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)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’…
Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

Exodus 16: 2-3; 9-21 (NRSV)

There is a story that a miser hid his gold buried at the foot of a tree at the bottom of his garden. Once a week he would dig up his gold, gaze at it for an hour, and then rebury it. One day a thief came in the night and stole the gold. When the miser came to look at his gold he found only a hole, and gave out a distressed shriek. A neighbour heard the shriek and wandered over to ask, “What on earth is the matter?” The miser explained that the gold he kept at the bottom of his garden had been stolen. The neighbour asked, “Well, did you ever actually spend the gold?”
“No. I just gazed at it,” replied the miser.
“Well, for all the good it was doing you,” said the neighbour, “You might as well gaze at a hole.”

This is how people are. Some people become rich enough to buy a Ferrari – wow – fantastic! Then they start thinking, “What if I scratch it? What if I crash it? What if I easily rev up with this powerful engine and get snapped by a speed camera? What if someone vandalises it? What if they steal it?” So they decide to pay to keep their Ferrari in a luxury car high-security storage depot.

These places exist; and if you leave your car there they will polish it once a week, they’ll run the engine once a fortnight so it doesn’t seize up, and they’ll roll the cars back and forth to prevent the tyres developing flat-spots. And so you own a Ferrari! – that you never use.

One manager at one of these storage depots has said, “I don’t know why some people have them. One bloke with a £100,000 Ferrari just turns up, takes the car round the block and comes back. Others just sit in them, smell the leather and listen to the stereo.” (John Naish, Enough page 75-76)

“For all the good it’s doing you, you might as well gaze at a hole”

This is the madness of the world we live in. The madness of enjoying buying things more than enjoying having them. This is highlighted in a book called Enough by John Naish – who is a Unitarian from Brighton. In the book John Naish gives lots of these crazy examples of our excessive living, and argues we need to learn “enoughism.” This means getting over our irrational addiction to buying more stuff. For our own sakes and for the sake of the world.

The problem is we don’t know when to stop. Scientists have done experiments with soup bowls – that secretly have holes in the bottom that pump in more soup. So people eat, and eat, and eat, and the soup keeps coming, and without that cue that the bowl is empty people end up eating huge amounts of soup. Most people are incapable of saying “I’ve had enough soup.”

We’re not very good at this. And it’s easy to see why – in our evolutionary past we needed to eat as much as we could because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming. But that’s not the world we live in anymore. Now we’re all becoming like the famous Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Mr Creosote is huge man who comes into the restaurant, and eats everything, absolutely everything, vomiting and then eating again. And finally the waiter offers one more “wafer-thin mint” that he forces down – and then, literally, explodes. There was no ability to say “enough.”

That is the parable of our modern world. It is predicted that the majority of Westerners will be obese or overweight in the next twenty years. But this isn’t just about food. It’s about everything. We’re in a culture that tells us we need more and more of everything. Our economic system is built on a need for us all to keep buying huge amounts of stuff that none of us need.

I’ve previously talked about a spirituality of abundance. A spirituality based on an understanding that we live in paradise – a world of abundance and plenty, and that we should celebrate life’s goodness: beauty, food, love, sensuality. And maybe it seems what I’m saying today contradicts that. But it doesn’t. Those who eat most, tend to be those who eat fastest, and eat while not paying attention to eating – eating watching TV, or while working. Whereas really enjoying your food, savouring it, experiencing it, means you eat slower, and you eat less.

It’s about mindfulness – I come back to this a lot – because it’s one of the key spiritual practices we need to be practising – paying full attention – being more aware. The Buddhists teach this a lot – but other traditions say it too. We need to deeply experience life – mindfully, fully, joyfully, - so we will realise that we have enough.

That story from Exodus is about enoughness. The Israelites are in the wilderness – and they complain they’re hungry. And so miraculously food is provided – quails and manna from heaven. They have enough – every day they have enough. But when they try to have more than enough – when they keep some over for tomorrow, it rots away by morning. Manna is enough for today, but not enough for tomorrow. They had to live day to day, in the present. This a parable about enoughness: the Israelites had to learn to be satisfied with today’s bread, and for that to be enough.

When we think of religious groups like the Amish – who have no televisions, no cars, no technology – we probably think they’re a bit weird, a bit eccentric, a bit mad. But when we look at our lives, of the huge amount of stuff we have, coming out of our ears, coming out of our cupboards, overflowing from our attics, filling up the spare room. You have to start wondering – who are the mad ones? Someone who decides to live very simply – or someone who gets a new mobile phone every year? Someone who throws away loads of perfectly good stuff – or stores it in cupboards that are never opened? Or pays good money to a self-storage company to keep stuff for them?

I’m not arguing for us to live like the Amish. But there must be a middle way. This is what the Buddha taught: the middle way. He started by starving himself, then decided that moderation was much better for enlightenment – and he ate a bowl of rice breaking his fast.

This is ultimately a spiritual issue. And I think it’s up to people of faith to model a different way of being in this commercialised excessive world. It’s about frugality: now frugality may seem like a rather serious word. Being frugal sounds like being a penny-pincher, being mean. But the word “frugal” comes from a root that means fruitfulness. It means appreciating the abundance of what we have. Mindfully, joyfully, enjoying what we have; being deeply grateful for what we have; and deciding: no I don’t need any more, I have enough. The blessings of what I already have are enough. If we can do this – we might just find a way to live joyfully and abundantly, but not excessively.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Challenge of Cultivating Boundless Goodwill

Let us cultivate boundless goodwill. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm. Even as a mother watches over a child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the whole world, above, below, and all around, without limit. 
The Metta Sutta 

During my final year in seminary, I decided to do a chapel for the faculty and students at the school, at which time I planned to expound on this pure and lovely gospel of universal human affirmation.

The morning of the chapel, I arose early and poured over my powerful and polemically perfect text. I was privately proud in advance of the depth and passion with which I grasped the essence of my Universalist heritage. As I walked the mile or so from my home to the school, my head was down as I silently rehearsed to myself all of the beautiful phrases I had crafted to make my sermon on Universalism come alive. As I approached a busy intersection, I happened to glance up and see an incredibly large woman sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. Now, I have always had a personal obsession about my own weight, and in those years was quite prejudiced and opinionated about people who weighed more than I thought they should. Before I could censor the unkind, judgmental thought, I blurted out to myself, “Oh dear God look at that gross woman. She must weigh 400 pounds. How could anyone let themselves get like that and who could ever love that?” 

And at that moment, as if it were a bolt of spiritual lightening aimed right at me, a skinny little guy sitting next to her looked lovingly into her eyes, leaned over, and gave her the most gentle and loving kiss I have ever seen one human being bestow upon another. I was stunned and ashamed. And while I was still reeling from the jarring disparity between my petty and unkind judgment and his pure and simple love, a voice (without words, but in unmistakeable clarity, holiness and power) … a voice came out of the whirlwind and said to me (and me alone) “Don’t you get it, you dope. Here you are, at this very moment going up the hill to preach your clever little sermon on God’s love and universal salvation for every human person, and all you can do is sneer inside at someone you deem unworthy and unbeautiful. Don’t you understand that, in the eyes of all that is sacred and beautiful and holy and true in this creation, she is as utterly lovely as human beings get? Don’t you get it? If the pleasures and prerogatives, graces and goddesses of this creation are made for you (and you certainly claim them as a natural birthright for yourself) then they are made for her, too. And you call yourself a Universalist… puffff.” 

I was as startled as I was chastened. In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity, and I finally began to understand Universalism viscerally, deep in my bones. What it means to be a Universalist, a real Universalist in more than name only, is to have a heart that seeks and sees at every human turn the natural worth and preciousness of people – all people – especially those very different from oneself. In an instant, I understood what a wild and welcoming a doctrine our Universalist forebears bequeathed to us, and that doctrine can be summed up in stark simplicity: There is a place set in this creation for every last man, woman and child. A precious safe place has been set for each and every one of us – period! And it is our human job to respect, protect, and nurture the wellbeing of all of God’s diverse and curious children. The early Universalists said, pure and simple, that every human being, no matter how strange or flawed or unlovable or broken or weird they may seem, is to be protected, cherished, welcomed, loved. 

Scott Alexander 
(From Alexander, S. W., Salted with Fire: Unitarian Universalist Strategies for Sharing Faith and Growing Congregations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994), 35 -37) 

I went swimming this week. It was the first time I had done so since Christmas – and it really felt like it! It felt like a lot of hard work. I’ve had a month of lots of chocolate and very little exercise and I’m a lot more out of shape now. 

Swimming isn’t exactly a new year’s resolution. I’ve been trying to do it regularly for about eighteen months now. I do enjoy it in some ways, but in other ways I find it quite stressful. When I go the pool always seems too crowded. I’m trying to do my lengths, and I always find myself bumping into other people. I find myself getting really territorial as I swim forward, and I’m always thinking “get out of my way!” I get myself in this mindset of seeing everyone else in the pool as my enemy. I find myself cursing new people as they get in the pool, “How dare they?” I think, “We’re crowded enough, they better not come over here.” I’ve noticed myself getting really defensive and aggressive. I start to think of everyone else in the pool as out to get me, and I feel quite hostile. 

I know I have this tendency in myself. Sometimes my basic attitude to the world is fear. I can fall into way of thinking and feeling the world is out to get me, it’s a scary place, and I need to defend myself. This isn’t rational – I can rationally believe that I must love the world, that I must love people, but sometimes I catch myself with other feelings – and those feelings come from fear. 

I know I need to work on this. I know I need religious practice to keep my heart open. That’s why I come to church: to practice keeping my heart open. I need to listen to those religious teachers that teach us about this. 

The Buddha, as expounded in the Metta Sutta, teaches we should cultivate boundless goodwill… radiating friendliness over the whole world. Jesus, in the sermon on the Mount, said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here Jesus invites us to be perfect, meaning complete or universal in our love. 

There is a Jewish story of a rabbi who gathered his students together one morning before dawn, and then asked, “When do we know night is over and the day has come?” One student replied, “When we can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?” Another tried, “When we can see a tree in the distance and tell if it’s a fig tree or apple tree?” These answers were all wrong. But the rabbi said, “When you look into the face or any woman or man and see them as your sister or brother, then we know that the night is over, and the day has come. If you cannot do this, it is still night, no matter what the time of day.” 

This is that universal love, that complete and perfect love for all beings that we could call universalism. The foundational idea of Universalism was God’s universal love for all beings; and coming from that the idea that such a loving God would not condemn millions of people to everlasting hell. From this understanding of God comes the commitment that our love too has to be universalist. We’re all going to be together in heaven, so we might as well learn how to get along with each other while we’re still on earth. 

Jesus said that the sun doesn’t only shine on some people. The sun shines on Muslims and Christians alike. The rain falls on gay people and straight people alike. The rose gives its scent to law abiders and criminals in exactly the same way. It is impossible for the sun to only shine on some. It is impossible for the rain to be selective about who it falls on. It is impossible for the rose to withhold its scent from people it does not deem worthy enough. That’s what divine love looks like. 

But it’s difficult, right? You know it’s difficult, I know it’s difficult. How do we cherish all living beings? How does this truth live in our bones, not just our minds? How does it become our nature? We can’t force it. If we force ourselves to love it will only be phony. What we can do is remove the obstacles that stop us from loving. 

The Buddha said “Everything we are is the result of what we have thought.” We can become self-aware of this. We can see the truth about ourselves. We can notice those times when we feel ourselves fearful or angry or annoyed. We can think, as Scott Alexander did, “Why do I feel judgmental and disgusted at a large person? It’s because I have issues with my own weight?” Or, “Why do I feel fearful because there’s a young black man in the street? Maybe it’s because of media and television that has taught me to be scared. Maybe it's my own internalised white supremacy.” Or, “Why does this person just rub me up the wrong way? Maybe because she reminds me of my mother.” 

When Scott Alexander realised he was doing this, the spirit of God, the spirit of love, rose up inside of him. He wrote, “In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity. And I finally began to understand Universalism, viscerally, in my bones.” 

When we notice those thought-patterns we’ve built up in our minds, and begin to dismantle them, then the spirit of love, spontaneously arises within us. Because the illusions we’ve built up in our minds are of our separateness: of the alien-ness and hostility of the world. But when we dismantle those illusions we experience our Oneness, our Unity, our natural and real connection with all beings.  
But don’t forget that word used in the Metta Sutta: “cultivate.” It’s “cultivate boundless goodwill.” It doesn’t just happen once, it requires constant cultivation, constant spiritual growth to do this. And we don’t always get it right. We slip back into other ways of thinking and behaving. We need that spiritual practice, those things we do to experience our Unity, on a regular basis. Our worship life, our prayer life together in this community, is the practice of that Unity. The cultivation of Love: the Universal unstoppable Divine Love for all beings, through opening our hearts and minds. That is the mission of Universalism. 

Stephen Lingwood, January 2014. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ar Antur Arloesi yng Nghaerdydd

Ar Antur Arloesi yng Nghaerdydd

Mae’r Undodiaid wedi penodi Stephen Lingwood i fath gwahanol o weinidogaeth yng Nghaerdydd. ‘Gweinidog Arloesi’ yw ei deitl ffurfiol ac yma mae’ n esbonio’r antur ...

Nid dim ond mater o fynd i rywle ar ddydd Sul yw ffydd, ond ffordd o fyw. Dyna pam fy mod i’n cael fy nghyflogi yn “Weinidog Arloesi” yng Nghaerdydd, nid i wasanaethu’r eglwys, ond i wasanaethu’r ddinas gyfan. Fy ngwaith yw byw yng Nghaerdydd a bod ar gael i bwy bynnag sydd eisiau siarad â fi, gan chwilio yr un pryd am gyfleoedd i greu cyfiawnder a heddwch yn y ddinas.

Sut beth ydi hyn? Weithiau mae’n golygu bod gydag eraill ar y strydoedd yn casglu sbwriel; weithiau mae’n golygu protestio yn Ffair Arfau Caerdydd; weithiau mae’n golygu eistedd mewn bar a siarad gyda phwy bynnag sydd o gwmpas (wedi’r cyfan, onid oedd Iesu wedi treulio lot o’i amser yn gwneud yr un peth?)

Y pwynt yw defnyddio fy amser i arddangos ysbrydolrwydd bywhaol trwy fy ngeiriau a’m gweithredoedd. Mae’r ysbrydolrwydd yna wedi ei wreiddio yn y gwirionedd fod yna Gariad sy’n dal popeth ynghyd. A’r hyn sy’n cyfri’ yw cysylltu gyda’r Cariad yna.

Bod yn ynysig sy’n achosi llawer o’n problemau. Rydym wedi colli ein cysylltiad â’n gilydd a Ffynhonnell Bywyd ac, yn y pen draw, mae hynny’n gyfrifol am lawer o’n anawsterau, o newid hinsawdd i deimladau o unigrwydd. Fy ngwaith i yw dod o hyd i ffyrdd o greu cymuned, cysylltiad, ymwybyddiaeth a chyfiawnder ac i ymuno yn y mannau ble mae hynny’n digwydd eisoes.

Dw i eisiau cysylltu ag eraill sy’n credu bod mwy i fywyd na hyn. Dw i eisiau cysylltu gydag eraill sy’n grac am gyflwr y byd ac eisiau bod yn rhan o’r ateb. Dw i eisiau cysylltu gydag eraill sy’n hiraethu am deimlad dyfnach o gymuned. Dw i eisiau cysylltu gydag eraill sy’n agored i’r bywyd ysbrydol ond sy’n gwybod y bydd yna wastad fwy o gwestiynau nag o atebion. Dw i eisiau cysylltu gydag eraill sydd eisiau ymladd yn erbyn mileindra hiliaeth, transffobia a mathau eraill o ormes yn ein cymdeithas. Dw i eisiau cysylltu gydag eraill sy’n hoff o’r cariad radical yr oedd Iesu yn ei ddysgu, ond nad ydyn nhw’n hoffi rhagrith a methiannau’r eglwys.

Dechrau ar yr antur hon yr ydw i yng Nghaerdydd. Dw i’n caru Caerdydd. Mae’n wych o le i fyw a gwneud y gwaith yma. Bob dydd, fe ddewch chi o hyd i fi yng nghaffis coffi Cangotn, ar strydoedd Glanyrafaon ac yn nhafarndai canol y ddinas. Os gwelch fi, dewch i ddweud helo. Os ydych chi eisiau dysgu mwy am yr antur yma, ewch i weld fy mlog ar reignitekuk.blogspot.com, neu dilynwch fi ar Twitter @SJLingwood.

Faith is not just about going somewhere on a Sunday, but about a whole way of life. That's why in Cardiff I am employed as a "Pioneer Minister" not to serve the church - but to serve the whole city. My job is to live in Cardiff and be available to whoever wants to talk to me while looking for opportunities to create justice and peace in the city.

What does this look like? Sometimes it looks like litter picking with others in the streets; sometimes it looks like protesting the Cardiff Arms Fair; sometimes it looks like sitting in a bar and chatting to whoever is around (after all, didn't Jesus spend a lot of his time doing the same?)

The point is to use my time to demonstrate with my words and actions a life-giving spirituality. That spirituality is rooted in the truth that there is a Love that holds everything together. And what matters is getting connected to that Love.

So many of our problems are caused by isolation. We are disconnected from each other, and from the Source of Life, and this ultimately causes so many of our problems, from climate change to feelings of loneliness. My job is to find ways to create community, connection, awareness, and justice; and to join in the places where this is already happening.

I want to connect with others who believe there is more to life than this. I want to connect with others who are angry about the state of the world and want to be part of the solution. I want to connect with others who long for a deeper sense of community. I want to connect with others who are open to the spiritual life, but know there will always be more questions than answers. I want to connect with others who want to fight the evils of racism, transphobia, and other oppressions in our society. I want to connect with others who like the radical love taught by Jesus, but dislike the hypocrisy and failures of the church.

I am at the beginning of this adventure in Cardiff. And I don't know where it will take me. I love Cardiff. It is a great place to live and to do this work. Each day you will find me in the coffee shops of Canton, the streets of Riverside, and the pubs of the city centre. If you see me, say hi. If you want to know more about this adventure have a look at my blog at reigniteuk.blogspot.com or follow me on Twitter @SJLingwood.

Monday, August 20, 2018

God - My Imaginary Friend

I hold the Lion's Paw
Whenever I dance.

I know the ecstasy of the falcon's wings
When they make love against the sky,

And the sun and the moon
Sometimes argue over
Who will tuck me in at night.

If you think I am having more fun
Than anyone on this planet
You are absolutely correct.

But Hafiz
Is willing to share all his secrets
About how to befriend God.

Indeed, dear ones,
Hafiz is so very willing
To share all his secrets
About how to know the

I hold the Lion's Paw whenever I dance.

The psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore tells the story of a friend of hers who was backing out of her drive one day, with her three children in the car, when one of them cried out “STOP!!”
She hit the brakes and looked around wondering if she was about to hit, or be hit, by something.
“What?” she asked,
“You’re about to run over Boopsie!” was her child’s reply.
Boopise was the child’s imaginary friend.

I’ve noticed over the years that "imaginary friend" is a certain phrase that some of the more aggressive atheists have used about God: God is just an imaginary friend for grown-ups. “You can have your imaginary friend,” they say dismissively, “But don’t expect the rest of us to respect it.” 

I did some research into this. I found that there is a website called GodIsImaginary.com – that gives fifty reasons (plus three bonus reasons – I don’t know why that isn’t just fifty-three reasons, but there you are) why God is imaginary. And a few years ago the American Humanist Association started an advertising campaign aimed at children and teenagers with the slogan “I’m getting a bit old for imaginary friends.” There’s then a picture of a young girl looking dismissively at an imaginary hand emerging out of a cloud. The proposal is that God is an idea that is a bit immature, a bit childish, and that if you grow up, you’d reject the idea of God. 

The comedian Bill Maher has used the term “imaginary friend” for God. I saw a video of him talking about this. In an argument with a debater he retorts, “Tell me: why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing?” When I saw that I thought to myself that that was a pretty good question. And one that deserves an answer.  

Why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing? We might even ask if it’s a good thing for children. Is it good for children to suspend their critical thinking? To indulge in things like imaginary friends?

I wonder if you ever had an imaginary friend, or if your children did? It is in fact pretty common. Some research found that 37% of children have imaginary friends. Now some parents get a bit worried if they find their child has an imaginary friend. Is it healthy? Is it OK? The good news is there’s nothing to worry about. It’s pretty psychologically healthy. Some parents might worry that it will stop their child having real friends. But in fact children with imaginary friends are generally less shy, they laugh more, smile more, and show a greater capacity for empathy.   

So maybe it can be healthy for children – but surely not for adults? Adults don’t have imaginary friends, right? Well, think of an author. They create characters, but in fact they may feel that their characters have lives of their own. They simply observe what that character does rather than “making” them do anything. In some weird sense they seem alive and real. This is how the creative process works.

How about another example. Do you ever talk to animals or to inanimate objects? Do you say "please" and "thank you" to Siri, or to vending machines, or to cash machines? Many people do. Do you talk to your cats or dogs? What about your computer? Do you ever talk to that? What about shouting at it? Oh yes, I think many of us do that, “Why aren’t you working?” we might scream. I seem to spend a lot of my time doing couples therapy for my computer and my printer. They seem to have communication problems. Why can’t they listen to each other?  

Is this crazy? Is it irrational? Is it unhealthy? Is it bad? With a modern mindset we might think so. But viewing this historically we discover some profoundly wise people did this. The Sufi poet Hafiz once wrote, “The sun and the moon sometimes argue over who will tuck me in at night.”

Francis of Assisi talked to animals and birds and the sun and the moon. One song based on words of Francis addresses the world, “O brother sun… o sister moon… brother fire … sister earth…[even] sister death.” By addressing the world as “brother” and “sister” Francis is acting like the whole world is alive and sentient in some profound way.

And then there was Anthony of Padua was even said to have preached a sermon to a fish.

And then there are some stories of animals speaking back. I love the story in the Hebrew Bible of the prophet Balaam who seems to be going over to the enemy side in the context of war. He departs on a donkey but God has other plans. An invisible angel appears, and the donkey sees it and refuses to go forward, and Balaam hits the donkey. This happens three times before the donkey speaks (and it’s impossible not to imagine Eddie Murphy’s voicing this donkey here) saying, “Hey man, what have I done to you that you keep hitting me?” (Numbers 22: 21-41)

Now of course the rationalists will say, “Well this just proves how silly religion is!” (in fact this story makes it to number 70 on the website “100 Reasons to Doubt”). And my answer to that is: of course it’s silly! Of course it didn’t really happen: that’s not the point!” One of the points here might be: how would we treat animals if we thought they might speak up for themselves? That’s certainly worth thinking about.  

So, yes it’s silly and childish to talk to animals or to the moon and to imagine the world is alive with personality. But, in fact, I believe it grows within us a sense of respect and reverence for the world. It increases our capacity for compassion. Think about it: if we’re constantly thinking of the world as having feelings and personality it helps us get into the habit of thinking and acting in that way. We become less self-centred and automatically considerate of others. As long as we’re not avoiding human beings, I think it’s fine. As long as you’re not talking to your cats about how you hate people, I think you’re fine.  

And this is proved by the studies on children. Those who will happily chat away to their doll or to an imaginary friend increase their ability to be empathetic, to feel the pain of another. And why not continue that in adulthood? Jesus said, “become like a child.” Maybe that’s what he meant.

So, to get back to Bill Mayer’s question, that is a good reason to suspend your critical, rational thinking - because it increases your capacity for compassion. Certainly you should still know what’s really true. But you’re also choosing to engage in the world imaginatively.

And what if we see life itself, existence itself, the universe itself, as having personality? Maybe that’s what God is. It might be difficult to feel a connection to the universe itself, to the totality of existence. But what if we imagine that there is a personality with whom we can connect, with whom we can be in relationship? Could that be a way of viewing God?  

What if you were to imagine that the whole universe is a personality that wants to say hello to you? That wants to befriend you? That wants to seduce you and make love to you?

And that brings us to prayer. I’ve come to believe that there is something powerful and important about praying out loud (in your mind), to speak as if someone were listening. Lots of people who are unsure that God exists sometimes find themselves praying. They might say, “I don’t know if anyone’s listening, but I need to say this…” And often people find that they feel better, even if they still don’t know if someone listened.

I’m all for meditation and ways of praying without words. But there’s also something really important about praying with words. Try it. Maybe it feels silly: but do it anyway. In a quiet time, speak your needs, your worries, hopes. Speak as if someone is listening, even if you don’t believe they are.

But you might persist in the question: “Yes, but is there anyone really listening?” Honestly, I really want to say that this is something worth doing even if there is no one listening. If we keep going with prayer, even though we don’t know if anyone’s listening, we will still get the benefit of the practice of prayer in our lives.

But in my experience (and my increasing experience) the answer is yes, for me, over time there is a growing sense that Someone listens. For me personally, the more I pray, the more it feels like there is a Someone to whom I am praying. And I don’t claim more than that: it’s just a feeling, it doesn’t prove anything.  

But even if there is this Reality called God, we still have to use our imaginations to conceive of God. The only way we can think of God is using our imaginations and projecting our thoughts and feelings and images onto this thing called God. And that of course means we can bring all kinds of images to God: father and mother and dancer and whatever other image that feels right to us. We can use our imaginations to conceive of lots of images to capture God: male, female, even animals.

I think Hindus have something to teach us here. They have lots of images of deities, representing the One Reality. And Hindus treat the deities (statues) in the temples like they are real people: they dress them, they feed them, they put them to bed, they get them up in the morning. Now Hindus know the deities are not real people. They’re not stupid. But they use their imaginations to cultivate reverence, worship, prayer, compassion, and in doing so connect with the reality of the divine. We need imagination (the purposeful suspension of our critical thinking) to grow a sense of relationship with the world. This grows our spirits, and it increase our compassion.  

So, you know what? Yes, God is my imaginary friend, and sometimes I talk to cats and sometimes I talk to my toy dinosaurs. And sometimes the sun and the moon argue over who will tuck me in at night. And maybe that’s childish. But this is what I choose: to see the world as alive and seeking relationship. And I think it makes me a better person. It gives me peace and joy in my life. And you know what, dear one? I'm having almost as much fun as Hafiz.