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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

God is Love

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

Based on words delivered on 8th February 2015

 

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

(Matthew 22: 34-40 (NRSV).)

 

Reading from William Ellery Channing

We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically.... We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all...

 

To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. ... Among the virtues, we give the first place to the love of God. We believe, that this principle is the true end and happiness of our being, that we were made for union with our Creator... God, as he is essentially goodness, holiness, justice, and virtue, so he is the life, motive, and sustainer of virtue in the human soul.

("Unitarian Christianity" by William Ellery Channing (http://www.transcendentalists.com/unitarian_christianity.htm).)

 

It's not a random choice that our first theme, as we go into this pattern of having monthly themes at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, is "love." Love, I believe, is at the heart of our faith.

I sometimes wonder why we don't talk more about love as Unitarians. Sometimes we name our greatest principles as "freedom, reason and tolerance," and yet compared to love, I would argue, these principles pale into insignificance.

Which religious community would you prefer to belong to, I ask? One that says "we believe in love" or one that says, "we believe in tolerance." Would you prefer to be loved or to be tolerated?

Perhaps sometime you wake up next to your beloved, stare deeply into their eyes and say, "You know, I really tolerate you... Every day I tolerate you more and more." Well maybe some days it is like that, but I'd suggest that such a statement would not be met by much enthusiasm.

Perhaps we're afraid that "love" sounds a bit vague, sugary, idealistic - all about fluffy bunnies and puppies and love-hearts. And it's certainly a danger that anything we say about love comes across like this.

Or maybe we are afraid that if we say our religion is based on love, we might be judged on that basis, and found wanting. If we say we are a community of love we have a high standard to judge ourselves against, and it can be a painful realisation that we have failed to love.

But despite these reservations I believe we should say loudly and clearly that love is one of the foundational principles of Unitarianism.

There are good reasons for us to say this. From the beginning we have understood Jesus' Way to be summed up in those two great Jewish commandments: love of God and love of neighbour. Why do we think that? Because Jesus said that was the summary of his teaching. Some Christians make things very complicated - but I think it must be our witness to come back and back again to this simplicity: love God, love neighbour: this is Christianity. I think we need to have the confidence to say this to other Christians, to claim our Christian identity, in this very very simple definition. I think it's a great witness we can make in a friendly way to our ecumenical friends, "Yes, yes... but love of God and love of neighbour." Jesus said it. It's that simple.

A hundred years ago, or indeed much less than that, Unitarians were a bit more confident in saying what we stood for. It was common then to talk about the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the leadership of Jesus. William Ellery Channing, setting out the fundamentals of Unitarianism when it was just starting in America in 1819, argued very clearly for this fundamental view of God as a loving father. Now today we're much more aware of the sexism of these phrases. As well as the Fatherhood of God we would want to affirm the Motherhood of God. As well as the brotherhood of man we would want to affirm the sisterhood of woman. But the fundamentals of these phrases I would argue are still very valid: we affirm that if we know anything about the Divine, it is that we experience the divine as Love and loving; and that our response to this love is to love, in turn, the entirety of the human race and all people we encounter.

The foundation of all these ideas is love. And this means we reject any ideas that are inconsistent with this love. If someone says God sends millions of people to burn in hell - we will say "No" because this is not consistent with the love of God. Even if the Bible says so, we will reject any belief or practice if it isn't consistent with love. Love trumps scripture; overturns any religious law, every time.

But, of course, there is more to say than this, because, well, what do we mean by "love"? What is the definition? What does it look like? What does it feel like?

If we turn to the Bible, we have at least three different words that are translated in English as "love."

The most common word used for love in the New Testament is agape. We have our Agape Meals here - following the ancient Christian custom of love feasts. When Paul writes, "faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love" the Greek word he uses is agape. In Latin it's translated as caritas. In older English translations this is translated as "charity", but in modern translations this is usually made into "love."

Another Greek word for love is eros - which is where we get the word "erotic." So obviously this refers to sexual or romantic love. But it is more than that, it means desire, longing, yearning, and sometimes this word is used to speak of God.

There's also philia - meaning friendship or brotherly or sisterly love. Philadelphia means "the city of brotherly love."

Now some in the Christian tradition talk about agape as the good kind of love, implying we're supposed to agape but maybe we shouldn't really be eros-ing or philia-ing. But in fact all of these words are used to speak of divine or religious love in the New Testament.

But the point I want to make today is we shouldn't really be saying one type of love is "good love" while the other type of love is "bad love." All types of love are good, divine things. We have to believe that if we believe the simple but profound statement "God is love." This is one of the shortest but biggest statements in religion: God is love. Not only God is loving, or a being of love, but God is love. What does that really mean?

For me, it is an invitation to really find the Source of Love in my life. And I think that's the work we're engaged in here. Our task is to find the source of love in our lives, and to go deeper into that source of love, and let it feed us and transform us.

Where do you find love in your life? Where is that deeper source of love?

There may be all kinds of places where we experience love, as well as places where we may be aware of love's absence and difficulties. It maybe that you are lucky enough to experience the love of marriage and partnership, the love of family, the love of deep and lasting friendship.

It may be something that seems quite small or unimportant. I came out of my front door the other day and was jumped upon my about four puppies that my neighbour was taking out for a walk. They greeted me with that enthusiasm, joy, and yes, love that we experience in such young creatures. It was a wonderful unexpected moment in my day. (I need to be careful as I said there was a danger here of talking about puppies and being overly sentimental when discussing love! But nevertheless it was an experience of love).

If God is love, then any of these experiences can be profound, if we are aware of the deep down place where they come from. Each of these moments can be windows into God. Windows into realising there's a deeper love in which we are held. These aren't separate things, they aren't divided, they're not about "good love" or "bad love." God is love. When we experience love, we are experiencing God, if we are open to the deep places where all these loves connect.

The deeper truth, the truth by which I live my life, (as best I can) is that we are, each of us, held by a Love that is beyond our understanding. And all we need to do in this life, is to open ourselves to that love, and to love one another.

 

Now loving one another ain't necessarily that easy. And there's still a lot more to sat about love than this. But today my invitation to you is this: find the love in your life, even in small moments, and open yourself to the source of this love, to the deeper, deeper source of Love in which we live and move and have our being.  

 Minister’s Letter

 

February's Theme: Love

 

A lot of Trinitarian Christian hymns and songs talk a lot about loving and worshipping Jesus: "Shine, Jesus, Shine," "Jesus is Lord," At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow" and the modern praise songs that repeat "Jesus" rather a lot. "Jesus, we love you so very much, you're so great" these hymns seem to say.

Unitarian hymns tend not to do this, in line with our historical commitment (shared with Muslims) that worship should be addressed to God only; or indeed the Mystery and Life we point to when we say "God." The only exception to this is Christmas, the season just passed, when we're happy to sing, "O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord."

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?" "Yes," "Then tend my sheep".... "Do you love me?" "Yes," Then feed my sheep." The point seems to be "if you love me, do something about it. Feed the hungry, find the lost, comfort those who mourn." Love is not just a word, not just a song, but a life, a commitment, an approach to the world.

Whenever I'm in a church and I hear all this love of Jesus ("O come let us adore him.") I can't help hearing in my mind a heavenly refrain coming back from Jesus, maybe with a slight air of frustration, "If you love me, feed my sheep."

It's not a bad idea.

In love,

 

Stephen

Minister's Message 

December 2014

We have absolutely no idea when Jesus was born. Jewish culture in the first century did not mark birthdays, so it was hardly seen to be very important by early Christians. Indeed the birth of Jesus is not recorded in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, as this was not seen as an important part of his story. Indeed it isn’t really an important part of his story. What matters much more is understanding him as a prophet of what he called the kingdom of God.

Later of course other writers filled in some details with imaginative stories of his birth, and much later still these events were linked with the time of the Winter Solstice, or Yule, already a pagan holiday associated with the (re)birth of the sun and of various gods and heroes. The Winter Solstice has always been seen as a holy time by various cultures. The Newgrange burial mound in Ireland was built nearly seven thousand years ago in such a way as the sun shines directly through a special opening into the tomb only at dawn on the Winter Solstice.

Why link the birth of Jesus with this special time of the Winter Solstice? In some deep way it makes sense. The time has been seen by many cultures as the birth of the new year, the new light, the new sun. And so we remember the birth of the one who said to us “you are the light of the world.” Following Jesus, our lights too must be (re)born. We come together in worship and celebration to kindle the divine light within each of us. In darkest times we need this even more.

As it happens the Sunday before Christmas this year (when we traditionally hold our carol service) is the 21st December, the Winter Solstice. And so it seems an appropriate time to recognise both the Christian and the more ancient pagan understandings of this holiday. We will kindle the light within us on this darkest day; the sun, though dwindling, will return, and we will shine forth with the glory of God.

Happy Yule and Merry Christmas.

 

Stephen

God does not want a temple

A reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on words delivered on 16th October 2011

Reading from Walt Whitman “The Song of the Open Road”

Allons! whoever you are, come travel with me!

Traveling with me, you find what never tires.

 

The earth never tires;

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first—Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first;

Be not discouraged—keep on—there are divine things, well envelop’d;

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

 

Allons! we must not stop here!

However sweet these laid-up stores—however convenient this dwelling, we cannot remain here;

However shelter’d this port, and however calm these waters, we must not anchor here;

However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us, we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

 

Image by Dirk Beyer (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Kamakura_Budda_Daibutsu_front_1885.jpg)

The Great Buddha of Kamkura, Japan is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan, at 13 metres high. It was built in 1252 and was originally housed inside a large temple. In the fifteenth century that temple was destroyed by a tsunami and since that time the Buddha has been out in the open air.

There is a story that once a Buddhist priest was making plans to rebuild the temple around the statue. He was beginning to raise money, to get a campaign going when the Buddha statue appeared to him in a dream. The Buddha said to the priest, “That Temple was a prison, not a home for me. Don’t rebuild the temple. Leave me exposed to the ravages of life, that’s where I belong.”

There is a remarkably similar story in the Hebrew scriptures, in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 7:1-11). In this story King David decided to build a temple for God. He thinks it’s about time God had a proper temple. But the word of the Lord comes to the prophet Nathan, and God says, “I’ve been travelling with my people since Egypt, and I’ve always lived in a tent. Not once did I ask them to build me a house. I’m happy in a tent.”

At this time the Israelites considered God’s presence to be in the Ark of the Covenant – that box containing the Ten Commandments. And the Ark was kept in a tent – a Tabernacle – a temporary structure. God seemed to be happy enough with this arrangement in this story.

I think it’s a fascinating idea to consider: that God does not want a Temple; that God is a wanderer – and God calls us to be wanderers too.

David did not build a Temple but his son Solomon did. The temple was later destroyed, and then rebuilt again. This Second Temple was there in Jesus’ time. And so in the Christian gospels we have a story of Jesus visiting the Temple. His disciples, in awe at such an impressive place say, “Wow, look at this magnificent building.” What does Jesus reply? “Every stone will be torn down.”

There’s something about the Divine Spirit that does not want to be contained in a Temple, that says, “this is a prison, not a home.”

We can be guilty of imprisoning the Spirit in a temple. We can think our religion is just for Sunday, just for an hour a week, just for this old building. Unfortunate that’s the view of so many people in our culture. When people think of “religion” or “church” they think of an old stone building: stable, ancient, never-changing.

We can think that too, we can get into thinking what matters is a building. Here in this community we’re named after our address: Bank Street Chapel – the Unitarian Chapel on Bank Street. If we moved away from Bank Street, we wouldn’t be called Bank Street Chapel.

But we must never forget we are a community, not a building. We could decide to sell this building. We could move somewhere else. We could just rent a hall. I’m not saying we should do that, but we could. The point is the building serves us, we don’t serve the building. And if the building no longer served us, we could decide to get rid of it.

In the New Testament the word used for church is ekklesia – meaning, in Greek, those called out, those called out for a purpose. The word was usually used to speak of a political assembly or citizens. We’re called out for a purpose, we’re called out for a journey.

There is a strong sense in the Hebrew Scriptures the Hebrew people were truer and more faithful when they were travelling through the wilderness. When they settled, they forgot who they were. The call of God is to continue to travel.

We can talk about community using lots of different images: sanctuary, a safe harbour, to rest, protected from the ravages of the world outside. And there’s some truth in that. But as Walt Whitman wrote, “however convenient this dwelling, we cannot remain here; however sheltered this port, and however calm these waters, we must not anchor here.” Maybe spiritual community is not about being a safe harbour, but about being a voyaging ship. There is safety on this ship (it’s safer than being in the cold water alone), but there’s also danger, because we’re going somewhere, and we don’t yet know where that is.

What would it mean for us to be an Exodus people? A pilgrim people? A voyaging ship on a spiritual journey? Perhaps it would mean taking seriously the words of Theodore Parker. Perhaps it would mean our religious would, like sunshine go everywhere, “its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love, its profession of faith, divine living.”

Perhaps it would mean we would see our purpose as not preserving the past, but always moving forward, always asking the question: have we been anchored in this harbour for too long?

Perhaps it would mean we would seek God not in stone and mortar, not in temple and altar but in human encounter. God is already out there, out there in the streets, asking for us to join her.

God is in the nineteen year old student, vomiting on Bradshawgate on Saturday night.

God is in the lonely widow, seeking meaning beyond grief.

God is in the asylum seeker, frightened, alone, and cut off from community.

God is in the Muslim mother, aware of being watched in the supermarket.

God is in the divorced man, interested in spirituality, but rejecting conventional religion.

God is in the wilderness, God is on the streets, crying, loving, and dancing,

God does not want a temple as a prison. God is quite happy with a tent.

God says to us, “Come and join me out here in the fresh air.”

 

 

You Belong

A Reflection based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood, 18th May, 2014

I’ve taken up walking a bit more seriously recently. I’ve joined a walking group and I’m getting out as much as I can to go on some proper walks (or are they called “hikes”? I’m not very sure how serious a walk has to be before it’s a hike!)

And I enjoy it. I do. But if there’s one thing I like more than walking it’s coming to the end of a walk. When, with aching feet and sweating brow, we turn a bend in the road and I begin to recognise the landscape and see the car park that we started from; and I know we’re nearly home.

The journey is important, but so is the homecoming.

Sometimes in my own life I have to remind myself of the journey that I’ve been on. It’s easy to forget. I have to remind myself how important it was for me to discover the Unitarian community. I have to remind myself how I felt isolated and alone before I found it.

I have to remember that my journey has been, in lots of different ways, one of going from separation to connection. Mine has been a journey from isolation to inclusion, from loneliness to community, from the wilderness to the promised land, from exile to homecoming. That homecoming is not just about finding a religious community that fits me, it’s about finding a deeper sense of belonging in this universe.

Sometimes I forget this truth I have discovered in my life’s journey. Sometimes I think I don’t belong, sometimes I think I am isolated and forgotten. And I have to learn what I already know: what I discovered long ago:

I belong.

Deeply, profoundly, I belong.

 

We often say it’s difficult to define what Unitarianism is all about, but it’s becoming easier for me. It’s taken more than ten years, but it’s becoming easier. The clue is in the name: Unitarian – Unity - Oneness. We are about affirming a deep and profound Oneness.

The Hindu scripture of the Bhagavad Gita describes this in terms of attaining oneness with Braham: “Having known me in essence, one immediately merges into Me.”

Alistair Bate says, “No greater discovery is given to our kind than to realise our divinity…. that-I-and-thee-and-we-and-tree, are One.”

Not only this, I have come to believe that this Oneness is immensely powerful: an empowering and transforming Love.

 

The Unitarian Theodore Parker said that Christianity was a method of attaining oneness with God. That’s all we’re about: a method of attaining oneness with God, though “God” is only one way of talking about this Oneness. I like the way the poet Mary Oliver says this in her poem Wild Geese:

“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

 

“Announcing your place in the family of things” - that’s an amazing line.  

All of this adds up to this: you belong. And I don’t just mean in this particularly community. Rather, it’s that this community tries to live out this truth about the universe: you belong. You are home, regardless of where you find yourself.

This to me is the precious Unitarian good news: holiness surrounds us and holds us, and says to us: “you belong.”

The folk singer Peter Mayer, puts it in this way:

“When I was a boy, each week 
On Sunday, we would go to church 
And pay attention to the priest 
He would read the holy word 
And consecrate the holy bread 
And everyone would kneel and bow 
Today the only difference is 
Everything is holy now 
Everything, everything 
Everything is holy now.

When holy water was rare at best 
It barely wet my fingertips 
But now I have to hold my breath 
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it 
It used to be a world half there 
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down 
But I walk it with a reverent air 
‘Cause everything is holy now

Everything, everything

 

Everything is holy now.

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