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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

"Our addiction to fossil fuels, and how we can overcome it"

An article based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood

28th September 2014 

 

A Story from the Islamic Tradition

Version by Bill Darlison

One day Nasruddin was feeling very thirsty. He’d been walking for a long time in the blazing sun and there was no water to be had anywhere. “What I need is some luscious fruit. A big melon or a couple of oranges would be perfect,” he said to himself. As he turned the corner he saw a fruit and vegetable stall. His prayers had been answered!

“How much are your oranges?” he asked the stallholder, looking at the mountain of juicy oranges.

“Fifty cents each,” replied the man.

Nasruddin looked at the few coppers in his hand. Not enough even for one orange. And his thirst was burning! “How much are your melons?” he inquired, optimistically.

“Seventy-five cents each, and cheap at the price.”

Disappointed but not defeated, Nasruddin looked at the rest of the stall, and some shiny little red pods caught his attention. They looked wonderfully refreshing. “How much are those?” he asked excitedly.

“Three cents each,” replied the man.

“I’ll take ten!”

Nasruddin handed over thirty cents – all the money he had – and then he sat down in a nice shaded place and began to munch the red pods. He devoured the first one with no trouble, but mid-way through the second his eyes began to water and his mouth began to burn. “These are the hottest fruits I’ve ever tasted,” he thought. But he still carried on eating.

Just then, a passer-by saw Nasruddin’s distress. “What on earth is the matter?” asked the concerned woman.

“I’m eating some fruit,” replied Nasruddin, “but I’ve never tasted any like this before! They’re hot!”

The woman looked closely at what Nasruddin was holding in his hand. “No wonder they’re hot!” she laughed, “those are chillies! They’re not for eating, they’re for cooking. You put them in curries!”

But Nasruddin carried on eating. Tears were streaming down his bright red face, and his throat was burning unmercifully. “You must stop eating them at once!” ordered the woman, “or you’ll make yourself very ill! I’m telling you they’re not fruit!”

“Oh, I know they’re not fruit,” said Nasruddin, “but I’ve paid for them so I’m going to finish them. I’m not one to waste my money!”

(From The Shortest Distance by Bill Darlison)

 

Reading from the Book of Leviticus

You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely. Should you ask, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.

(Leviticus 25: 18-24 (NRSV))

 

It was a sobering and astonishing realisation to me that my nephew, born last year, is quite likely to live into the twenty-second century. He will only need to live to the age of 87 to make it to the year 2100. And that seems quite possible.

But then the question becomes – what will the world be like in the year 2100? And that’s when I start to worry. Because the international scientific community are saying that if we continue with present carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere it could well cause an increase in average global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.[i]

Six degrees may not seem very much but we’re talking about a global average, not just warmer weather on any given day. A six degree higher average will be hotter than this earth has been in three million years, when the northern hemisphere was entirely free of ice, and sea levels were 25 metres higher than today.[ii] And while I don’t believe this will result in the apocalypse – life, and humanity, will continue to exist – it will result in a radical change for our world and an immensity of suffering for humans and other creatures.

A six degree increase would result in higher sea levels, increased extreme weather, flooding and draughts in different parts of the world, and decreased availability of food and fresh water. The Amazon rainforest will become a savannah.[iii]

The biological result of all of this will be a mass extinction event as significant as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be seen as a period of biological genocide: a mass extinction, the effects of which will take evolution millions of years to recover.

This change in our environment will create huge social changes for humanity. If anyone thinks we have an immigration problem today, it will be nothing compared to the millions of climate refugees who will be on our doorstep as the equatorial regions of the world become uninhabitable. These changes will affect the poorest most, those in the “developing world”, but they will affect all of us. Or rather they will mostly affect our children and grandchildren. I worry about the world we are giving them.

The effects of climate change are already observable. In the summer of 2012 a larger extend of the Arctic Ocean was open sea than at any time in the 200,000 years human beings have been on the planet.[iv] The 2012 Hurricane Sandy was the largest storm ever recorded in the North Atlantic, causing $68 billion dollars’ worth of damage to the United States.[v] The summer of 2014 was the hottest since records began in 1880[vi] and this autumn feels like it’s going to go the same way.

When I say this is the issue of the twenty-first century, I am not exaggerating.

Scientists keep warning, in stronger and louder tones, about the effects of burning the fossil fuels of oil, coal and natural gas into our atmosphere. In desperation they seem to ask, “How many times do we have to say this? How many different ways do we have to say this? The industrial burning of fossil fuels by humans is changing our climate.”

The scientists are more afraid than we are. Think about that: those who spend all their professional hours every day studying the climate are scared. Don’t you think that means we should be too?

In September 2014 the United Nations held a climate change summit in New York City that was accompanied by climate change protests in that city and in others around the world including London and Manchester. It was the biggest climate change march in history.

The world seems to agree this is a big issue, and yet, what do we do about it? Governments around the world still continue not only to tolerate fossil fuels, but in fact to give government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.[vii]

 

It seems we are just like Nasruddin – we continue eating those hot chillies even though we know that they are doing us harm. We’ve started eating the chillies so we’re not going to stop. We are not ignorant of the damage – but we just can’t stop ourselves.

We are addicted: addicted to fossil fuels as a society. And maybe we’ve made some progress in admitting we have a problem, but we still can’t help ourselves. We know we have a problem, but we’re not yet really serious about dealing with it.

To truly recover from our fossil fuel addiction we need, as in the twelve-step recovery movement, to turn to the spiritual root of our addiction. This is not only a political or economic issue – this is a theological and spiritual issue.

There is a need for us, along with other faith communities, to build a new theology and ethics that turns us towards the Earth. Sometimes we have become too concerned with individual salvation or “getting into heaven” and have not paid enough attention to the world we’re in now. Sometimes we have only thought of ethics in terms of loving our fellow humans and have not considered that our love should embrace other species as well.

But we need to go further than this. The danger is that we only talk about a “nature spirituality” that does not make the real changes we need to make. Now, don’t get me wrong, spending time in nature is one of the most important things we can do for our spirituality. Going into the hills or into the park or your garden, these are important practices, and they are good for your spiritual health. But to only talk in these terms misses the point. We need to make the imaginative leap to understand how we need to change the world if we really want to show our love for nature. To do this we need to turn to our damaging addictions.  

We have become, in the rich part of the world, addicted to a consumerist mind-set that keeps us constantly wanting more. We are obsessed with owning things. Owning is seen as the greatest achievement it’s possible for us to make in our lives. Think about how governments and political parties are constantly wooing us with offers and deals so we can “achieve the dream” of owning our own houses. This is supposed to be the biggest dream we have to achieve in our lives: owning something worth thousands of pounds. Society says this should be our biggest dream.

But here’s the truth (which all spiritual traditions unite to tell us): it is impossible to own things. Ownership is entirely an illusion. Our life on this earth is short, and we take nothing with us, we can only borrow things, until other people need them in future generations.

And this grasping, this desire to own things, in fact has the opposite effect to the one we really want. Our deep desire is to connect to something greater, and yet this desire is misplaced into a clinging and grasping after objects, and this in fact isolates us from the world. It creates suffering for ourselves and for others.

In the Jewish Torah there are agricultural regulations to leave the land fallow every seventh year. This is partly a practical agricultural policy to let land replenish its nutrients: it’s just good farming.  But the Torah says it is more than that: it talks about the redemption of the land. The land is a free gift of God to the people, and God says, “with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

In the world today we have lost the idea we are but aliens and tenants. We think the earth is ours to use as we see fit, we grasp after it and the products it provides. But what will be left for the next tenants? What will be left for our children and grandchildren? If we are to truly love the earth, the living things on it, and its future tenants we need to give up the idea that we are the owners. We cannot be both owners of the earth and lovers of the earth. We must choose one or the other.  

 

What would this mean, practically? Well there’s not space here for me to get into all the issues, which are vast and complex. Climate change is the social problem of the twenty-first century. It affects every other problem in the world: poverty, war and peace, economic justice. And it is caught up in the complexities of international politics, economics, and science.

But there are simple and important changes we can make in our lives to reduce the impact we have on climate change through our consumption of energy. We can use cars and planes as little as possible, we can reduce our household energy use and we can eat less meat. Personally the primary reason I don’t eat meat is to reduce my effect on climate change. Put simply a field of plants can feed 100 people but if those plants are used to feed animals that are eaten then only 10 people can be fed. If you can’t fully give up meat then having one, two, or three days a week than are meat-free would still have an important impact.

But there needs to be a lot more than such personal commitments. We need governments and economies to change too. This year at our Unitarian Annual Meeting there was a motion raising concerns about climate change. I got up and spoke against this motion, not because I disagreed with it, but because it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t call on us to take any concrete action or effective activism about climate change, it was much too weak.

I’ve come to believe one of the most effective steps we can take as an organisation is to disinvest stocks and shares from fossil fuel companies. I’m acutely aware that much of our investments in the Unitarian world, including the investments of this Chapel, will be in fossil fuel companies. The uncomfortable truth is that part of what pays our bills and pays my stipend and pension, is profits from the extraction, selling and burning of fossil fuels. And how can we condemn this practice if we ourselves are profiting from it? Things can’t change overnight but we need a people’s movement that moves our economics and politics away from dependence on fossil fuels.

The climate change motion at the Unitarian meetings was “referred back” – which means it will come back again at the meetings in 2015. But what I want to see come back is not a purely wordy “we are concerned about climate change” but a motion with real teeth that says “we are committed as a Unitarian community to begin a process of disinvestment from fossil fuels as a way to move our economic and political systems away from this industry that is costing the earth.”

That is one effective and real step we could take in making a difference in preventing the worst effects of climate change. It’s a step that was made this year by our sister Unitarian Universalist Association in the US. We need to make the same step.

 

I believe faith communities such as ours have a vital role to play in the public debates about climate change. We need to be the leaders, both practically, and spiritually of a change in our society. We bring a spiritual perspective that has the potential to recover the knowledge that we are not owners, we are tenants. We have a religious tradition that calls us to love the earth. And we have grassroots communities in every town that can lead locally on these issues.

There is a long road ahead of us. Like any addict we will not be able to give up fossil fuels cold turkey. We will need to transition to a different way of doing things. But for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must.

 

 



[i] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 163.  

[ii] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 165

[iii] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 164 - 165

[iv] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 1

[v] http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/assessments/pdfs/Sandy13.pdf

[vi] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/21/un-limit-climate-rise-warning-nicholas-stern-barack-obama-david-cameron

[vii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27142377{jcomments off}

Minister's Message

November 2014

November's Theme: Peace

I was once at an exhibit in Leeds Museum and Art Gallery where there was a sculpture that had the look of both the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion and a human skull. Next to this sculpture was a film playing on a loop, a film used by the US Air Force in the 1950s to train Air Force officers to be able to recognise a nuclear explosion. This film showed nuclear explosion after nuclear explosion while a dispassionate educational voice described how a nuclear explosion looks different from other kinds of explosions: brilliant white light; mushroom cloud.

In front of this film was a young boy, about 3 or 4 years old and his father, watching, transfixed by this sight. They were silent apart from when the boy would ask a question, ‘Dada, when was this big explosion? Dada, where was this? Did it blow up everything, Dada? Did it blow up everything?’ The awkward questions of a child. His father offered no answers, but stood in stony silence, watching the film.  

What answers are there to give? Why do we have nuclear weapons? Why do we go to war? When will there be peace?

One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War are we in any better position to answer those awkward questions? Are we any closer to peace? Have we learnt any lessons from that horrific conflict?

Maybe. Maybe not. But part of what it means to be a Unitarian is to keep asking the questions. We must think for ourselves without necessarily accepting the glib answers we are given about war and peace. We must keep asking those awkward questions of ourselves and of our society, with the tenacity of a curious three year old.

Let’s be tenacious three year olds with our questions and keep asking, “Why? Why war? Why not peace?”

 

In peace and love.

 

Stephen

Minister's Message

October 2014

October's Theme: Identity

A woman died and went up to heaven. There she met an angel who said he must ask her some questions.

“Who are you?” he asked

“I am Eileen,” she said,

“I didn’t ask what name your parents gave you,” said the angel, “I asked: who are you?”

“I am John’s wife,” she said,

“I didn’t ask whose wife you were,” said the angel, “I asked: who are you?”

“I am the mother of Tim and Jessica,” she said,

“I didn’t ask whose mother you were,” said the angel, “I asked: who are you?”

“I am a teacher,” she said,

“I didn’t ask what you did for a living,” said the angel, “I asked: who are you?”

“I am a Christian,” she said,

“I didn’t ask your religion,” said the angel, “I asked: who are you?”

What did she say? What would you say? Who are you?

This is one of the perennial spiritual questions, and one we will wrestle with this month. Who are you? How do you know who you really are? Are you trying to be something you’re not? Who are we as a community? What are we here for? What is our purpose?

These are indeed important questions.

In faith,

 

 

Stephen

 

Cultivating Boundless Goodwill

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood based on words delivered 26th January 2014

Reading from the Metta Sutta

Let us cultivate boundless goodwill. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.

Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm. Even as a mother watches over a child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the whole world, above, below, and all around, without limit.

 

Reading from Scott Alexander

During my final year in seminary, I decided to do a chapel for the faculty and students at the school, at which time I planned to expound on this pure and lovely gospel of universal human affirmation.

The morning of the chapel, I arose early and poured over my powerful and polemically perfect text. I was privately proud in advance of the depth and passion with which I grasped the essence of my Universalist heritage. As I walked the mile or so from my home to the school, my head was down as I silently rehearsed to myself all of the beautiful phrases I had crafted to make my sermon on Universalism come alive. As I approached a busy intersection, I happened to glance up and see an incredibly large woman sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. Now, I have always had a personal obsession about my own weight, and in those years was quite prejudiced and opinionated about people who weighed more than I thought they should. Before I could censor the unkind, judgmental thought, I blurted out to myself, “Oh dear God look at that gross woman. She must weigh 400 pounds. How could anyone let themselves get like that and who could ever love that?”

And at that moment, as if it were a bolt of spiritual lightening aimed right at me, a skinny little guy sitting next to her looked lovingly into her eyes, leaned over, and gave her the most gentle and loving kiss I have ever seen one human being bestow upon another. I was stunned and ashamed. And while I was still reeling from the jarring disparity between my petty and unkind judgment and his pure and simple love, a voice (without words, but in unmistakeable clarity, holiness and power) … a voice came out of the whirlwind and said to me (and me alone) “Don’t you get it, you dope. Here you are, at this very moment going up the hill to preach your clever little sermon on God’s love and universal salvation for every human person, and all you can do is sneer inside at someone you deem unworthy and unbeautiful. Don’t you understand that, in the eyes of all that is sacred and beautiful and holy and true in this creation, she is as utterly lovely as human beings get? Don’t you get it? If the pleasures and prerogatives, graces and goddesses of this creation are made for you (and you certainly claim them as a natural birthright for yourself) then they are made for her, too. And you call yourself a Universalist… puffff.”

I was as startled as I was chastened. In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity, and I finally began to understand Universalism viscerally, deep in my bones. What it means to be a Universalist, a real Universalist in more than name only, is to have a heart that seeks and sees at every human turn the natural worth and preciousness of people – all people – especially those very different from oneself. In an instant, I understood what a wild and welcoming a doctrine our Universalist forebears bequeathed to us, and that doctrine can be summed up in stark simplicity: There is a place set in this creation for every last man, woman and child. A precious safe place has been set for each and every one of us – period! And it is our human job to respect, protect, and nurture the wellbeing of all of God’s diverse and curious children. The early Universalists said, pure and simple, that every human being, no matter how strange or flawed or unlovable or broken or weird they may seem, is to be protected, cherished, welcomed, loved.  

(From Alexander, S. W., Salted with Fire: Unitarian Universalist Strategies for Sharing Faith and Growing Congregations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994), 35 -37)

 

 

I went swimming this week.  It was the first time I had done so since Christmas – and it really felt like it! It felt like a lot of hard work. I’ve had a month of lots of chocolate and very little exercise and I’m a lot more out of shape now.

Swimming isn’t exactly a new year’s resolution. I’ve been trying to do it regularly for about eighteen months now. I do enjoy it in some ways, but in other ways I find it quite stressful. When I go the pool always seems too crowded. I’m trying to do my lengths, and I always find myself bumping into other people. I find myself getting really territorial as I swim forward, and I’m always thinking “get out of my way!” I get myself in this mindset of seeing everyone else in the pool as my enemy. I find myself cursing new people as they get in the pool, “How dare they?” I think, “We’re crowded enough, they better not come over here.” I’ve noticed myself getting really defensive and aggressive. I start to think of everyone else in the pool as out to get me, and I feel quite hostile.

I know I have this tendency in myself. Sometimes my basic attitude to the world is fear. I can fall into way of thinking and feeling the world is out to get me, it’s a scary place, and I need to defend myself. This isn’t rational – I can rationally believe that I must love the world, that I must love people, but sometimes I catch myself with other feelings – and those feelings come from fear.

I know I need to work on this. I know I need religious practice to keep my heart open.  That’s why I come to church: to practice keeping my heart open. I need to listen to those religious teachers that teach us about this.

The Buddha, as expounded in the Metta Sutta, teaches we should cultivate boundless goodwill… radiating friendliness over the whole world. Jesus, in the sermon on the Mount, said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here Jesus invites us to be perfect, meaning complete or universal in our love.

There is a Jewish story of a rabbi who gathered his students together one morning before dawn, and then asked, “When do we know night is over and the day has come?”

One student replied, “When we can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?”

Another tried, “When we can see a tree in the distance and tell if it’s a fig tree or apple tree?”

These answers were all wrong. But the rabbi said, “When you look into the face or any woman or man and see them as your sister or brother, then we know that the night is over, and the day has come. If you cannot do this, it is still night, no matter what the time of day.”

This is that universal love, that complete and perfect love for all beings that we could call universalism. That’s part of our tradition as Unitarians, the great religious movement of Universalism that eventually merged with Unitarianism in the United States which is why they are still known today in that country as Unitarian Universalists.

The foundational idea of Universalism was God’s universal love for all beings; and coming from that the idea that such a loving God would not condemn millions of people to everlasting hell. From this understanding of God comes the commitment that our love too has to be universalist. We’re all going to be together in heaven, so we might as well learn how to get along with each other while we’re still on earth.

Jesus said that the sun doesn’t only shine on some people. The sun shines on Muslims and Christians alike. The rain falls on gay people and straight people alike. The rose gives its scent to law abiders and criminals in exactly the same way.

It is impossible for the sun to only shine on some. It is impossible for the rain to be selective about who it falls on. It is impossible for the rose to withhold its scent from people it does not deem worthy enough. That’s what divine love looks like.

 

But it’s difficult, right? You know it’s difficult, I know it’s difficult. How do we cherish all living beings? How does this truth live in our bones, not just our minds? How does it become our nature?

We can’t force it. If we force ourselves to love it will only be phony. What we can do is remove the obstacles that stop us from loving. The Buddha said “Everything we are is the result of what we have thought.” We can become self-aware of this. We can see the truth about ourselves. We can notice those times when we feel ourselves fearful or angry or annoyed. We can think, as Scott Alexander did, “Why do I feel judgmental and disgusted at a large person? It’s because I have issues with my own weight?” Or, “Why do I feel fearful because there’s a young black man in the street? Maybe it’s because of media and television that has taught me to be scared.” Or, “Why does this person just rub me up the wrong way? Maybe because she reminds me of my mother.”

When Scott Alexander realised he was doing this, the spirit of God, the spirit of love, rose up inside of him. He wrote, “In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity. And I finally began to understand Universalism, viscerally, in my bones.”

When we notice those thought-patterns we’ve built up in our minds, and begin to dismantle them, then the spirit of love, spontaneously arises within us.  Because the illusions we’ve built up in our minds are of our separateness: of the alien-ness and hostility of the world. But when we dismantle those illusions we experience our Oneness, our Unity, our natural and real connection with all beings.

 

But don’t forget that word used in the Metta Sutta: “cultivate.” It’s “cultivate boundless goodwill.” It doesn’t just happen once, it requires constant cultivation, constant spiritual growth to do this.

And we don’t always get it right. We slip back into other ways of thinking and behaving. We need that spiritual practice, those things we do to experience our Unity, on a regular basis. Our worship life, our prayer life together in this community, is the practice of that Unity. The cultivation of Love: the Universal unstoppable Divine Love for all beings, through opening our hearts and minds. That is our purpose here.

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God: My Imaginary Friend

A Reflection based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood 20th October 2013

The psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore tells the story of a friend of hers who was backing out of her drive one day, with her three children in the car, when one of them cried out “STOP!!”

She hit the brakes and looked around wondering if she was about to hit, or be hit, by something.

“What?” she asked,

“You’re about to run over Boopsie!” was her child’s reply.

Boopise was the child’s imaginary friend.

 

Imaginary friends have been on my mind this week. I’ve noticed recently that it’s a certain phrase that some of the more aggressive atheists have been using about God: God is just an imaginary friend for grown-ups. “You can have your imaginary friend,” they say dismissively, “But don’t expect the rest of us to respect it.”

 

I started to research this this week. I found that there is a website called GodIsImaginary.com – that gives fifty reasons (plus three bonus reasons – I don’t know why that isn’t just fifty-three reasons, but there you are) why is God is imaginary.

And last year the American Humanist Association started an advertising campaign aimed at children and teenagers with the slogan “I’m getting a bit old for imaginary friends.” There’s then a picture of a young girl looking dismissively at an imaginary hand emerging out of a cloud. The proposal is that God is an idea that is a bit immature, a bit childish, and that if you grow up, you’d reject the idea of God.

 

The comedian Bill Maher has used the term “imaginary friend” for God. I saw a video of him talking about this. In an argument with a debater he retorts, “Tell me: why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing?” When I saw that I thought to myself that that was a pretty good question. And one that deserves an answer.  

Why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing? We might even ask if it’s a good thing for children. Is it good for children to suspend their critical thinking? To indulge in things like imaginary friends?

I wonder if you ever had an imaginary friend. It is in fact pretty common. Some research found that 37% of children have imaginary friends. Now some parents get a bit worried if they find their child has an imaginary friend. Is it healthy? Is it OK? The good news is there’s nothing to worry about. It’s pretty psychologically healthy.

Some parents might worry that it will stop their child having real friends. But in fact children with imaginary friends are generally less shy, they laugh more, smile more, and show a greater capacity for empathy. 

 

So maybe it can be healthy for children – but surely not for adults? Adults don’t have imaginary friends, right?

Well, think of an author. They create characters, but in fact they may feel that their characters have lives of their own. They simply observe what that character does rather than “making” them do anything. In some weird sense they seem alive and real. This is how the creative process works.

How about another example. Do you ever talk to animals or to inanimate objects? Do you talk to your cats or dogs? What about your computer? Do you ever talk to that? What about shouting at it? Oh yes, I think many of us do that, “Why aren’t you working?” we might scream. I seem to spend a lot of my time doing couples therapy for my computer and my printer. They seem to have communication problems. Why can’t they listen to each other?

 

Is this crazy? Is it irrational? Is it unhealthy? Is it bad?

With a modern mindset we might think so. But viewing this historically we discover some profoundly wise people did this.

The Sufi poet Hafiz once wrote, “The sun and the moon sometimes argue over who will tuck me in at night.”

Francis of Assisi talked to animals and birds and the sun and the moon. One of our songs that we sing in this church based on words of Francis addresses the world, “O brother sun… o sister moon… brother fire … sister earth…[even] sister death.” By addressing the world as “brother” and “sister” Francis is acting like the whole world is alive and sentient in some profound way.

And then there was Anthony of Padua was even said to have preached a sermon to a fish.

And then there are some stories of animals speaking back. I love the story in the Hebrew Torah of the prophet Balaam who seems to be going over to the enemy side in the context of war. He departs on a donkey but God has other plans. An angel appears, and the donkey sees it and refuses to go forward, and Balaam hits the donkey. This happens three times before the donkey speaks (and it’s impossible not to imagine Eddie Murphy’s voicing this donkey as he does in the Shrek films) saying, “Hey man, what have I done to you that you keep hitting me?” (Numbers 22: 21-41)

Now of course the rationalists will say, “Well this just proves how silly religion is!” (in fact this story makes it to number 70 on the website “100 Reasons to Doubt”). And my answer to that is: of course it’s silly! Of course it didn’t really happen: that’s not the point!”

One of the points here might be: how would we treat animals if we thought they might speak up for themselves? That’s certainly worth thinking about.

 

So, yes it’s silly and childish to talk to animals or to the moon and to imagine the world is alive with personality. But, in fact, I believe it grows within us a sense of respect and reverence for the world. It increases our capacity for compassion.

Think about it: if we’re constantly thinking of the world as having feelings and personality it helps us get into the habit of thinking and acting in that way. We become less self-centred and automatically considerate of others. As long as we’re not avoiding human beings, I think it’s fine. As long as you’re not talking to your cats about how you hate people, I think you’re fine.  

And this is proved by the studies on children. Those who will happily chat away to their doll or to an imaginary friend increase their ability to be empathetic, to feel the pain of another. And why not continue that in adulthood? Jesus said, “become like a child.” Maybe that’s what he meant.

So, to get back to Bill Mayer’s question, that is a good reason to suspend your critical, rational thinking. Certainly you should still know what’s really true. But you’re also choosing to engage in the world imaginatively.

And what if we see life itself, existence itself, the universe itself, as having personality? Maybe that’s what God is. It might be difficult to feel a connection to the universe itself, to the totality of existence. But what if we imagine that there is a personality with whom we can connect, with whom we can be in relationship? Could that be a way of viewing God?

 

To act as if there is a personality with whom we can connect invites to enter into relationship with that personality. And that brings us to prayer. I’ve come to believe that there is something powerful and important about praying out loud (in your mind), to speak as if someone were listening. Lots of people who are unsure that God exists sometimes find themselves praying. They might say, “I don’t know if anyone’s listening, but I need to say this…” And often people find that they feel better, even if they still don’t know if someone listened.

I’m all for meditation and ways of praying without words. But there’s also something really important about praying with words. Try it. Maybe it feels silly: but do it anyway. In a quiet time, speak your needs, your worries, hopes. Speak as if someone is listening, even if you don’t believe they are.

But you might persist in the question: “Yes, but is there anyone really listening?”

Honestly, I don’t really know. But I know if we keep going with prayer, even though we don’t know if anyone’s listening, we will still get the benefit of the practice of prayer in our lives.

But I think, for me, over time there is a growing sense that someone listens. For me personally, the more I pray, the more it feels like there is a Someone to whom I am praying. And I don’t claim more than that: it’s just a feeling, it doesn’t prove anything.

 

But even if there is this Reality called God, we still have to use our imaginations to conceive of God. The only way we can think of God is using our imaginations and projecting our thoughts and feelings and images onto this thing called God. And that of course means we can bring all kinds of images to God: father and mother and dancer and whatever other image that feels right to us. We can use our imaginations to conceive of lots of images to capture God: male, female, even animals.

Maybe the Hindus have something to teach us here. They have lots of images of deities, representing the One Reality. And Hindus treat the deities in the temples like they are real people. Now Hindus know the deities not real people. They’re not stupid. But they use their imaginations to cultivate reverence, worship, prayer, compassion.

We need imagination, the purposeful suspension of our critical thinking, to grow our spirits, to increase our compassion.

 

So, you know what? Yes, God is my imaginary friend, and sometimes I talk to cats and sometimes I talk to my toy dinosaurs. And sometimes the sun and the moon argue over who will tuck me in at night. And maybe that’s childish. But this is what I choose. And I think it makes me a better person. It gives me peace and joy in my life. And you know what? I’m having loads of fun.  

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