Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Create a "Happiness Gap"

I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and then to be with my mother as she goes undergoes and begins to recuperate from heart surgery. There is an interesting challenge in these coinciding events - Thanksgiving and a serious medical event. It is a challenge that is not unique, but representative of the way our lives all take shape.

Although the Thanksgiving holiday as it is celebrated in the US has lost much of its emphasis on gratitude, the practice of being appreciative and grateful is at the centre of what it means to live a fulfilled life. Every story can be told in at least two ways. “What terrible luck that my mother needs heart surgery. Why her? Woe is me!” And there is another story: “What wonderful luck that she has lived to the point she has and that there are wonderful hospitals near her and that surgical techniques have advanced so far and that she can afford to have state of the art medical treatment!”

The stories we tell ourselves and others determine whether we are experiencing lives of good fortune and blessing or lives of bad luck and torment.

I read an excellent book a while back with the title: “How to Want What You Have.” What a counter-intuitive notion that title represents! In a culture where we constantly seek to have everything we want and more, happiness is tied to having good things happen rather than appreciation of life as it is currently. There are even spiritual programmes based around getting what you want through chanting, prayer, or just having the right attitude. All of them are useless if not frankly dangerous because striving to get what you want reinforces and magnifies the ‘misery gap’ - the gap between what you think you should have and what you actually have.

A key to happiness is turning that attitude around - to learn to really want and appreciate what you already have. And if you can reach the point where what you have feels like even more than what you want, then you have created the ‘happiness gap’ - the feeling that you have been gifted and blessed beyond what you could have hoped and what you deserve. This is where profound happiness begins to appear.

We open the happiness gap by being consciously deeply and deliberately appreciative of what we already have - the views from our windows, the fact that we are alive, the abilities of our bodies, the people we meet, the new opportunities of every day... There are joys that each of us has by the millions.

I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, whether you celebrated it or not. With gift-giving holidays directly ahead of us, let’s not think about having what we want, but wanting what we have.

Monday, 15 November 2010


In my efforts to be inclusive in worship, I often say (as do many other Unitarians) "God of many names" by way of including the many different conceptions of the divine we would hope to embrace.

My darling wife has now modified her use of OMG in texts, tweets, and instant messages.  The new, more inclusive version is OMGOMN!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Social Justice for a small congregation

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one... I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
These are the words of 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. They were repeated again and again in a more concise and catchy form in the 20th century by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an immensely hopeful and encouraging truth that both of these great, justice-seeking men offered. We must add, however the truth that the inclination toward justice does not take place on its own, but with the aid of the constant force of justice-seeking human hands.

The congregation I have the privilege of serving has been among those who have helped to shape that arc toward justice. Our resolute stance against the ban on civil partnership in religious premises was noticed. Although we may well have thought at the time that it was a symbolic act without impact, we most certainly contributed to the subsequent liberalization of the law. We made a difference.

We have proved that a small group of liberal religionists can have an impact on the rights of millions. Why? How? An essential factor is that our stance stood out. Had we been agreement with the vast majority of othe religions, the story would not have been covered by the press. Nothing would have come of that ‘dog bites man’ story. As a religious group that stood against the prevailing religious viewpoint though, it became a ‘man bites dog’ story. That makes all the difference in the world.

There are countless issues in need of attention. People are hungry, enslaved, imprisoned, and/or uneducated even in our own nation! In these sorts of issues, however, our voice would be as one tiny drop in an ocean of voices all saying the same thing. Everyone is against these particular scourges.

In order to really make a difference, we must speak - as we did with marriage equality - on issues where our voice is in conflict with the positions espoused by more traditional religious groups. These issues are the ones where we - by bring a radically inclusive religious perspective to the table - can inject encouragement and real strength to justice campaigns.

I wonder what my congregation will come up with next! I have tentatively arrived at two areas of interest in my own mind: assisted suicide and reform of drug laws. In both instances, traditional religious groups take a conservative view, opposing options for suffering individuals to obtain help in ending their lives and providing support for the maintenance of ineffective drug laws that actually create criminals and increase opportunities for criminal enterprises. 

The future awaits and the arc of the moral universe needs our help.

Be Saviours to One Another

Can a diverse community support individuals as they travel their own spiritual path?

I’m talking to a young man at the Southbank – he’s sitting on the ground and is at least slightly intoxicated from the bottle of cheap wine that he and his friends are passing back and forth. On realizing that I’m a minister, he offers his opinion about religion. Everyone has an opinion about religion!

Let’s backtrack for a moment. Despite what you might be thinking, I promise that I did not set up a stand on the Southbank and preach to the crowds. Really. Even I’m not that enthusiastic. And I didn’t even bring up the topic of religion.

My conversation with this particular group of young people began when their dog took a romantic interest in my leg, if you know what I mean. They apologized and our conversation began. We talked about where we live… I mentioned I live above a church… and suddenly we’re onto religion.

His opinion: there ought to be a religion where everyone can have the freedom of their own beliefs! Amen! Great idea! Done!

It’s very satisfying to find that when someone imagines their ideal religion, they end up reinventing Unitarianism!

But you will probably not be surprised to hear that our very inclusive way of being religious also has its own challenges. Part of what makes traditional religion work – what has made it a consistent and often central part of human society for thousands of years – is a shared set of beliefs. In almost every other religion, there is a story, a book, a creed, a teaching to which all members subscribe. The word subscribe is important; they may not all believe in this central core of their religion, but they commit to it nonetheless. It is there for them as an answer and a guide.

If you are despairing, those core beliefs can provide comfort. If you are in conflict, the core beliefs can offer a resolution. If you seek meaning, the core beliefs tell you what your purpose should be. When you seek spiritual growth, the core beliefs describe the path must follow and the destination you are to seek.

Without a proscribed set of beliefs, a central story, a unique goal that each of us should seek, religion becomes a different matter altogether.

When one of us despairs, we don’t feel we can turn to easy answers: “God moves in mysterious ways” or “it is your accumulated Karma – hope for a better rebirth next time.”

The answer to “why am I here” is not as simple as “read chapter 9, verses 32 to 36”!

Religion offers meaning, purpose, guidance, and it offers salvation.

The word salvation might be the one word in that list that some of us find problematic. Salvation can be much broader than simply the Christian meaning with which we may be most familiar. Life involves struggle and suffering. We ask why we have had to confront such pain and such loss. We ask why we are here and struggle to find meaning behind the trials we face. Religion offers the salvation of an answer to these existential challenges.

What kind of salvation can our radically inclusive faith offer?

How can it offer guidance and meaning without a list of answers and set beliefs. How can it give us a sense of the nature of the sacred when we don’t profess to a single shared understanding?

Recently in one of our Bright Lights family events, we told the story “Swimmy”, by Leo Leonni. Swimmy is a little black fish who lives with a large happy community of orange fish. When his entire community is devoured by a fierce tuna, he is left alone to find his way. After a long journey and many adventures, he comes upon another large group of orange fish.

But this community of orange fish all hide in the shadows for fear of being eaten. Swimmy organizes them to swim together in the shape of one great huge orange fish with himself as its eye – as black as a muscle shell. The plan works – the big fierce tunas are scared away – and the whole community is saved.

It has always been one of my favourite stories – even before I was a Unitarian! And what a Unitarian story it is.

There are no easy answers, but together, with creativity, with cooperation, having journeyed, helping each other, in community, we can find our own kind of truth and our own salvation.

Note what I just said. We can find our own kind of truth and salvation in community. If you thought that Unitarianism was a low obligation, easy faith, you might be getting a bit uneasy as I am suggesting that each of us can, and indeed must bring a bit of truth and salvation to our communities – we must each be saviours for the other.


This is the work of religious community. It is the work that, step by step, leads us toward the goal of a community where each of us feels safe enough to be fully ourselves – safe enough to take the chances that we must take in order to grow – safe enough to risk appearing foolish or ignorant – safe enough to cry together in despair and safe enough to shout for joy when the blessings of happiness come our way.

How can we be people who can create such a community? How can we offer this quality of safety to each other?

A person seeking this quality tells a bit of his story in “How can I help?” a book written by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman:

I've been chronically ill for twelve years. Stroke. Paralysis. That's what I'm dealing with now. I've gone to rehab program after rehab program. I may be one of the most rehabilitated people on the face of the earth... I've worked with a lot of people, and I've seen many types and attitudes. People try very hard to help me do my best on my own. They understand the importance of that self-sufficiency, and so do I. They're positive and optimistic. I admire them for their perseverance.
My body is broken, but they still work very hard with it. They're very dedicated. I have nothing but respect for them.
But I must say this: I have never, ever, met someone who sees me as a whole... Can you understand this? Can you? No one sees me and helps me see myself as being complete, as is. No one really sees how that's true, at the deepest level. Everything else is Band-Aids, you know.
What we want – what we each need – is to be seen as whole. We need to be recognized and accepted as we are – to know that we are enough as we are. Most of us, thankfully, are not horribly broken physically or mentally, and yet most of us carry the gnawing pain and worry of our flaws, our errors, the deeds and thoughts of which we are ashamed. Each of us feels to some extent that we must pretend to be something we are not in order to be acceptable – to be loveable.

A saving community is a place where we are safe enough to drop our armour and put aside our perfect masks. Paradoxically, to be accepted as we are is the first step toward becoming who we can be.

It both heals us and enables us to enter into our journey of growth. These two things, healing and growth are inextricably linked. Like a broken bone, we can not grow strong and true if we are broken.

When the dog who took such a liking to my leg made my introduction to a new group of friends, I was not entirely comfortable at first. They were drinking cheap wine in the middle of the day at The Southbank, after all. They were cooking and selling dubious sausages off of a charcoal fire in a foil pan on the pavement. They were trying, with little success, to sell some junky postcards.

How will you approach the next stranger you meet? What message will your presence convey?

We each have it in our power to offer to one another the saving power of acceptance. By recognizing the wholeness and sacredness in each other, we begin the work of creating the world we seek.

Each time we meet, we have the chance to help and heal. We need only open our hearts.

Simple stupid answers to hard questions

The world we live in is filled with complex and trying challenges. The questions we raise every day are hard - really hard - and we crave some simplicity. Someone is always ready to give (or more likely sell) you simple answers to all your problems and questions. Here are some of those appealing simplifications:
  • Just choose things that are 'natural.' Anything natural and organic is good. 'Chemicals' are bad.
  • He died because God had another purpose for him.
  • If you believe the right story, all will be well.
  • You are either gay, street, or bisexual. There is nothing in between.
  • It was meant to be...
  • Bad people will suffer later - life is fair.
  • You got sick because you 'attracted' it with your bad attitude.
  • Some people are good and others are evil.
  • People are either black, white, or Asian.
  • Never trust a ______ person. (fill in your favourite prejudice)
  • Pick a card and I'll tell your future.
  • It happened because you broke a mirror/walked under a ladder/spilled salt, etc.
  • All your problems are due to those people.
  • 800 cubic centimeters of silicone gel will make you happy.
  • Oh, you're an Aquarius!  That explains it.
  • Islam is bad.
  • You just need to find the right girl/guy.
  • Drink up mate!
  • You need to pray more and God will fix it
  • The Bible is literally true
  • Just do what your guru/priest/minister/imam/rabbi says...
In some ways, Unitarianism is unattractive because it doesn't offer simple answers. Perhaps if we did, there would be many millions of Unitarians in the world rather than a few hundred thousand. 

I'm really curious about some of the other simple stupid answers to hard questions you've heard. Feel free to comment