Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Open Hearts and Open Minds

This is a reflection of mine from a few years ago

Many years ago there was a boy called George. He was a French Protestant refugee growing up in England, 300 years ago. At age 12 his father sent him to sea as a midshipman, and he was sent as part of a small fleet on a diplomatic mission to the North African coast.

In Algeria something life-changing happened to him: he met Muslims. Now he had always been told these were barbarian people, infidels, lost souls: the part of humanity predestined to hell. But when he met them for himself – he realised that these were people with compassion, with love, with a life of prayer – all those things that he considered “Christian” – he observed in these Muslims.

Something changed in George that day: his heart opened, his mind opened. His heart opened to seeing those Muslims in Algeria as good, as God-filled people; and his mind opened to the idea that maybe God was bigger. Maybe God didn’t just care for Christians. Maybe God’s love was wider than he had ever imagined. Maybe God’s love extended to all people, regardless of race or religion. 

George de Benneville (for that was his name) then spent the rest of his life preaching a Gospel of inclusion, a Gospel of Love. He preached that God would not condemn people to hell. He preached universalism – that God will save all people; that God’s love is infinite.

This is just one story that is part of the heritage of Unitarians. The funny thing about Unitarianism is that it has never been spread through missionary work. It didn’t start in one place, and was spread to other places by sending missionaries. Unitarianism rather is a lot of individual stories of people having those moments of open hearts and open minds: of finding and seeking a more expansive faith. So Unitarianism started independently in France, in Hungary, in Poland, in Britain, in America, in India, in the Philippines. It started with a few individuals beginning to question, beginning to think for themselves, and coming to a faith of open hearts and open minds.

You see, a lot of times religion shuts down our minds. A lot of times religion expects us to leave our minds at the door. A lot of times religion thinks it has all the right answers. There is a story that a preacher was once talking to a Sunday School class and he said, “I have a question for you. What is grey, has a bushy tail, quite small, likes to climb trees, and likes to eat nuts?” And there was silence. And the preacher said, “Come, on. It’s a really easy question.” And one child tentatively put his hand up and said, “Is the answer…. Jesus?”

Because Jesus is always the answer right? That’s what we can be taught. There’s always a simple answer: Jesus. Whatever the question is, the answer is Jesus. Of course when you actually read what Jesus said you find he’s much more interested in questioning your answers than answering your questions.

God, the Universe, faith, Life – is bigger than we know; is bigger than we will ever know. So we must have an open mind; a mind open to what new truth we will discover. The Unitarian faith is not about having all the answers. We do not claim to have the ultimate truth. We do not claim that we are the only people with the truth. We simply claim that this is a spiritual journey of open hearts and open minds.

So many times we have closed hearts. Our hearts are closed because of pain, because we don’t believe we’re good enough, because our society teaches us to be anxiously striving for more of everything. When our hearts are closed, we’re cut off from the world. We fear the world, we believe the world is a frightening place. We believe the world is out to get us, or at least laughing behind our back. Or we believe the world is a boring place, a grey place, a meaningless place. We all feel like this sometimes.

But sometimes our hearts open: our hearts open when we connect with another human being. Our hearts open when beauty takes our breath away. Our hearts open when, like George to Benneville, we realise a greater truth, we break out of our narrow ideologies. But these moments are fleeting, and sometimes our heart closes again. So we need to practice again and again opening our hearts.

That’s the mission of a religious community; to meet, and worship, and to keep our hearts open; to remind ourselves of a deeper purpose to our lives; to open our hearts to a greater joy; to open our hearts to more love.

Maybe sometimes our hearts close once more, and we need to come back to the Source, back to the root, back to that promise of the Spirit: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19)

Friday, July 27, 2018

Is there a liberal / progressive / feminist Christian church in Cardiff?

I've spend six months checking out a number of Christian churches in Cardiff, to get the lay of the land, to try to understand the religious landscape of the city.

One of my questions is - is there already a strong dynamic progressive Christian community in Cardiff? My answer is that there is not.

Certainly there are the Quakers, who are active and of course progressive, but their worship is not for everyone.

City URC Church have a license for same sex marriage and so are open and affirming. In the same building on Sunday evening is also The Gathering, a specifically LGBT+ space.

There is no Metropolitan Community Church in Cardiff. If you were looking beyond Christianity to a post-Christian humanist approach, there is also no Sunday Assembly in Cardiff.

We have the Unitarians, but we are very very small.

I expect the Anglicans are fairly liberal, and I'm sure some people would make an argument for a few others.

But all of this might depend on what you consider "progressive". There's of course much to be said about that, but there are at least two short-hand things I would look for:

1. Explicitly open and affirming of LGBT+ people and performing same sex marriages.

2. Explicitly feminist and using not exclusively male language for God.

The second one is very hard to find. There may be churches that would claim to be liberal, but they're still all "Lord, Lord, Lord" in worship, and to me that is not liberal. Some, like myself, still find it alienating and are looking for a more committed feminist liturgy, with greater creativity, passion, and imagination than "traditional" language.

All of which is to say that there is a "space" in Cardiff for an explicitly committed progressive religious community. There is an approach that is needed that no one else is doing right now. So I'm interested in doing it. If you are too, let me know.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Journey of the Spirit

This is a reflection of mine from a few years ago

Every one of us is on a journey. We are all walking on this pilgrimage of life; walking and exploring, and maybe seeking a better path. There are so many seekers in this world, searching, yearning for more love, more community, more meaning, more joy, more purpose in their lives: seeking a better path.

Every year thousands of people go on pilgrimages. Not just orthodox believers either, but quite often spiritual seekers, searchers, explorers going on pilgrimage to look for something. One of the most popular pilgrimages is the one to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Thousands of pilgrims every year walk for hundreds of miles across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to reach either the cathedral, or the coast. It takes about 40 days, walking all day, mainly alone, sometimes accompanied by other pilgrims, then staying at a hostel at the end of the day.

This is a tough physical and mental challenge. A friend of mine has walked the pilgrimage and she said that the mental side was much tougher than the physical. The physical journey was tough, but the mental journey involved being all alone with your own thoughts day after day, walking through that barren landscape. And yet every year the number of people making this pilgrimage rises. In 1985 there were 690 pilgrims. Do you know how many there were in 2010? 270,000 pilgrims (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James).

Each of those pilgrims was searching for something more, searching for something worthwhile, searching for a destination worth heading for, searching for a journey worth undertaking: the inner journey of the spirit.

There is a great story about Nasrudin searching for the lost jewel. The story is that Nasrudin was on his hands and knees in the street outside his house carefully searching the ground. A friend of Nasrudin approached and asked him what he was up to, and Nasrudin said, “I’m looking for the diamond that fell out of my ring.” His friend began to help, until a neighbour approached and asked them what they were looking for. Nasrudin’s friend explained the situation, so the neighbour began to search too. Then a few more people arrived, then a few more, until there were a dozen people, all on their hands and knees, carefully searching for that glint of light in the dirt that could be a diamond.

Eventually one of the searchers said to Nasrudin, “Tell us, exactly where were you when the diamond fell out?” Nasrudin replied, “I was in the kitchen of my house.”
“What?” replied the helpful neighbour, indignant, “If you lost the diamond in your kitchen, what are we all doing out here in the street searching?”
“Ah,” said Nasrudin, “Because there’s more light out here.”

We are all searching, but we’re not always searching in right places. As liberals we can come out with things like, “All paths are valid,” “Whatever journey you’re on, that’s fine,” “It’s all just different paths up the same mountain.” Well maybe, but does that mean that there are no paths that lead down the mountain? Does that mean that there are no paths that lead in the wrong direction? That there are no ways to live your life that are at best unfulfilling or at worst dangerous? Does that mean it’s OK to search for the lost jewel in the street when you lost it in the kitchen?

We search in the street because there’s more light, because it seems easier to us, it seems like the best place to search. But you’re never going to find the diamond in the street if you lost it in the kitchen. And there are plenty of places you’re not going to find that deeper meaning and purpose to life. I used to think that there are many paths to the Divine, but increasingly now I think there is only one; it’s just called by many different names. But there are many paths away from the Divine. There are many paths that will get us nowhere.

You see, everyone has a path, everyone has faith. Everyone has a direction in which they point their lives, and we could call that their faith. If you don’t like the word “faith,” try the word “trust.” Everyone has something that they put their ultimate trust in. It might be what they claim it is, or it might not be. It might be money, family, alcohol, fame, nation, career, romance, religion or political ideology.

Everyone has faith in something. The question is: is this a good thing to put my faith in? Will this lead my life in a good direction? Am I on the right journey? Some of those things may not be bad per se, but if they are the things you put your ultimate faith in, then you may end up disappointed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it well, “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that... That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

What we are worshipping, we are becoming. We become the journey that we’re travelling. We all worship something, we are all journeying on a particular path, but we need to ask the question: is this a path that is going to get me somewhere worthwhile?

Lots of people ask this question: is there more to life than getting a job, paying your taxes, and watching telly? Is there something more trustworthy? Is there something more meaningful? Is there a deeper joy? Is there a better path? Is there something worth searching for? Is there a journey worth undertaking?

I believe there is. It is the journey of the spirit. That path of the spirit is not a doctrine, not a belief; it’s a way of being, it’s a way of life. It means an intimate relationship with the Holy. It means slowing down and making time for prayer. It means opening your heart to love. It means connecting, not being cut off from the world in a shell but really connecting with people, with the planet, with your God. It means living a life of compassion, joy, generosity, and service to the world.

Now you might want a more detailed description, but the fact is the spiritual path resists any tight description placed upon it, because if you define it too tightly it becomes a kind of idol. Even in religion and spirituality that are many misleading paths. One of the worst is to think you’re already at the destination. You can think you’ve got it all: all the truth, all of the Divine. But if you think you’ve arrived, then you’re definitely lost.

The spiritual journey is a journey. And while we’re still breathing we’re still on the journey. Every single one of us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, we’re all still on that journey.

I'm interested in developing a place where we can deepen our spiritual journeys through worship, prayer, and service; and to share our spiritual journeys with one another, because the pilgrimage is much more fun in a group of fellow pilgrims. My purpose is to invite others onto the spiritual journey. My purpose is to inspire others to undertake their own journeys.

We can’t force people onto their spiritual journeys. Every person has to find their own spiritual journey. As Kahlil Gibran says in his wonderful book The Prophet: the Teacher cannot give you their wisdom, but can only give you their love, and lead you to your own wisdom. You cannot offer the spirit to anyone. You can only love them, and inspire them to find the spirit themselves; inspiring people to look within themselves, and start their own journey.

And I’m not saying my way is the only way to live out that spiritual journey. If people can find that life-giving spiritual sustenance elsewhere, good luck to them. But there are plenty that can’t. I tried for years to be an Anglican, I couldn’t do it. The words stuck in my throat and got in the way of my spiritual journey. I believe there are plenty of people like that out there - people who long for deep and life-giving religion, but find the form of religion generally on offer too restrictive. I dream of a church that offers an open-hearted, open-minded spiritual community that welcomes people with their individual gifts, their doubts, beliefs, their bodies, and their loves. That is the journey of the spirit.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

On the necessity of swearing


(This post contains swearing)

I was sitting on the steps of the Senedd the other day, eating a crepe I had just bought from a stall at the Cardiff Food Festival.

"Oh, watch out," said the person I was with, someone I had met that day at a group event.

I looked up and realised they were indicating to a seagull hovering about. Cardiff seagulls are pretty cheeky creatures, and it wouldn't be impossible for one to swoop down and steal food from your hand.

"Fuck off," I grumbled vaguely at the seagull, while I guarded my crepe a little closer to my body.

"Did you just say what I think you just said?" asked the other person incredulously.

"Well, yeah," I said.

"A minister that swears?" they exclaimed, having found out I was a minister a few hours earlier when they met me.

"Well, yeah," I said, smiling.


I've been thinking about why that should be so shocking. I suppose people expect ministers, and by extension all religious people to be "well behaved" to be "nice" and "polite." Often religious people think the same thing too.

While there's nothing wrong with being polite, I tend to think this idea of always being "on your best behaviour" is really an exercise in reining in your humanity, being desperately cautious about being your true self, and constantly walking on eggshells. It is also, I suggest, one of the things that puts people off religion. People think, "they wouldn't want me in church, I swear, I go to the pub and drink, I have sex, I'm not well-behaved enough to go to church." They think it would be exhausting to be constantly reining in your humanity to be "nice" - and they're right - it is.

But the thing is - being religious is pretty much the exact opposite of this. It is about being fully alive, fully awake, fully free, fully human. It is about love and compassion and justice, but it's not about being nice. Often pursuing love and justice involves the opposite of being nice - it involves being an offensive nonconformist. And religious growth is really all about dropping the masks we wear, and becoming increasingly comfortable in your own skin, and well acquainted with all parts of yourself, including parts that are a bit grumpy, a bit stupid, a bit rough around the edges. Religious growth is about self-honesty and self-compassion. We know the truths about ourselves and we are compassionate towards those truths, because that's how God sees us too. And we're on the path towards becoming more and more human.

But this is often not the attitude both inside and outside the church. Instead we have this cultural divide - inside the church we are "nice" and don't swear - outside the church we are human and we do, sometimes, swear. The culture of "niceness" and being well-behaved is just that - culture - it has nothing to do with the good news, nothing to do with the kindom of God, nothing to do with Jesus.

Which is why I've started to think that the best missional thing I can do in my work is swear. Swear loudly and often. I think this is the easiest, most immediate way to demonstrate that you don't have to be perfect and nice to be religious, and you can join a church while still being yourself. That the church does actually want you in your full humanity. That the glory of God is human being fully alive.

So - here's to a ministry of swearing all the bloody time. After all "WTFWJD?"