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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

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.

Minister's Letter

November's Theme: Life and Death

"The wheel of the year turns. Seasons change. Darkness gives way to light, which wanes into darkness. Birth and death and birth and death and birth. Each has its season, and each season is a necessary part of the whole. It is the way of all nature. Let us embrace it with faith."

Pat Montley

 

In these days the nights are drawing in and the leaves are turning and falling from the trees. The abundance of life in the summer is now withdrawing and dying. In these days many in our culture have turned their minds towards dying and death - Halloween and All Souls represent a time for remembering the dead. This is followed by Remembrance when we particularly remember those who have died in war.

So our theme for November is "Life and Death." But the first thing I'd want to say is - don't panic! This doesn't mean we're going to have a full month of sorrow and morbidity! There are many different ways for us to think about this topic. Nevertheless coming to terms with death is one of the most central tasks of the spiritual life. The Unitarian minister Forrest Church, who died a few years ago, used to always say that religion "is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." The only way to fully appreciate the gift of life is to fully wrestle with the inevitability of death. To find freedom and joy in the experience of life, we must know that death is part of life. This is the path we will be walking in November.

Love and peace

 

 

Stephen

Freedom from Shame

A Reflection based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood

18th October 2015

 

You

Leave

Our company when you speak

Of shame

 

And this makes

Everyone in the Tavern sad.

 

Stay with us

As we do the hardest work of rarely

Laying down

That pick and

Shovel

 

That will keep

Revealing our deeper kinship

With

God,

 

That will keep revealing

Our own divine

Worth.

 

You leave the company of the Beloved's friends

Whenever you speak of

Guilt,

 

And this makes

Everyone in the Tavern

Very sad.

 

Stay with us tonight

As we weave love

 

And reveal ourselves,

Reveal ourselves

 

As His precious

Garments.

 

Hafiz

(Daniel Ladinsky (translator) The Gift: Poems by Hafiz (New York: Penguin, 1999) 284-285)

 

 

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

 

(Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians - 2 Corinthians 3: 17 (NRSV).)

 

"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." From what do you need to be freed? What chains bind you today? Shame? Guilt? Fear? A dullness of heart? Resentment? Anxiety? What do you wish to be freed from right now?

 

There are many chains that bind us, and bind many people around the world. Both physical chains and spiritual chains, and sometimes they go together. I'd like to speak today a bit about a woman from Eastern Africa who has gained asylum in this country, and her seeking of freedom. And I can't tell you her name, because I don't know it. But in a recent publication she said this:

"It’s illegal to be gay in the country in which I was born and raised, and there are harsh punishments. So I knew early on in coming to terms with my sexuality that who I am as a person was going to be a struggle in a church setting. Homophobic preaching was the norm, both in my local church and at my Catholic boarding school. And then there were the Evangelicals from the United Kingdom and America, who filled stadia to re-emphasise to thousands of people that being gay is the worst thing there ever was. It felt like a juggling act trying to reassure myself that God loved me no matter what and trying not to believe their preaching – that I was going to go to hell for just being me.

"My partner and I were arrested and imprisoned because of our relationship. In the prison, gay people were treated worse than murderers. I finally succumbed to the preaching I’d received for so many years from church and school, and I came to believe that indeed God did hate me. And I must say, the feeling was mutual. I told myself that if He loved me, none of the things that were happening to me would be happening. Who loves someone and lets such things happen to them?

"I wasn’t on good terms with God for a long time. I couldn’t understand why, if God talks through people to talk to us, the preachers and Evangelicals were spewing so much hate. I went through a phase of thinking ‘What’s the point?’, because there wasn’t anybody, among those who were supposed to be the voice of God, saying anything nice or good. I thought: ‘Who can I look up to, to listen to God? If God wants me to hear something, surely He would send someone to give me His word, and if He is not doing that, then what’s the point?’"

She goes on to say,

"My hope is that we will see an increase in vocal, positive support for LGBT people from churches. While some churches might feel it’s ok just to say nothing negative about gay people to their congregation, saying nothing at all is just as bad at a time when influential people like pastors, reverends and bishops are looked to for guidance. Many people struggle to reconcile their religion with their sexuality and go through life believing God hates them. They think their sexuality cannot co-exist with their faith. A simple positive statement from religious leaders could make a huge difference to someone like me, who may believe God hates them because of what a few preachers said."

(http://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/christian-role-models.pdf)

 

Folks, this is why I speak out about this issue. This is why we are marking Bolton Pride today. This is why I will be speaking at the Hate Crime Vigil this evening.

Because it saddens me, it sickens me, it angers me, that some people out there believe that God hates them. It is a monstrosity, a blasphemy, that this gets preached. And as that East African woman says, it's not enough for moderate churches to remain silent. Silence is complicity with those hate preachers.

For every message of homophobia there needs to be a message of inclusiveness. For every message of hate there needs to be message of love. For every evangelist for hate there needs to be an evangelist for love. And that needs to be you, and me.

The physical chains are real, in some countries (thankfully not this one), but the spiritual chains are almost worse.

 

"Where the Spirit is, there is freedom" Unitarians have really valued this saying over the centuries, and used it to justify our stance of freedom of thought. But it can't just be about freedom of thought or political freedom, it's also about a freedom of the soul.

This isn't just about GLBT people. It's about the needs of all of us to be freed. Certainly people need to be freed of real and political oppression. We need to fight for a world where people aren't put in prison for being gay, or for any other arbitrary reason. But beyond that political freedom, we stand in need of spiritual freedom.

It's not just gay people who leave that company of the joyous tavern. When we speak of shame, when we lose trust, when we live in fear, we leave the company of the Beloved's friends.

We are the precious garments of God. And when we forget that we are no longer free, "and this makes everyone in the tavern very sad."

Our purpose as an inclusive, spiritually alive Unitarian congregation, is to be that tavern where the friends of the Beloved gather in joy and love. And do that work where we reveal that everyone, gay or straight, has deep kinship with God. Has divine worth, is loved.

 

May it be so.

Wrestling with God

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on words delivered on 13th September 2015

 

Creation of the heavens and the earth,

alternation of night and day,

and sailing of ships across the ocean

with what is useful to humans,

and the rain that God sends from the sky enlivening

the earth that was dead,

and the scattering of beasts of all kinds upon it,

and the changing of the winds, and the clouds which remain

obedient between earth and sky,

are surely signs for the wise.

 

The Qur'an

(2: 164 (A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) (adapted))

 

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear… Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement.

 

Thomas Jefferson

(From The Unitarian Life edited by Stephen Lingwood (London: Lindsey Press, 2008), 88.)

 

 

One of the things I did while I was on holiday recently was clear-out a big cupboard of my old stuff at my parents' house. They will be downsizing eventually and so I was told I needed to clear out all my stuff. There was one large cupboard, filled with about eight large boxes. And just as I was getting to the bottom of those, three more boxes came down from the attic!

So it made for a very nostalgic few days. Basically I had never thrown away anything. Everything was still there, from my birth certificate, to drawings I made when I was four, to my dissertation on trace fossils in the Blue Lias Jurassic rocks of the Dorset coast.

Going through all my school work, all my exercise books and text books from school and university I couldn't help thinking, "Well, what was the point of all that education then?" Almost everything I've completely forgotten. And all that's left is a pile of papers - sent off to the paper recycling at the Stoke-on-Trent tip.

Just think - what can you still remember from your education? How much has really stuck? What was the point of all of that?

What is education? What is it for and what does it do? And what did it do to me? That was a question I was considering, sifting through those dry and dead pieces of paper.

Often, when we ask questions about God, I think we're doing something kind of similar. We're shifting through dry pieces of paper, shadows of memories, and trying to work out what we can understand about God from those pieces of paper.

I'll come back to what I mean by that a bit later.

 

This month we're wrestling with God. We're going to spend this month exploring what we mean by God and how we understand this mystery. This is a big topic, but we'll do our best. But what I want to stress today is that it's OK to wrestle with God.

The Qur'an in our reading today seems to suggest there are signs of God everywhere. And lots of religious people will make this claim. That if you look at the world, it's order and beauty it should be obvious, that a loving God created it. It's just logical. It's certain.

I'm not convinced. I don't find easy answers or certainty when I consider God. And for many of us there are huge problems with the traditional, or what we think is the traditional, picture of God.

When we see images of children drowning in the Mediterranean we might ask, "Where is God in this?" We should ask that.

Thomas Jefferson advises that we should question with boldness the existence of God. I agree, but I would say it in a different way. I say question with boldness the definition of God.

Do we really know what we mean when we use the word "God"? Do we all mean the same thing?

Do we mean the creator of the universe, a supreme being, omnipotent, omniscient, omni-present - all those "omnis"! Is that the right definition of God? Is that a definition of God that actually makes any sense? Is it actually useful to try to understand God by starting with these kinds of doctrines?

I think not. I think it's rather like trying to understand the experience of education by looking at old exercise books. My school exercise books say something about what it was like to be at school. But they also miss a lot out. They miss out the friendship that shaped those school days, making lifelong friends. They miss out the experience of my first girlfriend. They miss out those moments when a teacher really pushed us again and again to think about what we would have done, if we were German citizens in the time of the Nazis. They miss out the trials, the tribulations, the triumphs, the fights, the loves, the laughs, the failures, the detentions, the experience.

Twenty years later, an old exercise books can only be a shadow of what the actual experience of education was. And seeing as now I can't remember how to do calculus, I can't remember how to label the cells of a green leaf, I can't remember anything from chemistry, then maybe, maybe, that wasn't the point.

Maybe the point of education was how it shaped me as a human being. Maybe the point of education was the experience that shaped me, that matured me.

And so maybe the point of God is not to look at the theoretical ideas written in old books. But to look at the experience that shapes human beings.

If you look at any of the great spiritual teachers, and I'm thinking particularly here of people like Jesus, Socrates and the Buddha, they were masters of not giving a straight answer. You asked Jesus what the kingdom of God was, and he said, "Well let me tell you a story about a man and two sons." You asked Socrates what the nature of reality was and he said, "I don't know, what do you think?" You asked Buddha if gods existed and he said, "Who cares? You're like a man who's been shot with an arrow but wants to know the shoe size of the shooter before you will let someone remove the arrow and heal you."

In their different ways they said, "This is not the place to start." Don't start trying to understand the real experience of education by examining old exercise books. Don't try to understand the experience of God by examining the old doctrines. The experience of education is so much more than what an old exercise book can reveal. The experience of God is so much more than what a book of doctrine can reveal.

The fact is human beings are incurably religious. From the oldest cave paintings we have evidence of our spirituality. Those caves were used as sites of religious ritual and initiations. All human societies have engaged in religious rituals. Attempted to expand the human consciousness through drugs, rituals, prayer or meditation. Humans have sensed there is a depth of human experience, that can be apprehended through creativity, poetry, art, ritual, prayer. And they have driven deeply into practices that open them to this experience, passed on from generation to generation.

And it's only through these experiences of ritual and prayer that the word God has any real meaning. And if you take "God" out of the context of ritual and prayer then you'll never really understand what that word means.

Question with boldness the existence of God. Question with boldness the definition of God. But question with the heart and body and not just the mind.

In "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran there's a great line:

" if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. 
      Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. 
      And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. 
      You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees. "

If you would know God, don't rely on rationally dissecting a set of ideas. Lie in a field. Talk to a three year old. Talk to a cat. Sing a song. Sing a hymn. Write a poem. Love somebody. Breathe. Listen. And you will begin to see something of God.

And I know we find that answer sort of unsatisfactory because we're modern people and we like things logical and concrete and solid. But you can't make God fit in that way. God is too good a wrestler, God will escape that grip.

If you want to know God, listen to Handel's Messiah. Or I'd say listen to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. The experience of utter indescribable beauty. The moment when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. This is closer to God, than abstract ideas taken out of context.

if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. 
      Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. 
      And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. 
      You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.

 

 

May it be so. 

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