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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Minister’s Letter

June's Theme: Revelation

 

"Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning it has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism."

James Luther Adams

"God is still speaking!" I used to see posters proclaiming this on the side of some churches when I lived in Boston in the United States. "God is still speaking" was the name of a campaign by the United Church of Christ, the liberal congregational church in America. It's a good phrase and one I think we Unitarians can also affirm.

This is what makes us different, and what makes us liberal. We don't see revelation as something captured long ago in one book. We see revelation as an unfolding process where we slowly and imperfectly find truth in every generation. It's this that allows us to more-or-less painlessly take on new understandings of science and new horizons of love and justice. It's what allows us to say, for example, "Yes, the Bible does endorse slavery, but we have come to the understanding that it is wrong, therefore we're going to follow our sense of right and wrong, even if it contradicts the Bible."

It means we have to be constantly be open to finding new truth in our lives; constantly open to finding ways our minds and hearts need to be expanded. Constantly listening to the promptings of conscience, reason and the Inner Teacher. God is still speaking. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to us? We can only know by listening.

In peace and love,

Stephen 

Minister’s Letter

April's Theme:

Salvation

"We must accept God’s truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on Earth."

Francis David, founder of Unitarianism in Transylvania

 

"Salvation" might seem like a heavy or uncomfortable topic for us. We might think of talk of "being saved" as belonging to a certain kind of religion that we reject. But what salvation really means is the process of healing, changing and transforming from our isolation and darkness to our oneness and light. The Buddhist would use the word "enlightenment" and that might be just as good a word to use.

But the point is faith should do something to us. It shouldn't leave us just exactly the same as we were before. It should wake us up, fill us and the world with more joy and love and truth. This isn't about anything nasty happening to us after death. It's about finding something bigger and deeper and more amazing in this life: the knowledge that life is meaningful and that we are surrounded by Love. That's the destination of the spiritual journey.

In peace and love,

Stephen

Scheduling in Awe-Time

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on words delivered on 21st February 2016

When British astronaut Tim Peake stepped out into his first space walk this January his timetable was carefully planned by mission control. The technical work he carried out to the International Space Station was complex and needed careful management; and yet built into this timetable was what NASA calls "awe time."

NASA has found that when astronauts step out into space, with only their space suit separating them from the vastness of the universe in one direction, and the majesty of the earth in the other, they need time to just look at it.

They need awe time.

And so "awe time" is specifically scheduled into the timetable of a space walk: time to just look and be in awe of the universe.

After all isn't this why humanity ventures into space? Not just to gain knowledge, but also to gain perspective? Not just to do, but also just to be: to be in awe of the universe? If space scientists think that the practice of awe is so important it needs scheduling in, then shouldn't we do too? Shouldn't we schedule some awe into our timetable? Shouldn't we schedule time to simply be? Time to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us?

We might call such a time spiritual practice, we could even call it prayer.

But life sometimes gets in the way, and we forget to make time for these things. A Rabbi once told someone he spent an hour a day in prayer. "Really?" said the interested inquirer, "An hour a day? What if it's a busy day? Do you still manage then?" "Oh no," said the rabbi, "If it's a busy day I don't pray for an hour. If it's a busy day I pray for two hours."

A spiritual practice is something you do regularly, that you commit to, that you schedule in to your timetable. Someone once said that you don't start sowing your parachute after you've jumped out of the plane. Similarly if you turn to prayer only when you're in hard times then you may find it doesn't offer much comfort or help. But if you are committing to prayer regularly you may find it slowly, slowly builds up a level of peace and strength within you that helps in the hard times.

But I want to be really realistic with you today. There's no point not being, right? I know this is hard to do. And we might say those great souls that wrote about prayer, if they were monks or nuns, didn't have to deal with a 3 year old child in a bad mood. They didn't have to deal with the school run. They didn't have to deal with all the stresses we have in our lives. And neither, in some ways, do astronauts.

We are too busy as a society. It's not good, it's unhealthy, we should resist it. But we're not going to solve that problem immediately and not alone. We need to find a way to live with our busyness too. And a constant state of guilt and inadequacy isn't good for the spiritual life either. If we think to ourselves, "I'm not managing to pray for an hour a day. So I'm just a bit rubbish and I'm going to give up this spiritual thing" then we're not really helping ourselves. I certainly don't pray for an hour a day. Though I try to manage several minutes most days.

But here's what we're about at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel - the journey, the spiritual journey - that's what we're all about, right? And a journey is made up of steps; so take a step. Take a step.

If you can't pray for an hour a day, pray for half an hour. If you can't pray for half an hour, pray for 10 minutes. If you can't pray for 10 minutes, pray for 1 minute. If you can't pray for 1 minute, pray for 30 seconds. 30 seconds. You can do that right?

And if you can't schedule it in, make it part of what you already do. Make your prayer the walk you do every day. Make your prayer in the shower. Make your prayer the time you brush your teeth. Simply by doing these things more deliberately, more mindfully, we take on a spiritual practice. I used to have a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh above my sink: "Washing the dishes is like bathing a baby Buddha. The profane is the sacred. Everyday mind is Buddha's mind."

If you just give as much attention to your spiritual life as you do to your dental health, then that's a big step. If you can manage to brush your teeth for a few minutes twice a day then you can manage to schedule in a spiritual practice for a few minutes twice a day. 

A rabbi once said that there are 613 commandments in the Torah so pick one. Start with it. Take a step. Start the journey. Schedule in some awe time.

I know many of you are walking that spiritual journey and last week we heard some of that richness and diversity in how many of you pray and practice meditation and different spiritual practices. And there are lots and lots of ways to pray. There's a whole menu of things you can try. But I just want to close today by speaking about what I think is the Unitarian approach to spiritual practice. The Unitarian spirituality.

Unitarian spirituality experiences the Divine Universe through Oneness and Love. We are deeply and intimately connected with All That Is, and prayer helps us to experience this reality. Astronauts viewing the earth (I'm sure) experience this truth through awe. For me, I try to concentrate on my breathing, and know that the air I am breathing in and out is God. God enters my lungs and becomes a part of me. And each breath is the gift of life, each breath is an expression of precious love. When we feel this (not think it, feel it) then we know it as Oneness and as Love.

The Love that surrounds us, and runs through us. And the challenge is to invite this into our life. Every single day. The challenge is to schedule that awe time. And to use it. May it be so.

Minister’s Letter

March's Theme:

Simplicity

"Live simply so that others may simply live."

Attributed to Mohandas Gandhi

 

I pondered for a while what to call this month's theme. I could have called it "money" as this is a large part of what this theme is about. Jesus talked about money more than almost any other subject, and our relationship with money is one of the most significant parts of our spiritual lives. But I prefer a theme title that is a positive spiritual value. I could have called it "poverty" as many of the great spiritual teachers such as Jesus, Francis of Assisi and Gandhi practised a form of spiritual poverty. But again, that might suggest that poverty was a good thing, and it isn't. It is a dehumanising reality and often an outcome of economic injustice. So I decided "simplicity" expressed this value, this spiritual practice, the best.

Simplicity in this sense means a spiritually-grounded lifestyle that is based on finding abundance in simple pleasures and simple things; it means "non-attachment" to material possessions and a non-anxious relationship with money; it means a joyful generosity that sees sustained giving as a spiritual practise; and it means creating economic justice and eliminating the evil of extreme poverty.

Not only is such a spiritual practice recommended by the greatest spiritual teachers, not least Jesus, it is also becoming an urgent need in our society. Consumerism and rampant global capitalism is something the planet can no longer sustain in the long term as it struggles under a growing population creating climate change. We need a new way of living. We need to learn how to live simply, so that others may simply live.

In peace and love,

Stephen

Taking sides, making enemies, and being Christian

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on words delivered on 24th January 2016

Reading from the Gospel of Mark (8:27-30 NRSV)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Reading from Desmond Tutu

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

 

I once heard a story about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (though perhaps it's apocryphal). The story goes that he was having a nice day. But this was unusual. Wesley and the early Methodist preachers often suffered persecution as they preached in different towns across the country. They were often shouted down and had stones thrown at them. But this particular day nothing like that had happened. John Wesley has gone to a town, preached in the open air, people had listened, and he had moved on.

As he was walking down a country road, thinking about this, it worried Wesley a bit. So he decided to stop, kneel down, and pray at the side of the road. He prayed, "O God, did I truly preach the gospel today? Because no one objected to it. There was no persecution. Did I really do what I should have done?"

Just at that moment someone spotted Wesley a the side of the road, and recognised him. They picked up a stone and hurled it across the road. The stone flew through the air and hit Wesley in the side of his head. Wesley, still at his prayers, said, "Thanks for the reassurance, God. Amen."

 

You can't please all the people, all the time. It's a cliche, but it is true. Jesus said that if everyone likes you, you're probably doing something wrong.

If there is never disagreement or friction in your work place, or the organisation you volunteer with, or your church, then that organisation is probably not growing and developing as it should. If you're never committed to anything that someone else might disagree with, then you're not growing and developing as you should. You can't please all the people, all the time.

Jesus said "love your enemies" and I think sometimes we think that means "you should be nice to everyone and so not have any enemies." No. That's not what it means. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus says "blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. "

Jesus had enemies, Jesus expected persecution; because Jesus took sides. Jesus was not neutral.

Who were Jesus' enemies? What side was Jesus on? When we ask those questions we open up a whole new understanding of who and what Jesus was. And it also leads us to another question - was Jesus the Messiah? And that turns out to be a question that is far from simple.

To understand this question, and to understand Jesus we have to understand the land and the time in which he lived. Jesus was born in an occupied country. His country for many years had been occupied by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire relied on the local client Kings and on the religious authorities that collaborated with Rome while also maintaining the religious cult. Religious life at this time revolved around the Jerusalem Temple. Just as today it's a religious obligation for Muslims to visit Mecca once in their lifetime, so then it was a religious obligation for Jews to visit the Temple much more often. If you wanted forgiveness, you visited the Temple and made your sacrifice; if you wanted to be put right with God you visited the Temple and made your sacrifice, if you wanted to be a good citizen you visited the Temple and made your sacrifice.

The Temple was run by a priestly class who lived off the sacrifices and taxes given to them, and the High Priest, who didn't dirty himself with the day to day running of the Temple, but only really had the religious duty of performing on a few high holy days throughout the year. The rest of the time he could entertain himself getting rich off the taxes taken from the working people and enjoying the protection of the Empire. The people resented both the Empire and the corrupt Temple priesthood. Rebellions occasionally rose up, especially in the northern lands of Galilee, further away from the power base of Jerusalem.

Jesus was born in Nazareth in Galilee. It's a very important fact about Jesus that he was a northerner. He was a Galilean, and Galilee was a rural and rebellious place. Around the time of Jesus' birth there was an uprising lead by Judas the Galilean, who called himself the messiah, the king, and lead a religiously-inspired campaign to rid Israel of the gentile occupation. This uprising was viciously stamped down upon by the Roman Army, suppressing the rebellious northern regions, killing rebels and civilians alike.

Just think for a moment what that meant for Jesus. As he grew up he would have known that members of his family and village were murdered, raped, and tortured by Roman soldiers. This is what it would have meant to grow up in Nazareth, with the memory of these events still raw. As he grew up the atmosphere in Nazareth became less violent, but there was a great deal of change. New Roman cities were being built nearby, and life in rural Nazareth was becoming more and more difficult.

If Jesus was a carpenter, he would not have found enough work in Nazareth and would have had to travel to Sepphoris, a day's walk away. In this Roman town he would have witnessed Roman villas and mansions, and experienced a sophisticated city of an urban elite. Then he would have walked home to Nazareth, where he would have seen his friends and family: rural peasants, struggling to make ends meet.

Those peasants would have had to pay heavy taxes to both the Temple authorities, and the Roman Empire, and between them that may have taken about fifty per cent of their annual yield from small-holder farming. If they were mentally or physically ill they had to rely on miracle workers and healers who would have charged them for their services. If they wanted to pray to God they had to travel to Jerusalem and again pay to the rich religious leaders.

It was these people that Jesus spoke to when he said, "I'm bring you some good news. The kingdom of God is on it's way." That good news was not an abstract theological idea. Jesus was popular because that news really did seem good in a real and concrete way. It was saying: the Romans are being thrown out; the priests will have their comeuppance; God's not imprisoned in the Temple, God is right here, look at the fields, look at the crops, look at the birds, God is right here in rural Galilee, God's on your side and God's bringing about a change. God is bringing in justice.

He gave this message, and he healed and offered exorcisms for free, as a sign that God was working right here and right now, God was breaking out of the Temple. This was good news for the Galileans who followed him. But it was bad news for Jerusalem, and it was bad news for Rome. Jesus' teaching directly undermined the political and spiritual power structures of the land. To say, "the kingdom of God is coming" is the same as saying "the kingdom of Rome is going." This is expressed in the Gospel of Luke by the song of Mary when she sings, "God is bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up those at the bottom."

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. This was Jesus' message and it was a direct challenge to the theology that justified the way his society was structured. The Roman authorities executed people for saying a lot less, both before and after Jesus. This was treason. This was extremism. This was encouraging rebellion.

Some people began to ask Jesus, "if this kingdom is coming, are you the king? Are you the Messiah?" That's a question that's hung in the air for two thousand years. The fact is there was no agreement on exactly what it meant to be the Messiah. It certainly didn't mean anything supernatural as such. The Messiah was a human being, but also a king who would restore Israel to the glories of the time of King David. It literally means someone anointed with oil as the ancient kings were.

Some religious groups saw the Messiah as replacing the Herodian client kings, some saw him replacing the Jerusalem High Priest, some hoped for a Messiah who would replace both. Some religious groups thought a messiah was coming, others gathered around someone who claimed to be a messiah. Messiahs were generally leaders of rebellions, and there were plenty of them in the first century. These "messianic" movements were in some ways similar to so-called "Islamic State" today. Not in the degree of sadism and extreme violence perhaps, but in their theology they were similar. These were zealous, extreme, religiously-inspired movements of rebellion and violence.

But their fate was all the same: sooner or later the messiahs were all captured by Rome and executed. Because to claim to be a messiah was a political crime, it was declaring war on Rome.

 

Did Jesus think of himself as a messiah? Well, he's frustratingly evasive about it. In the Gospel of Mark Peter says, "you are the Messiah." But Jesus neither says, "Yes I am" or "no I'm not" he simply says, "don't say that to anyone." Of course after Jesus' death this understanding of Messiah begins to mean something more than "king." The Hebrew word "Messiah" is translated into the Greek "Christ" and begins to mean something about Jesus' divine status. Now in our culture we say "Jesus Christ" as if "Christ" was his last name, as if he was called "Mr Christ." He wasn't called that.

Would Jesus have recognised such a title? It's a difficult question and scholars will argue about this but, in my view, I don't think he would have done. Because for Jesus to have become a messiah, a king, he would have become the very thing that he preached against: someone enjoying power and wealth, and status and respect (even within an alternative counter-cultural community) and he consistently said this was not what life was about.

If he thought he was a messiah, he had a completely different view on what that meant to everyone else. Not least in teaching a path of non-violence. But then if he believed in non-violence why use a term so drenched in violence as "messiah"? If he did use such a term, he would have meant it as a term of resistance against the Romans, but still in such a way as to be ironic and even contradictory.

I think we often miss the irony in most of the words Jesus used. Even when he used a metaphor like "kingdom" I think he used it deeply ironically. Because kingdoms were the problem, kings were the problem, emperors were the problem, high priests were the problem. And they still are.

Jesus turned these words, "kingdom," "messiah," upside down. He used them to draw our attention not to kings, but to the poorest, to those he knew, those he belonged to, in rural Galilee. If we want to follow in his spirit, then our attention must be to these too. As Demond Tutu says, justice is about being on the side of the smallest, the poorest, the most oppressed. Justice and love does not mean being neutral and treating everyone the same, it means being on the side of the least. If an elephant has its foot on a mouse, we are on the side of the mouse.

Jesus had enemies. Jesus took sides. He was on the side of the mouse. He was on the side of the peasant Galileans and he was against the authorities of Rome and Jerusalem. Whether he believed he was a messiah or not he believed the messianic kingdom he preached was one when the first will be last and the last will be first. That's what it means to be filled with that messianic spirit, that Christ-spirit. The spirit that flowed in Jesus and his life can flow through us. This will happen when we live in such a way that first are last, and the last are first; when we treat refugees better than we treat kings and queens; when the welfare of the poorest in our society is our first priority. If we are filled with that same Christ-spirit, we won't please everyone, we might make enemies, but we will be Christians.

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