Reflection #78 (29th October 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
We Unitarians don’t really make a big thing about Saints, do we, as a rule? Contrary to other denominations, it’s very rare to find a Unitarian church named after a saint – apparently the only one remaining in the UK is St. Mark’s in Edinburgh – though I recently read a blog post by Rev Dr David Steers (an expert in Unitarian history) which reckoned there were two others that had existed in the past: St. Michael’s in Selby, Yorkshire, and St. Thomas’ in Ringwood, Hampshire, two chapels which closed in the 60s and 70s respectively. This is quite a contrast to other denominations, in the wider Christian tradition (especially in Catholicism), where the significance of saints is much more evident in names, icons, and feast days. And, of course, saints are not just a Christian phenomenon, there are parallel roles in most faith traditions: Bodhisattvas in Buddhism come readily to mind. So I find myself wondering: are we missing out by shying away from the saints? What might we gain from engaging with them? And can we do so in a way that is in keeping with our tradition?
Reflection #77 (17th September 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’.
These words, from the 20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, have long resonated with me. As Jeannene mentioned at the start of the service, we made a poster with that quote on it some years ago, and it was on the ‘wayside pulpit’ on the street outside the church building for a long time (we’ve still got the poster somewhere and perhaps we’ll dig it out and put it up again).
‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’. What do you make of that saying, I wonder? Although the saying appeals to me I realise its meaning is really quite ambiguous. There are all sorts of connotations and associations I have with this notion of ‘being human’ and in this short reflection I thought I’d offer up a few of them – along with a few more quotes from wise souls on the subject – in hope of us getting a better grip on what Adams might have been on about.
Mini-Reflection #76 (17th September 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
When we gather together each autumn for our little Harvest Festival here at church I get a sense of being part of a long line – a very very long line – of humans who have been doing something similar for many generations. It’s a tradition that transcends religious boundaries and national borders – after all, we all need to eat – and throughout history our ancestors will have been quite aware of the precariousness of their situation, and their dependence on a good harvest, in order to survive.
I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I confess, I have somewhat taken it for granted that there would be food on the table. I’ve been very lucky to grow up in what felt, to me, like a time of plenty (living in one of the world’s richest countries and, until quite recently, in a time of relative political and economic stability, with a functioning social security system… and I’m not sure we can say that’s the case any more). Although my family were never rolling in it when I was growing up, not by any means, we were never in serious danger of going hungry either. I am used to a world where the supermarkets shelves are full of fresh produce, where an ever-increasing variety of new and unusual fruit and veg from around the world makes its way to our shores, where farmer’s markets and corner shops catering to all comers in our multicultural city have opened us up to new horizons. Which is, of course, all well and good if you can afford it. And, indeed, if the planet can afford it, in terms of the energy and pollution involved in the production and transport of produce.
Reflection #75 (10th September 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
It seems to me that we don’t have to look very hard to find examples of either/or thinking; it sometimes seems to be the dominant mode of operation in the world around us and it is a habit that I’m sure most of us fall into at times. When faced with a complex and confusing world it’s hardly surprising that there’s a temptation to cope with it by simplifying, segregating, dividing everything up into neat categories, by polarising issues and debates, by identifying ‘them’ and ‘us’.
And it is very easy to divide the world into goodies versus baddies – this is temptation I give in to on a regular basis as I think of certain politicians and I despair at their actions and attitudes – but at the same time I’m aware that the consequences of such black-and-white thinking can be pretty grim. Just think of the words used many times throughout history, but most famously in our time by George W. Bush: ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. And think about where that sort of outlook tends to lead.
Reflection #74 (6th August 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
The theme of this week’s service – the messy side of life – was inspired by something that happened to me last week (before I’d even changed out of my pyjamas). I was idly staring out of the kitchen window on Saturday morning, while cooking my dad’s porridge, and I noticed that the man who sweeps the street seemed to be lingering directly outside, just a couple of metres away. It was still quite early and it took me a moment to realise what was happening: the man from the council was roughly chopping off all the flowers that were billowing out through the garden fence and onto the street – Californian poppies, geraniums, salvia – all these soft frothy blooms from my little patch of cottage garden that weren’t causing any obstruction or getting in anybody’s way as far as I can tell. It’s more or less the only splash of colour and life on our street – most of the gardens have been concreted over to make space for cars – and it’s always alive with bees. I’m quietly proud of it. But it’s not exactly tidy. It’s (intentionally) left a little bit wild. It made me feel quite sad that someone felt that this little bit of wildness was not welcome on our street – it was too scruffy – and these few stray blooms breaching the boundary line should be unceremoniously lopped off. And I’ve heard many tales of verges being strimmed and hedges ripped up in the name of municipal ‘tidiness’.
Mini-Reflection #73 (25th June 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
I settled on ‘Discovering Delight’ for the title of our service today – mainly chosen for alliteration purposes, now I come to think of it – because to talk about ‘discovering’ delight isn’t quite right. Or at least it doesn’t tell the full story. For me, ‘Discovering’ suggests unexpectedly tripping over delight, happening upon it, chancing on delight almost accidentally. And of course that does happen.
But the core message of this service – and the thing I love most about Ross Gay’s approach – is that he speaks of developing a ‘delight radar’ and strengthening his ‘delight muscles’. It’s not a passive process. In making a practice of delight – committing to noticing one moment of delight each day and writing it down – he trains himself to become more sensitive to it. His ‘delight radar’ becomes ever more finely tuned. This makes sense from a neuroplasticity point of view too – we develop our neural circuits by repeatedly looking out for delightful happenings – and in time we’ll find them even easier to notice.
Reflection #72 (4th June 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Prayer is, as I mentioned at the start of the service, a perennial topic of exploration at church. It’s a topic we keep coming back to, and rightly so, because the practice of prayer is central, foundational, in pretty much every spiritual tradition you care to name, which indicates it is something we ought to be paying attention to and engaging with, even if our collective relationship to prayer as Unitarians can be… a bit complicated. Prayer is something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years – and a lot of shelf-space too! – I’ve got all my books about prayer lined up on a shelf over my bed and even if I only count the ones that have got ‘prayer’ in the title we’re looking at a stack of forty-nine books. This is not me trying to show off! Just an indication that (a) there’s a lot been written about the subject from a variety of perspectives and (b) prayer is something I am fascinated by and continue to wrestle with.
Of course we Unitarians do pray, collectively, in our services – especially those of us who attend our regular ‘Heart and Soul’ spiritual gatherings which are essentially a Unitarian prayer group in disguise – and I know that plenty of us do have our own personal prayer practices too – but it’s not something we seem to talk about all that much – not something we tend to foreground as a vital part of our shared religious life. It seems that sometimes our – laudable – commitment to reason leaves us reluctant to wholeheartedly enter into prayer when we’re not sure who it is we’re praying to, or what it is we’re even doing, or why. It can leave us praying-with-the-handbrake-on, emotionally speaking, and not fully engaged. If this sort of reservation resonates with your experience, you might appreciate the following words from Anne Lamott, taken from her slim volume on prayer, ‘Help! Thanks! Wow!’
Reflection #71 (28th May 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
These days, people quite frequently ask me to explain what Unitarianism is, and how it relates to the Christian tradition, and other better-known religious paths. All sorts of people ask; often in settings where we don’t have a lot of time to talk and we know we’ll probably never meet again.
On days when I get a taxi home from church the cab driver will almost invariably ask “what sort of church is that then?” (and often they’ll follow up with something that amounts to “is it a proper church or just one you made up?”… which is a conversation for another day perhaps).
And just this week we had a bunch of medics from the Physician Response Unit in our living room – this is the mobile A&E team which more usually follows the air ambulance around as a ground crew – they were sent out to give my dad, who is in the midst of immunotherapy, some treatment at home (so as to avoid taking him into hospital where he would be at increased risk of infection). And while they were doing their thing – marvellously, miraculously taking care of my old man – one of them struck up a conversation which rapidly took us deep into the same territory. Remarkably, this paramedic had heard of Unitarians, he had some thoughtful questions to ask about our way of doing things, and (without prompting) he noted the similarities between our outlook and his own.
Reflection #70 (23rd April 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
There’s a short quotation, by the author Annie Dillard, which I first heard many years ago. It floats through my mind every now and then, though it’s one of those sayings where the more I think about it, the less certain I am what she actually meant by it. See what you think. As I said at the top of the service, this is the quotation which inspired today’s theme. Annie Dillard said:
‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.’
(repeat) ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’.
I wonder what reaction arises in you as you hear those words? I find it’s a saying that can strike me as being either quite challenging, or quite comforting, depending on the mood I’m in.
Mini-Reflection #69 (11th March 2023 at for the LDPA AGM – London & South East District)
On this, the day of our district AGM, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on ‘Our Place in the Scheme of Things’. I wonder what that little phrase evokes for you? When I think of the phrase it can take me in a number of different directions. Sometimes it makes me think of my interconnection with all-that-is – my personal place in the world, in community, having an impact on those I am up-close to and living alongside, and being affected by those around me in turn – and the infinite reach of those interconnections. The ripple effects that spin out from my actions (or inactions) and the ripples that touch me. You might think of this as a kind-of ecological sense of our place in the scheme of things – this is the sense that the poem ‘Wild Geese’ evokes, for me – ‘our place in the family of things’ –that deep knowing that we are interdependent with all creatures in one giant ecosystem.