrace the margins, and at their worst when they align with power. Christendom corrupted genuine Christian faith.

So I don't want to be in this place out of assumed privilege of imposing a Christian narrative onto people of all faiths and none. Nor do I want to in any way “represent” Christianity – as being a radical heretical Unitarian Christian, most Christians do not even recognise me as a real Christian in any case. But just for a little bit I want to occupy the space between 1938 and 2018, and work as a little bit of a translator, and interpreter, and just a person thinking out loud about the contradictions and ironies and ambiguities. Because there's something a bit weird and ambiguous about this whole thing. Is it a temple or a church? Is it secular or religious? Does it look to the past or the future? Is it about Welshness of Britishness or internationalism? Who is it for? Who does it belong to? And how does 1938 relate to 2018?

This is just some of the discomfort and the ambiguity I experience in looking to 1938 – looking at that opening ceremony and Christian act of worship:

“O God our help in ages past” was sung, an old old hymn but one now generally associated with Remembrance Sunday. The line “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away” envisages originally only the natural passage of time, but as people lost their sons through the unnatural horror of war, these words took on a new meaning. War like an endless steam-roller, stole all our sons away.

One prayer offered in 1938 was “O God Who has made us members of this Empire, and bound us together under one King, unite us we beseech Thee, by the spirit of Jesus Christ which alone can make this Empire and the whole world one.” There's an irony there I think as I rather think the “spirit of Jesus Christ” was doing the opposite. Gandhi, though of course a committed Hindu, was at least partially inspired by the example of Jesus, and was in 1938 working through nonviolent direct action for the independence of India – for the disunity of the British Empire. Jesus, of course, was killed for the same crime. Crucifixion is the punishment for the crime of sedition against Empire.

In 1938 a reading was taken from the Hebrew prophet Micah, “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks” - a prediction, or perhaps only a hope, of peace. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't help also thinking of other words from that great tradition of Hebrew prophets. I think of the prophet Jeremiah, who many centuries ago had an impeding sense of war, “My anguish, my anguish!I writhe in pain! Oh the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” Jeremiah criticises his leaders for saying “peace, peace,” when there is no peace, when war was coming. In Jeremiah's time, as in 1938, there was an impending sense of the doom of war, and an awareness that just talking about peace, was not going to create peace.

And the words of the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The radical message is that God hates worship, ceremony, ritual, if it is only that, and is not part of the project of letting justice and peace “roll down like waters.” There it is in the Bible – God reserves the right to hate “solemn assemblies” to hate worship, to hate religion.

The God I know doesn't always show up at the solemn assemblies, at the posh dos with the lord mayors and archbishops. That voice is often heard in the margins, in those voices that are most silenced. Mrs Minnie James, a mother of three killed soldiers, opened the temple, but the words she used were written by men.

I'm reminded of the tradition of Mother's Day in the United States. An entirely independent tradition to British Mothering Sunday, American Mother's Day was begun as a Mother's Day for Peace in the late nineteenth century by Julia Ward Howe. She wrote an “appeal to womanhood throughout the world” after the American civil war, later known as the “Mother's Day Proclamation.” Those mother's voices were not heard in 1938, but perhaps we can hear them now.

Arise then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears!
Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, and each bearing after her own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Believing in God is totally nuts

It seems to me that believing in God is totally nuts.

I mean, it's totally nuts, isn't it? It sort of surprises me that "religious" people don't admit this, but talk like "oh yeah, this religion stuff totally makes sense, how silly to be an atheist."

But it really, absolutely doesn't make sense. I mean, "religious" people talk like there's this person in their life, who's in charge, and who has plans for them, and who they love, yet there's no one there. I mean, obviously there's no one there. This person is invisible and can't be seen or heard, you can't point to them, and say "there they are, let me introduce you to my friend God." There's no one there to be introduced to, no one to shake your hand, not a human, not an anything.

It seems to me that any person who is not insane has to admit that this is true. Trying to say, "oh no, you see, it's really logical to believe in God, and here is why" and then presenting some kind of philosophical argument is just missing the point. And is never going to convince anyone. Because you're talking like there's this person there, and there isn't, and that's just nuts. 

Some people might be convinced of some kind of Creator Intelligence (but not many), a very few really intellectual people might accept some kind of deeply philosophical definition of God. Some accept some very metaphorical and poetic definition. But these kinds of things really don't have much to do with the Living God that is worshipped and prayed to by believers.

It seems to me that the only intellectually honest thing to do is to say, "I know this sounds totally stupid, but I have discovered (and I am not the only one) that there is this quality of internal experience that feels like the presence of a living Someone." That is what I would say. In the depths of inner silence I encounter a Presence that feels like a Someone who loves me. Not only that, but the more I lean into this Presence, the more I trust them, and talk to them, and talk as if they are a real person in my life the more it feels like they are there, and they do love me, and the more I discover an inner sense of joy and peace.

Now, if I was the only one who felt this way, I would probably think there was something wrong with me. But guess what? There are millions (billions?) of people who feel pretty much the same, today, and in the past. Not only that, but we have discovered that if we lean in together to this Presence we discover something even deeper - a power that binds us together more deeply and commits us to live our lives more fully.

And yes, it's not always as simple as I've made it out here. Sometimes you lean in and the Presence doesn't feel like they are there. Sometimes it feels like Absence. And communities committed to being in the presence of the Presence are often deeply frustrating places that are dysfunctional and sometimes forget what they are there for. But there is enough of a scent, of a whiff of this divine reality that it (for the most part) seems to kind of work, if you keep coming back every week and every day.

In an ordinary way, I know, I know, it really doesn't make sense. And I can totally understand why someone would think this sounds like bullshit. I think that half the time too. But it really is true what Blaise Pascal once said, "Earthly things must be known to be loved; Divine things must be loved to be known." There is this quality of internal experience that leads you to God, it's not all thunderbolts and visions, but just a quiet deepening sense. And it really doesn't make sense unless you experience it yourself. But my belief is still that this is possible for every person.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mission, pioneer ministry, and climate change

I increasingly feel a kind of a disconnect with a lot of what I read in the realm of pioneer ministry, fresh expressions of church, and that kind of thing. I try to keep up with a few books and articles and websites. I certainly have a lot to learn and I'm always grateful for anyone who is able to share their experience and reflection.

But when it comes to the foundational questions of what we're doing and why, I feel a kind of disconnect. Not just because I'm liberal and pluralistic, though of course that is a difference. But because I have a totally different sense of what is urgent and important.

Christian writers on fresh expressions of church and mission seem to talk as if the greatest problem is secularisation. As if the greatest problem in the world is that people don't go to church, that denominations are in decline, that there are generations and cultures of people missing from our churches. This is true of liberal churches as much as conservative ones. 

But I can't help wondering, is that what God is worried about? In the twenty-first century - is that what's breaking God's heart?

Would the world be that different if a few more people went somewhere different on a Sunday morning? Would the world be that different if this denomination or another continued its existence, or didn't, for a couple more generations? Would the world be that different if a few more, or a few fewer, people ticked the "Christian" box in the census form?

Of course, a sensible Christian response would be, "well, of course there's more to it than that, it's about salvation and a relationship with Jesus." And that's fine. It's not my theology, but even if it was, I'd want to ask - is that good enough for Jesus? And whose salvation are we talking about? A few more souls going to heaven as the earth burns?

Because we're in an absolute planetary crisis right now. We're in a mass extinction event. And in that context I find that kind of talk to be frankly not damn good enough. I find it to be narrow-minded, I find it to be parochial.

It seems to be that if God worries about anything, God worries about massive human suffering caused by droughts and floods and millions forced to move off land that no longer sustains them. God worries about humans dying of malnutrition. God worries about a beautiful diversity of plants and animals going extinct.

It seems to me that if God desires one thing it is people transformed to live in a simpler, more joyful, and gentler way. God desires people to feel a relationship with God, but not just with the human projection of God, but a God experienced through relationship with the planet and all that is. God desires people working for a revolution of our economic and political systems to something more in balance with reality. It is this spiritual, personal, communal, economic, and political transformation that God desires.

In that context a few more people going to church hardly seems to matter, unless that church is a community in the business of this spiritual transformation. Of course a great many churches are not in this business, so their survival is not something I'm going to worry about I'm afraid.

I'm still very early in my days of pioneer ministry, but I increasingly have a sense that this work is about the transformation towards a radical spirituality that will sustain us through the climate crisis. My work is to join in with those activists who desire a transformed world, bringing in the perspective of the inner work that sustains and gives hope to the outer work. My work is to be alongside others who see spirituality as an essential ingredient to the work of transformation, whether they are Buddhist, pagan, Hindu, or anything else. I don't want to be parochial and anyone walking on this path with me is my ally, and I am theirs. In my view they are doing the mission of God.

I will continue to work from a Jesus-centred spirituality. I will continue to be rooted in a radical Jesus tradition of simplicity, love, and justice. And I would love to grow a community of disciples with a Universalist sense of the inclusive love of God, with a Unitarian sense of the importance of deeds and not creeds. But only if such a community is part of that mission of transformation that is the urgent desire of God.

Of course it's not all up to me. God is bigger than me and I don't have to solve all of the world's problems. Indeed my calling is to be hyper-local. I am really only called to do this work on a tiny bit of land a couple of miles long next to the River Taff. But I do it with a sense of being part of the global, cosmic work.

I do the work, not because I'm afraid of secularisation and church decline, not because I want some new, sexy, "relevant" expression of church. I so it because I believe spiritual transformation is the desire of God, and it is more urgent than it has ever been before. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Twelve Years to Stop the Climate Crisis

As has been reported this week, we have twelve years to keep climate change below a 1.5 degrees increase. Twelve years to stop a climate catastrophe that will kill millions. Twelve years to turn things around.

This will require a "unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society" - in other words it will require the kind of sacrifice, massive effort, and pulling together we last saw in the Second World War. It will require a complete transformation.

So basically if every business, political party, faith community, government is not putting climate change as their number one priority, they are being irresponsible.

We have twelve years - what are you going to do in the next twelve years?

There are certain lifestyle things we can do, sure: vegetarianism, stop flying so much, all that stuff, but that's not enough. Indeed, as some have argued it is a deliberate con to make us think we can stop climate change through personal consumer choices. It is a deliberate con to reduce social action to consumer choice, as opposed to collective action that brings powerful interests to account and demands systematic change.

I once heard Bill McKibben, the climate change activist, say, "I thought I was in an argument about climate change. It took me thirty years to realise we're not in an argument, we're in a war. A war against the fossil fuel companies. And we're losing."

Climate change is driven by the most powerful and richest in the world, it is caused by a massive fossil fuel industry who put massive lobbying effort into preventing effective action.

In the next twelve years we need massive collective organising, to demand change. This has to happen on all levels: the personal, the political, the economic.

I have said previously that I view the ultimate context of my pioneer ministry as the climate change crisis. My ultimate context is not secularisation or the narrow agenda of one particular religion among all the other religions. My ultimate commitment is the spirituality that will allow us to do the work for the next twelve years. Anything less than this does not take climate change seriously enough. Anything less than this is irresponsible and narrow sectarianism. We don't have time for that kind of nonsense anymore.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The climate crisis is a spiritual crisis (video)