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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Minister’s Letter

February's Theme: Prayer

"Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things."

Lon Ray Call

Prayer is a difficult topic. Is it something we do when we're in desperate times? Is it just wishing? Does it "work"? Do we believe that "someone" "listens" to our prayers? Is prayer something childish and silly, to be rejected by mature adults?

Our topic this month is prayer, meditation and spiritual practice. It's an appropriate time for this topic as we enter into the Christian season of Lent, a time traditionally for committing more fully to some spiritual practice. There are lots of ways for you to do this during Lent, including attending Celtic Morning and Night Prayers on Thursdays.

Though we may have many questions about "prayer" I believe it should be an essential part of our lives as Unitarians (even if we give it a different name). It is only be slowing down and going deeper, finding the wellsprings within ourselves that we find the strength to live our lives with strength and joy. It is mysterious, even strange, but I believe there is a Light within and it is only when we connect with this Light that we truly learn how to live fully. I don't understand what prayer is, but the more I do it, the more important it seems. Let's walk our spiritual journeys together this month, exploring this thing we call "prayer."

In peace and love,

Stephen

"If you love me, feed my sheep"

A Christmas Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

Christmas is of course is a time of singing. At Christmas we loudly sing our traditional Christmas carols, often praising the baby Jesus. This is about the only time of the year Unitarians do that. Unlike Trinitarian Christians, Unitarians do not praise and worship Jesus. We see him rather as the great Teacher and Rabbi, but not a god to be worshipped.

But we seem to make a bit of an exception at Christmas when we sing, "O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord" and similar carols. Perhaps we find it easier to adore a baby than an adult. I suppose that's true of all of us. Who doesn't adore a baby? And what's wrong with loving a baby? Nothing at all. 

I always wonder, though, what Jesus would make of all of this. In most of the Gospels he seemed slightly annoyed when people piled up praises on him. I always think of a little story at the end of the Gospel of John when Jesus met up with some disciples on a beach and they cooked a bit of a fish breakfast. Jesus then said to Simon Peter, "Do you love me?" "Yes," Simon Peter replied, "Feed my lambs," said Jesus.

And two more times Jesus does this: "Do you love me?" he asks. "Yes," says Simon Petter, "Then tend my sheep" says Jesus.

"Do you love me?" again he asks, "Yes" again Simon Peter replies, "Then feed my sheep," again Jesus says.

The point seems to be "if you love me, do something about it. Feed the hungry, find the lost, comfort those who mourn, bind up the broken." Whenever I'm in a church at Christmas and I hear all this love of Jesus I can't help hearing in my mind a heavenly refrain coming back from Jesus, maybe with a slight air of frustration,

We sing, "O come let us adore him. O come let us adore him. O come let us adore him."

And Jesus sings back, "If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep."

Minister's Letter

January's Theme: Jesus

'Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.”'

Ralph Waldo Emerson

On a tour of the Buddhist monastery in Ulverston a few years ago I remember the tour guide stopping in front of a large picture of the Buddha. Speaking about the picture, and reflecting on his own Buddhist faith the tour guide said, "What inspires me about this picture of the Buddha, in seeing his serenity and peace, is the idea that I can achieve the same thing. Buddhism for me is about knowing that I can reach enlightenment just like the Buddha. It's not just for elites."

I found his statement useful because as a Unitarian Christian, I feel the same way about Jesus. Jesus is not a spiritually elite super-being, but an ordinary human being who reveals the potential in humanity. Like Jesus you and I can find our divine natures and live a life rooted in the Greater Love. This is a path that is available to us, though it is not always easy. It involves rejecting the world's values of violence, wealth, and status and embracing Jesus' Way of love, simplicity and equality.

So it is appropriate that after joyfully celebrating Jesus' birth in December, we will let Jesus grow up in January and spend some time listening to this fiery prophet and reflecting on what his words and life mean to us today.

Happy New Year

Stephen

Minister’s Letter

December's Theme: Hope

"Thank you for the help at a difficult time of my life and keeping a spark of hope alive. A man can live about 40 days without food, 3 days without water, 5 minutes without air but only one second without hope."

A letter sent to Exeter Foodbank by a grateful recipient

One of the great themes of Advent and Christmas (and indeed Hanukkah and the Solstice) is hope. Within our darkest days we create festivals of light because we believe "it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." The story of Hanukkah remembers the lighting of the lamps in the Jerusalem Temple after it had been vandalised and occupied by non-Jewish forces. In the midst of warfare and violence the Jews lit the sacred lamps in the hope and belief that the Holy could still dwell amongst them. About 140 years later a child was born who also demonstrated to his followers that the Holy was within and all around them. A different foreign army occupied the land by this time, but the story was much the same: occupation, revolt, war, refugees, terrorism. Jesus' life demonstrated a deeper hope rooted in the sense of the overwhelming love of God, even in times of violence and unrest.

We too live in difficult times. Poverty and violence still stalk our world. At the time of writing I'm particularly thinking of the Paris attacks that have brought that violence pretty close to home. And yet we gather at Christmas, and in fact every week, to tell stories of hope. We tell stories of light in the darkness, stories of good news to the downhearted, stories that tell of the weakness of a baby which is greater than the strength of kings and armies, stories that say "God is with us." We may struggle to believe it at times, but as that writer to the food bank expressed so well, hope is as essential to life as food. We must continue to be a hopeful, loving people.

Merry Christmas.

Stephen

Your Brother's Blood Cries from the Ground

A Reflection for Remembrance based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood

8th November 2015


"War" by Hedd Wyn
 
Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O'i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.
Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A'i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.
Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt,
Ynghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A'u gwaed yn gymysg efo'r glaw
Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.
When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.
It shadows the hovels of the poor.
Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,
Their blood is mingled with the rain.

 

Reading from the Book of Genesis

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ 

Genesis 4:8-12 (NRSV)

 

This week I was looking back at Bank Street Chapel Calendars from one hundred years ago, from the year 1915. The Calendars give glimpses of life here in this Chapel one hundred years ago. That year many of our young men enlisted in the armed forces and were shipped off to the continent, and this community tried to respond with support and charitable works for those soldiers, sending them, for example, winter clothes and light reading material. Here in Bolton, here on the home front, in November 1915, we were probably aware that this war was dragging on, but were not yet fully aware of the full scale of the slaughter in the trenches; though the 70 or so members of the Chapel and School who were enlisted were experiencing it first hand.

At the end of 1914, Bank Street Chapel's minister, John Weatherall, left Bolton to take up his new ministry in London. However that summer he returned to the north to take part in the Provincial Assembly meetings, and clearly his thoughts were very much on the war at this time. One report in the Calendar was this:

Lancashire and Cheshire Provincial Assembly.- Few of us who were present in Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, on June 23rd, will forget the impressive words of Mr Weatherall, who preached from the text, "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth from the ground." The burden of a deeply moving message was that the war was ultimately due to the failure of us and of all the nations to live the brotherhood which we love in ideal. We must all have left the historic building that morning fired with a new resolution to strive for brotherhood even more earnestly amid the dark passions of the war.

So my words this morning are an echo of Mr Weatherall's. I don't have the text of what he said that day, but I wonder if we can try to imagine those words, said by the Minister of Bank Street Chapel 100 years ago. "Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground" - these words from the Torah were what inspired him one hundred years ago. This is from Genesis story of the first murder, when Cain murdered his brother Abel. God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain shrugs his shoulders, "I dunno" he says in the way that makes me think of how a three year old lies. "Did you eat the biscuits?" "No," protests the child, with crumbs around their mouth. It is an obvious lie, God knows the answer. "Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground" says God.

How much blood cries out from the muddy trenches of the First World War? Your brother's blood. Your brother's blood.

It is perhaps ironic that the experience of war both affirms and denies that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. That brotherhood and sisterhood is what forms amongst those in the armed forces. That "band of brothers" to quote Shakespeare is what creates loyalty and bravery. Soldiers find themselves fighting less for King and Country and more for their band of brothers. "There is no greater love than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends."

And yet war simultaneously denies that very brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship by making the enemy an "other", an alien, something less than human. One hundred years ago Unitarians would have called one of our core beliefs "the brotherhood of man." That is echoes in this story: "Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground." God had to remind Cain he had murdered his brother. And yet how have we continued to murder our brothers and sisters, through history in the First World War and since?

War encourages us to ignore the brotherhood and sisterhood of our enemy. It labels them "other" "evil" "infidel" "extremist." When soldiers recognise their common humanity then killing becomes much more difficult. Some soldiers in the First World War made the decision to aim to injure rather than kill their enemies if they got close enough to see the white of their eyes to seem them as real people. This is what happens when we recognise our common humanity. And people realised, for example, than a British baker and a German butcher might well have more in common than either of them had with the general and politicians who sent them into the trenches.

This is why we need to be concerned by things like "drones" in today's warfare. When you can't see the white of your enemies' eyes When you might even be hundreds of miles away operating a remote control drone you are much more likely to kill because you are removed from the humanity of your enemy. Mr Weatherall was right. The First World War was a result of us failing to recognise the brotherhood and sisterhood of the nations. Have we learnt that lesson yet? Have we heard the voice of God, when God says, with tearful eyes, "What have you done? Your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground!"

"What have you done? Your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground!"

Our future depends on not closing our ears to that voice. Let it ring in our ears. Let it stick in our minds. Let it paralyse our trigger finger. May it be so.

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