Thursday, 25 February 2010

Stop 'effing' God

Ineffable: Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable.

God, or the ultimate reality, is understood to be profoundly unknowable in most of the world's religious traditions. This divine entity is powerful and present in ways that put it vastly beyond our experience and our understanding. Recall in the Hebrew Scriptures how Moses had to turn away when God passed by, for none can look upon the face of God and live. Recall that the very name of God is unspeakable in the Jewish faith.

The three Abrahamic faiths - Islam, Christianity, and Judaism - forbid the worship of idols. Such images can only be false and lead one away from the true essence of the divine. Hindus may worship avatars, but the ultimate divine entity - Brahman - remains an unknowable "trancendent absolute being that pervades and supports all reality."  Taoism proclaims the unknowability of the ultimate reality. In the words of Lao Tzu:
Tao, the subtle reality of the Universe cannot be described. That which can be described in words is merely a conception of the mind
In all of these great traditions, there is a powerful strand that recognizes the divine as something incomprehensible, unnameable, and indescribable.  Being human though, our immediate impulse is to describe the indescribable and provide a name for the unnameable. We want a God we can related to, look at, and even to touch. We want to 'eff' the ineffable!

Hence we depict God, we create idols, we designate specific beings as the incarnation of this entity so that we may more easily grasp and contain it. In doing so, we risk distorting and misrepresenting the divine. We may well come to worship only our idols and our rules - the form, rather than the ineffable reality.

In the New Testament book of Galations, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self–control." Following Paul's lead, I want to suggest that our notion of the divine and how to follow the sacred path should also be identified by its fruits.

I know that I am in tune with the sacred when I become more loving and more compassionate. I also know that the path to these fruits is not the same for everyone. We are different and will find different ways toward a sacred wholeness, but our guide is there always in the results.

This pragmatic view of spirituality is beautifully encapsulated in a poem by Hafiz, the 14th Century Persian Sufi mystic (via Daniel Ladinsky), in which Hafiz describes his response to a man who asked if his visions of God were authentic:
I would say that they were if they make you become more human,
More kind to every creature and plant that you know.

Monday, 22 February 2010

A Growing Congregation

The Newington Green and Islington Unitarians in north London, the congregation of which I am the minister, held its new member recognition service yesterday and formally welcomed all of the 22 new members who joined over the past 12 months. 22! The congregation, which numbered 6 members eight years ago, now consists of 84 members. Over the past 3.5 years alone, we have grown at a rate of 35%-40% each year!

And the congregation is young. In a recent congregational survey, we found that 58% are between 18 and 40 years old. (38% are between 18 and 30.) Women outnumber men, but not dramatically so: 44% of our members are male.

This is not at all the normal profile for a liberal congregation - and we are extremely liberal. If we were typical, we would be tiny and shrinking further, very elderly, and at least two thirds of us would be women.

Between 1989 and 2005, church attendance in the UK has declined an average of 34%. Liberal religions have experienced the greatest decline (e.g the URC with -53%) while attendance for the most conservative groups has increased (e.g. Pentecostal +22%).

Yesterday, a new visitor to the congregation asked me what accounts for our success. I hesitated. I can't point to any single factor. We do not have lots of money and we do not have fabulous facilities. When we began to grow, we didn't have any young people. We didn't even have an experienced minister and we barely have one now! We're growing because people want what we have and because we're not invisible. And so, as I said to my questioner, the better question is why any Unitarian congregation in an vital urban setting is not growing.

You see, we know that - despite the drastic decline in participation in traditional religion - the spiritual impulse remains prevalent and strong. But today, people don't want to be told what to believe, they refuse to swallow the fantastic miracle stories that are often requirements for entry, they don't want some detached hierarchy in charge of their community, and they have no taste for seemingly arbitrary rules.

And so, instead of traditional religion, people in huge number try to meet this need through a wide range of good and not so good avenues that are collectively labeled 'spirituality': yoga, meditation, ecstatic dance, past life regression, homeopathy, angels, sweat lodges, reiki, chanting, etc. The list goes on and on.

And people have varying levels of success in finding spiritual sustenance in these pursuits. What is lacking in so many of 'spiritual but not religious' alternatives is a supportive community. Unitarianism at its best offers each person the freedom to explore and seek their own spiritual paths and truths. Importantly, it does this in the context of a community that stays with you and supports you no matter where that path leads you. That unconditional spiritual acceptance and support is unique. It is also exactly what millions of people want to find.

So, I ask, how can such a congregation in a populous urban context fail to grow?

If we make our congregations visible and stop doing the things that drive people away (such as bad worship, unfriendliness, conflict, cliquishness, and a tendency to be more academic than spiritual), our congregations will grow.

Lest I be accused of being too modest [there's a first time for everything!], I am happy to admit that I have had a lot to do with my congregation's growth. It is not that I am the greatest preacher in the world, the greatest pastoral caregiver, or the greatest leader of programmes. I think that I have excelled, however, in helping my congregation to be unafraid.

And we have been bold indeed! We have been unusually open about who we are and what we stand for. We have been bold in our welcome of new people - not hesitant to open our doors and hearts despite the risk. We have been bold in our banners and posters which do not hesitate to say exactly what we think. We have been unafraid to tell our community that we are here:  fear of being labeled as pushy takes a back seat to our passion to offer our a spiritual home to anyone who wants it. We are bold in our social witness, in which we have decried what we see as intolerance wherever it arises, unafraid that some other group may take offense. We have been bold in putting our financial interests well behind our commitment to justice, as we pledged not to perform any legal marriages until we can do the same for all couples - straight and gay. We have been bold in welcoming all kinds of groups and programmes in our buildings - relishing the diversity this brings and putting aside the natural fear of 'the other'. We have been bold in the events we have put on - mounting an enormous programme for our tercentenary and then another one shortly thereafter to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft.

As I look back on what we have done, I find myself amazed. I wonder how we could have been so bold in our actions. What could possibly have lead us to take on enormous challenges with a very good chance that we would fail?

We are driven by two things. The first is our vision - a powerful vision of our responsibility for helping to heal this broken world and bring tolerance and love. The second can best be described using a very traditional word with which some of us might even be uncomfortable. That word is faith. As irrational as it may have been, our diverse congregation with all its many different beliefs (and lack thereof) is nonetheless filled with a powerful, vitalizing, transforming faith.

There is a place for a radically inclusive faith. There is a tremendous power in this way of being religious that can overcome the cynicism, selfishness, despondency, and materialism of the day. As John Murray, 18th century American Universalist pioneer urged:
"Give the people … something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of [humankind]."
Have faith.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Teach your children well

Those of us old enough might remember the song 'Teach your children' written by Graham Nash and recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash. "Feed them on your dreams" they sang, and wistfully, I wonder what happened to our dreams of a peaceful, loving, and just world.

How do we teach our children and feed them on these dreams?  These days, it seems our children are presented with more and more to learn. Not only are they expected to develop in all the academic ways, but there is also the extra 'enrichment': an instrument or two, a few sports, perhaps dance and art? Maybe an extra language?

Amid this very thick academic soup, I have been pondering what a liberal religious community should teach its children. What is it that they might not learn anywhere else that they'll need to know in order to be a good and whole person? How can we help them become part of the movement toward peace, understanding, justice, and love?

I believe that a liberal religious community's purpose is to aid us in our growth toward wholeness, to create and sustain caring healing community, and to inspire us to do our part in making a better world.

We don't need our teaching to duplicate what kids are getting in school, of course. In fact, what we need to be is the antidote to all the negative messages that kids (and all of us) receive every day from the media and from our popular culture. There is a lot of evil around us and, not surprisingly, I don't mean evil in the sense that the right-wingers do. In fact, when I look at the people who are out there decrying what they see as evil, they are usually the ones perpetrating the true evils. You know them: the crazy 'God hates fags' people, the right wing anythings, the anti birth control orthodoxy, the book-burning crazies in America...  you know...

But the evils that really drag us down are more insidious. They are the evils that create tremendous wealth inequalities. They are the evils that make us think that happiness comes from having more stuff. They are the evils that give us the idea that our bodies are not good enough. They are the evils that make us selfish and fiercely independent, despite the fact that true happiness comes from interdependence. They are the evils that make us think that suffering and injustice are someone else's problem - not ours. And they are the evils that make us fear and mistrust anyone who is different.

Liberal religious community needs to be the antidote. It needs to be the voice that counters all that materialistic, atomistic, shallow nonsense. As I am a completely non-traditional guy I thought it would be good to put this into very traditional form. Thusly and herewith are the '10 commandments' I'd like to teach our kids:
  1. Accept, respect, and love yourself
  2. Strive to understand and have compassion for everyone else. There is always more than meets the eye.
  3. Recognize that you are interconnected with all living things
  4. Accept that different is not the same as bad
  5. Share and give of what you have
  6. Try new things, even if you're afraid
  7. Accept that you have a responsibility to our planet
  8. Strive to be awestruck by beauty
  9. Work for justice, understanding, and peace
  10. Be as grateful as you can for everything that comes your way
They didn't come down from a mountain on a stone tablet, but things written in stone have a tendency to sit around unchanged for too long in any case.  As always, I'm eager to hear what you think.

      Thursday, 18 February 2010

      Misleading Heart

      I do not have sophisticated taste in films - I don't turn up my nose at the popular blockbusters. I don't go in for art films!  And so I generally like what others like and I'm surprised when I don't.

      So I was really surprised that I didn't like Crazy Heart, the highly rated film starring Jeff Bridges as a chain-smoking, womanizing, alcoholic country singer. Bridges was nominated for a best actor Oscar for this role!

      In fact, I left the theatre feeling angry and, several days later, it is still irritating me.

      Caution - spoiler alert ahead!

      Why did I react this way?  Well, first off, I didn't buy for an instant that the charming, lithe young character played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (age 32) fell head over heels for disgusting, smelly, fat old Bad Blake who was supposed to be 58 and looked older. I suppose that - in part - it rankled because of the general notion in our society that it's OK for men to be and look old, but women always have to be young, slim, and unwrinkled. [It doesn't help that I have spend nearly two weeks in a part of the world where everyone seems to have 'had work done'! And while I'm on a rant, what's the idea of going to the gym with perfect flowing bleached blond hair and full makeup?]

      I think what irks me the most is the way the film trivializes suffering in life.  Bad Blake is an addict. He hits a rough patch, realizes the error of his ways, goes to a bucolic rehab place, and suddenly turns his life around. He cleans up his act and - '16 months later' we can see that he's a good boy and will stay that way forever. Annoyingly and oh so predictably, he finally gives up his life-long moniker of 'Bad' and go back to his given name of Otis. Bah! What nonsense!  Get it? Bad can easily be turned to good - or at least to Otis.

      Does this story of easy redemption make some people feel good? It is a hideously unrealistic view of how hard it it to change in such a major way and trivializes the struggle of recovering from addictions.

      For those of us without addictions, maybe this is a feel-good film because we can look at Bad Blake and feel morally superior. "Look, if the guy can clean up his act that easily, he should have done it long ago!"

      And maybe the idea of easy redemption makes us feel good because it gives us the sense that we can change if we really want to and that it won't be hard. This image poorly serves people who are prisoners to addictions and the other torments to which human beings are subject. If you expect it to be easy to get rid of them, you are guaranteed to fail in your efforts at recovery.  And if you are expecting a loved one to clean up that easily, you're not going to be able to have the patience and fortitude for the long, difficult, road ahead.

      People do not become addicts because they think it's cool to be chain-smoking boozers. They become addicts usually because they are self-medicating as a way to numb some deeper pain.  Stopping the drinking or drugs is so hard not only because of physical addictions, but also because the underlying pains are now untreated.

      If we are going to become the best people we can be, we need to know how hard it is. It takes community and support and patience and hopefulness. Films like this one do not help.

      [I feel bad for dissing the film, so Jeff, if you're out there, I thought your acting was pretty good...]

      Tuesday, 16 February 2010

      Going against the flow

      Going with the flow has a very respectable pedigree. Whether you look to Taoism's 'doing without doing' or to the Greco-Roman Stoic Philosophers of a few centuries BCE, you'll find plenty of support for taking the path of least resistance through life. It's certainly the 'low-fuss' way to go.

      As an American transplanted to London, I have been starting to think that 'go with the flow' is more an English tendency than an American one. As far as I can tell, for many English folks - especially middle class ones - the highest priority at all times is to avoid making a fuss. If I get punched in the jaw in London, I am likely to blurt out an embarrassed "sorry" - presumably because my face was in the wrong place and got in the way of someone's fist.

      In the US, an incompetent employee is fired. In England, well, we don't like to make a fuss, do we? We find a way around it. Nothing could be important enough to justify the awkwardness of a confrontation [with the very notable exception of debates in Parliament, which I still do not understand to even the slightest extent.]

      There is a lot in the 'go with the flow' approach that is laudable. Fewer rage-related killings would probably be a good place to start!  Also, I know I am going to be a lot happier if I can frame the fact that the bus driver just drove off laughing, leaving me wet and panting on the pavement, as a wonderful opportunity for exercise and just the way it is rather than a cause for seething fury an visions of vengeance. Of course, a lot of unexpressed anger probably accounts for the enormous consumption of alcohol by the English, but this is a different matter...

      There is also a big problem with going with the flow. The flow is all too often in the wrong direction. The flow may be away from our vision of how the world could and should be and against what is best for each of us. The flow is leading us toward selfishness. The flow is leading us toward a lonely detached kind of fierce individualism. The flow is leading us toward environmental catastrophe. The flow is leading us toward an increasing separation between the rich and the poor.

      Martin Luther King, Jr. said "...there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted." He was reminding us that we can get accustomed to injustice and inequality. We can contribute to the negative things in our world just by 'going with the flow'.

      Close to home, I have watched 'going with the flow' allow the decline of the Unitarian movement to continue unabated. Rather than call people out for their incompetence or deliberate obstructionism, we try to be nice and polite. We seem to prefer letting the whole movement suffer rather than upsetting one person or a few individuals.

      I have seen bureaucrats willfully neglect their duties and damage or even destroy lives - and this is tolerated because we don't want to make a fuss.

      In parliament, we have seen progress on same-sex religious partnership blocked because the bishops in the House of Lords insist that to make changes will make life difficult for some C of E vicars. Forget the millions of BGLT people - don't want to make a fuss for the vicars!

      I've seen congregations self-destruct because they refuse to remove a disruptive member - they don't recognise that they are hurting many in order to protect one.

      I've seen incompetent teachers protected at the cost of harm to hundred or thousands of students.

      These things are simply wrong and they're wrong because of a failure to take into account the long term and the big picture in order to avoid some fuss in the moment.

      Sometimes we have to go against the flow. I'm willing.

      Friday, 12 February 2010

      Short and Sweet

      Unitalian, in a previous comment, offered a couple of short, compelling tag-lines, nuggets or slogans that help to communicate the essence of Unitarianism in a brief, catchy way.  Here are the offerings by Unitalian (who I know to be a professional in this area in his real life!):
      • most religions are top down, we're bottom up
      • we don't tell you what to believe, we help you discover the belief in yourself
      There have been many other good (and not so good) slogans used in the past and present. Here are the ones I can think of or find on the web:
      • Many beliefs - one faith
      • The uncommon denomination
      • You may already be a Unitarian and not know it!
      • Spirituality without conformity
      I'm sure I'm missing many more, but I'm more interested to hear what others might come up with. Strap on your creative thinking cap if you will and post a comment with your brilliant, catchy, phrase that captures and communicates the (or even 'an') essence of Unitarianism!

      Thursday, 11 February 2010

      Living trustfully

      I have been watching a variety of people trying to make decisions or reacting to some unexpected event that comes their way. Despite the enormous similarities of our needs, our desires, our sorrows, and our dreams, we can be remarkably different when faced with some very common situations.

      One type of person seem to fret about every detail of every option. Nothing is complete unless it is absolutely perfect, with every possibility and eventuality considered, every option compared and analyzed - and often re-analyzed again and again. Every greeting is suspect, every offer a likely deception. To this person, the worst case is the only case worth considering. To such a person, the world is a uniformly dangerous place, with threats hidden at every turn.

      And then, there are those people who walk through their lives more lightly. Decisions are made and allowed to pass by. If it wasn't perfect, so what? Life is not met with scrutiny and a dubious spirit. Everything that comes their way is a new possibility - a gift to be considered and perhaps explored.

      The first type of person - the person who lives with more scrutiny - might get slightly better deals on their purchases. They probably get fooled a bit less. They might even make fewer bad decisions than the second type. They are careful. If they were a ship, they would put up only a tiny sail, and then, only rarely, when the winds seem just perfect. Their journey is safe, but slow. Many opportunities are missed in the interest of safety or perfection.

      But the second type of person - the person who lives with trust - is a broad sail that catches more of the wind's power. This person may get buffeted about a bit more often - and may even get tipped over occasionally. But, the trusting or faithful person goes further and faster. The wind - the world - is their friend, their gift, their treasure.

      At my best, I am the broad sail allowing the flow of the universe and the spirit to carry me forward. At my worst, I keep my sails furled in fear.

      Congregations are like this too - and so are many secular organizations. You can tell one from the other by the way they make decisions. The untrusting congregation inspects every new idea intensively, looking for the flaws, looking for the downsides, looking for reasons to say "no." The default is "no" unless they can be convinced that the initiative is completely lacking in all flaws. They say "no" because "there's too much going on already." They say "no" because "we tried it before and it didn't work." They say "no" because "we haven't known him/her long enough to trust." They say no because "we need to conserve our resources carefully. They say "no" because the world is a frightening place and because "no" is always safer in the short term.

      The trusting congregation receives a new idea or initiative with joy. It opens wide that big sail and stows it only in the most ferocious of storms. Their default is "yes."  New ideas are supported unless they are obviously opposed to the mission or values of the congregation. If it is not a dangerous squall, each new breeze is recognized as the life-giving spirit it truly is and the ship moves forward.

      No doubt there are inborn tendencies that dispose some of us toward an anxious lack of trust or to take a faithful, trusting, open-sailed approach to life. Sadly, many have had experiences in life that taught them to fear the coming breeze. It is my deepest hope that we can all learn to open our sails - even if just a bit more each day - and harvest the full bounty that this universe offers.

      To the extent I can choose, I know which kind of ship I will be. Full sail ahead!

      Wednesday, 10 February 2010

      The responsibilities of religious liberals

      The two dominant Christian denominations in Britain - the Anglicans and the Catholics - are doing their level best to block the passage of new UK human rights legislation. They are incensed at the secularization of the law and the potential that church discrimination against BGLT people could be further restricted or that assisted dying might become legally permissible.

      Anglican Bishops, who occupy some 20 unelected seats in the House of Lords - the 'Lords Spiritual' - have managed to defeat one proposal already. The Pope, who has said that Britain's proposed equality law "violates natural law," is due to make a state visit to the UK in September. Thanks to the tireless efforts of human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, protests against the visit are due to begin as early as February!

      As a Unitarian, I might sit back and look with smug satisfaction at the fact that my movement has long supported equal rights for BGLT people. We have many gay and lesbian ministers, BGLT people are welcome in our congregations, and some of our highest leaders are themselves lesbian or gay.

      But, the fact that our own hands are clean is not enough. Our very identity as a religion - and one that emerged from Christianity at that - means that we have a special responsibility to work to reverse the wrongs perpetrated by our kindred religionists past and present.

      I am often asked why my congregation has chosen marriage equality for same-sex couples as its major cause to champion. After all, we ourselves include many BGLT people; we are not a source of the problem and there are so many other worthy causes to support. That criticism is fair, but it ignores our historic responsibility. Churches have for centuries persecuted individuals and groups whose nature, behaviour and/or beliefs have been unacceptable to the establishment. Religious liberals are well situated to counter that history of oppression by demonstrating that religion is not monolithic in its opposition to equality for BGLT people.

      This is not purely a practical and strategic matter by any means. I have been with gay, lesbian and transgender people as they broke down in tears of joy and relief upon finding a religious movement that would welcome them wholeheartedly as they are - not as sinners to be 'fixed' somehow. This is part of the work of healing that only religious liberals can do - an opportunity to begin to right the wrongs of the church of the past and, sadly, the church of the present.

      And the great danger of 'secularization' so feared by the Church of England? What they fear is the loss of the power to impose their own peculiar rules and teachings upon a diverse society. Liberal religionists should welcome this kind of secularization, which simply removes oppressive dominance by a single group. Indeed, erasing the imposition of religious strictures from our laws may help to redefine religion in the minds and hearts of the people of this country. Religion could begin to be understood for what it should be - and what it is in truly liberal religious communities - an opportunity to grow our own individual spirits with the support of a caring community and to join our strength together to create more justice and love in the world.

      Tuesday, 9 February 2010

      A dying/growing Unitarian movement

      A very interesting conversation has been taking place at Reignite, a blog written by my colleague Rev. Stephen Lingwood. To summarize this in very few words: 1) the British Unitarian movement is dying, 2) why is it dying? and then the conversation turns to a variety of theories and potential solutions: sessions in pubs, more social justice stances, get rid of hymns [or not], bring in missionaries from the US! The suggestions could go on longer... I have heard plenty more: It's not Christian enough, it's too Christian, better facilitation training is needed, focus on kids, and on and on and on.

      I think that my dear friend Unitalian, hits the nail on the head when he says on Reignite "People HAVE NOT got less religious - religion has simply not adjusted to their spiritual needs!" Whether we call it religion or spirituality, and whether we seek to satisfy that persistent need through church, synagogue, mosque, Tai Chi, meditation, 5 Rhythms dancing, yoga, or a whole variety of other possibilities that have been opened up by the decline of traditional religion - the need remains.

      Every time I hear a Unitarian talking about the decline of the Unitarian movement that could (and IMHO should) be an ideal place for people to meet their spiritual needs with the freedom to search and the support of committed community, an evident flaw in the discussion arises. Nearly everyone is speaking from their own perspective and about their own likes and dislikes.  "Hymns are not the problem" means "I like hymns", "the problem is our low visibility" often means "I like things the way they are and want to find more people who like it that way too", and "people are seeking liberal Christian alternatives" means "I like to hear references to Christian stories, writings, and images."

      Yes, there is an 'I' in Unitarianism. But it's so dominant in many places that it leaves no room for a focus on 'u', or (more aptly but less cleverly) 'them.'

      It is entirely natural that we all look at the world through our own perspective. And when it comes to spiritual community, we tend to want it the way we like ourselves it. After all, we joined it for our own benefit, didn't we? Whether consciously or not, we tend to approach growth in a way that does not risk making our communities different from what we personally like.

      But we can see quickly where that leads. A person joins a small, traditional, religious community because that is what s/he likes. It is no surprise that this person and others like him/her do not then suddenly turn around and welcome the rock band and ecstatic dance that might make the congregation more relevant because they know it would mean it is no longer the place they want for themselves. [Before you argue about the particulars, the band and dance are only meant as examples! I am not saying those are the keys to growth!] Congregations will stay as they are unless there is a momentous breakthrough and dramatic change in outlook.

      We are all guilty of this selfishness, and I include myself in that 'we'.

      When the President of the UUA, Peter Morales, generously came to these shores and worked with British Unitarian ministers recently he said essentially that not growing congregations is an ethical failure. If you know that your community has the potential to transform lives for the better, then failing to welcome newcomers to that community is like withholding water from a man dying of thirst. This is to say, the mission of transforming lives is morally essential - more so than the natural inclination to satisfy self-interest.

      The overarching problem is that we do not feel a mission that is powerful enough to overcome our own self-interest. If we were dedicated to transforming lives and transforming the world more than we are to our own satisfaction, we would turn around quickly. We would put aside our dislike of anything that looks like 'marketing' and stop quarreling about any number of trivial matters and we would get down to the hard work of asking what the people near our congregations are like and what they need. And to the immediate objection that this will result in something that is not authentic Unitarianism, I say bah!

      The essence of Unitarianism is a gem that includes recognition of the sacredness in every person, freedom to grow spiritually along our own individual paths, communities that sustain and feed their members, and reaching out to make a better, freer, more just and loving world.

      That gem can be wrapped and packaged in many ways without altering its essence. Wrapping it in old hymn tunes and a worship structure that appeals to only a tiny fraction of the population is a strategy that can only be due to selfishness, laziness, or both.  What we are doing is akin to wrapping a fancy new i-Pod in old newspapers that stink of fish. Better wrapping doesn't change the product, but it sure makes it more likely to be considered and adopted by consumers.

      My congregation has almost inexplicably bucked the trend toward decline, having grown from 6 to more than 80 members over the past 7 years, and more than doubled in the past three. It is now full of excited passionate young adults. And we have not got it right yet (and probably never will get it completely right since we will always have to struggle with the conflict between self-interest and mission.) There are still many thousands of people near us who have never stopped in. There are still many who stop in but do not return. But, I think we succeed as well as we have because we have been able to - at least a little bit - put aside our own self-interest to focus on the people who need the community we have built and try to make it their place too.

      This is the key. Recognize that it's not about you, but rather that it is about the people whose lives you could help to transform. That would make all the difference.

      Monday, 8 February 2010

      The Purpose of Life

      Certainly an audacious title for a blog post. I don't know the purpose of life and I'm not sure that the whole idea of a purpose of life makes any sense at all. But life without purpose is without meaning and probably not worth living.

      One: You need a purpose.
      Robert Byrne – author and championship billiard player - put it this way: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” We as thinking, searching, acting beings need to find a purpose. And whether that purpose is to serve God, to grow our spirits, to end suffering, to teach, to create, beauty, or to inspire – or any of a million other purposes – we need to find purpose in life.

      Two: You need a purpose that fits you
      Is there one purpose of life or are there many? You know that the purpose that puts fire in your belly is not the same one that works for everyone else. We are all very different and, if my faith - Unitarianism - would have a creed at all, it would have to say ‘thou shalt find and follow the path that fits thyself’. Find a purpose that fits you – the unique and sacred person that you are. 

      Three: You need a purpose that will give your life meaning.
      My first career was in the business world. Ultimately, it was a cynical, soul-draining experience for me. Truthfully though, it wasn’t always so. In fact, there were times when I was just thrilled about what I was doing – when I could barely sleep because of my excitement – and when I could think of nothing else.

      I had found a purpose and it fit me. Two boxes ticked successfully! The problem was that – in the long run – it did not give my life meaning. It took me reaching midlife and getting knocked about a bit to recognize something important – when I looked back at the end of my life on the purpose I had dedicated myself to, I could not find meaning in it. I could not look back with joy and satisfaction and a glow of fulfilment and say ‘yes, I sure did a good job making some rich people richer!’

      And that’s the test. Will you be able to look back on your life and pronounce it fulfilling. If not, you need a different purpose.

      In the words of George Bernard Shaw:
      “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

      Four: throw yourself into your purpose fully.
      A line from a poem by Miguel De Unamuno is the namesake for this blog. I fell in love with this poem after learning about it recently. De Unamuno was a prominent Spanish writer and academic in the first half of the 20th century. He was courageous and insisted on being true to himself – defying fascists and dictators to remain authentic to his convictions. That nobility of character appears in the words of the poem too…
      […]to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
      is the work; start then, turn to the work […]

      Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field[…]
      from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

      Why are we here?

      We can not know the answer, but we can find what makes our hearts sing. We can find what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. And having found it, we can become the seed of the tree of love and the eternally growing vine of connection. Throw yourself into the field. Something wonderful will grow of it.

      Saturday, 6 February 2010

      Dreams of Pandora

      People are said to be emerging in tears from screenings of Avatar, James Cameron's gorgeous 3D film about the idyllic alien world of Pandora. They find themselves depressed at the contrast between their real world and Pandora's.

      What do we love about Pandora?

      It's not all fun and games after all - you can get devoured by a Palulukan or even crushed by the hammer-like head of an Angtsìk. It is not a world without death, competition, class structure or suffering.

      Pandora has something important that we seem to lack: connection. In that world, all creatures (including the flora) can connect and communicate to each other. There is a sacredness within everything and connecting all living things. It's a pantheistic vision where the sacred is not 'out there' but 'in here' - in and among all of us.

      The Vatican and other Christians criticize Avatar for this vision. It's vision of religion is lacking the Church's hierarchy, miracles, and dogma. That's gotta feel threatening to a religion whose regular practitioners have already dwindled to the 5% level in most of western Europe!

      Instead of being depressed, let's recognize that the dream of interconnection can be made reality here. No - we are probably not going to grow attachments that - usb-like - allow us to plug into other creatures and their essence. But the world is an interconnected place beneath the surface. If you've ever had that serene feeling in nature, or known something deeper when authentically relating to another human being or even a non-human animal, then you know this to be true.

      Pandora gives us the vision of a place where those real connections become very concrete. That image can be a religious icon for our disconnected, fragmented, fiercely-individualistic times. I'm going out to create connection. How about you?