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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

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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Punishing Children for the Sins of their Parents

A Reflection based on words by Stephen Lingwood, 22nd September 2013

Reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die…

But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbour’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practised extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.

Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

(Ezekiel 18:1-4, 14-20 (NRSV))

 

There’s a sketch from the comedians Robert Webb and David Mitchell when two men in an office on Monday morning are talking about the weekend’s football. “We thrashed you on Saturday didn’t we? You had it coming. We’re going to trolley you in the league.... I’ll let you off after what we did to you.”

The other man, who isn’t interested in football, replies, “What you did to me? You didn’t do anything to me. Perhaps you’ve mistaken me for a professional footballer. I wasn’t on the pitch, and neither were you.”

But the first man keeps talking about what “we” did to “you.” So the other man says “Remember in the film Indiana Jones when we were fighting the Nazis and we fell off the truck, but managed to get back on and then we found the Ark of the Covenant?”

“That’s not the same,” complains the first man.  

“Yes it is, it’s exactly the same,” says the other man, “It makes as much sense to say “we” beat “you” when watching a football team as is to say “we” defeated the Nazis and found the Ark of the Covenant when watching a film.”

 

That sort of language might be harmless in football fans but there is the potential for real danger here: when we can’t distinguish between individuals and groups. This happens a lot in our language. We say things like “we won the First World War.” Well, no, “we” didn’t.  None of us were there. One hundred years ago one group of muddy young men fought and killed another group of muddy young men, and one group one day decided to surrender. “We” weren’t there at all.

The only reason we would use the term “we” is because we get into a tribalistic way of thinking. Now there’s nothing wrong with people grouping into communities, neighbourhoods, tribes or nations. What causes problems is when we see only tribes – and no longer see individuals. And when we start seeing blame or guilt as applying to a whole group of people, not just individuals.

 

This is how a lot of ancient societies saw it; and this is recorded in the Hebrew Bible. People talk about the Ten Commandments as being a good moral guide. But in the Ten Commandments, as recorded in the book of Exodus, God says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” (Exodus 20:5)

Think about that as a moral statement: the guilt of the individual applied to the whole family. So in Exodus God says if you are guilty of something not only will you be punished but also your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren will be punished for your sins.

In the book of Samuel God is recorded as saying, 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey' (1 Samuel 15:2-3). Punishment for the whole nation.

This is one of a few passages encouraging genocide in the Hebrew Bible. Encouraging the punishment of children (and even animals!) for the sins of the parents: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

But some centuries later there is a word from the prophet Ezekiel saying, “No, no, no!”

“As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:3)

People often say, “The God of the Old Testament is a violent monster – but we get a God of love in the New Testament.”

But in fact you don’t have to go that far! Within the Hebrew Bible we see a moral evolution. We see different views of God. We see a God of tribal violence slowly replaced with a universal God of compassion and justice. Of course this is not God godself changing, but an evolution of human understanding of the divine. We never understand the full reality of the divine, but often see our own human projections on the divine spirit. Sometimes those projections have to be broken down.

This is a good thing. It is a process of moral progress in which we see more clearly the truth of what it is to be a moral society. Some people always resist this by saying “the Bible says so-and-so” and meaning of course “God says so-and-so.” But that view has to be confronted with the uncomfortable truth that the Bible (not even counting the New Testament, just the within the Hebrew Bible) has God contradict godself in lots of places. The God of the Prophets contradicts of the God of the Law. The old religious view is replaced by a new one.

One of the great moments we see this happening is the book of the prophet Ezekiel. This is one of the great moments of moral insight in western religion: from now on children will not be punished for the sins of their parents. Everyone is responsible for their own behaviour. This may seem obvious to us in this century. But it represents a revolutionary new insight in an age of tribalism.

But it’s just obvious to us, right? We wouldn’t see a child imprisoned for the crime of a parent, right? We only punish the guilty individual, right?

Well, that may be true in our criminal justice system, but in the world of international politics and warfare, I wonder if it really is true. Often a politician will say “We must confront this dictator with military force.” But it won’t be the dictator personally who gets attacked – it’s their army, and their people. We talk about attacking Assad or attacking Saddam Hussein, but it’s not them individually we attack – it’s their armies and their civilians.

This is the way our language of war works. We’re told that there is an evil dangerous man, and he must be stopped, confronted, attacked.  This may be true. But war does not attack a person, it attacks a nation, a nation of innocent people.

And that’s what we must never forget. We must not punish children for the sins of their parents. We must not punish a whole tribe or nation for the sins of a few.

The situation in Palestine is one of collective punishment. A whole nation is being punished for the sins of a few terrorists. It is right to condemn acts of violence and terrorism in the strongest terms. It is right to do all that can be done to bring those guilty to justice. But to impose sanctions and restrictions on a whole population is punishing the many for the sins of the few.

A person is not a nation. A person may be guilty, a nation is not.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 there was a choice: either to see those acts as crimes – and to do all that was possible to bring the guilty individuals to justice; or to see those acts as war – with the license to respond in kind against a whole population of people. The western powers decided the latter and so launched the “war on terror.” The language of war enables political leaders to punish children for the sins of their parents. Punish whole nations for the sins of the few.

If we are to be peacemakers – and I believe as people of faith, as Unitarians we are called to be peacemakers, we can start with something very simple. We can start by telling the truth. It’s as simple as that: speaking the plain truth and refusing the innuendo of war language, refusing to speak as if children are the same as parents or as if individuals are the same as nations.

Let us ban from our speech the weasel words of war: “shock and awe” “intervention” “regime change”;  or speaking as if one political leaders is the same as a whole nation. Let us say what war is: killing people, often killing innocent people.

Now that does not close the debate about whether sometimes killing people is the least worse thing to do because it might save other people. But maybe it will make us more reluctant to take such drastic action.

As Unitarians we affirm that all individuals have a sacred spark of the divine within them. Our way is descended from the Prophet Ezekiel that insists the innocent should not be punished for the sins of the guilty; that we do not treat whole tribes or nations the same, but treat each individual with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Peacemaking is hard. But we can begin with seeing each person as a beloved child of God, and speaking the plain truth.

 

"What do Ministers do all day?"

An article by Stephen Lingwood

 

“What do Ministers do all day?” that was the question of one of the workshops run at the Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings in April. A short survey had been completed by several ministers and the responses had been added up to make a count-down list of the things ministers spend most of their time doing. The workshop consisted of a “Family Fortunes” style quiz show as contestants tried to guess.

I was inspired by this to try to give you a sense of what I get up to as Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel. Most of you only see me for a few hours a week so you might wonder how I spend my time. I sometimes wonder myself when I think of how the hours have gone by in a day. So I decided to record everything I do in one week. There’s no such thing as a typical working week or working day in this job (one of the reasons why I love it) so another week might look very different – but this is how one week looked. 

Monday

I take our mission statement very seriously when I plan my time as your Minister. My job is to lead us in fulfilling our mission and our calling in the world. “Inspiring spiritual journeys” is the first part of that and to be able to inspire and guide others in their spiritual journeys, I must, of course, make time for my own. So my week began on Monday morning at about 9.15am with a time of prayer, including some devotional reading, followed by meditating for a few moments at the side of the small stream near my home. Some Monday mornings I spend an hour in meditation, but there was no time for that this week as I had to get out to visit my spiritual director. A spiritual director is a kind of a counsellor or a companion for you to talk to about your prayer or spiritual life. My spiritual director is a Catholic woman and lives in Trafford. I visit her once every two months to talk through my prayer life and my relationship with God and Life. It is a very valuable part of my spiritual life and ministry.

After travelling back home and having lunch I sat down at my desk at home to get on with some work. Every week I make a list of tasks that need doing. This week I listed 19 “must do” things and 15 “might do” things in my notebook. These tasks range from making a phone call, finish a book or visiting someone. I then started getting on with them, beginning with reading through my emails. I then spent the afternoon on administrative work, like preparing for meetings, and also some preparation for the funeral I had coming up.

About 5pm I drove into the town centre. I went out for a coffee and did a bit of writing on my laptop in a café in town. I like to vary my place of work quite a lot and often I feel I can do some good reading and writing while in a café. It also helps me feel part of the town centre community. “Engaging with the world” starts with engaging with our neighbourhood, which for us is the town centre.

After finishing my coffee I went back to the Chapel and began to shift chairs in the hall to set up for the district meeting that evening. Other people began arriving and we started to set out the refreshments and prepare for the meeting. The district meeting was longer than usual and after clearing up afterwards I got home about 10pm.

Tuesday

Tuesday began once again with prayer at about 9.15am. Then I got on with some answering emails and funeral preparation. At noon I went into town and went for a swim. It doesn’t happen every week but I like my week to have a proper balance of exercising my spirit, my mind and my body. So it’s good to make some time for physical exercise when I get the chance. After the swim I was in another town centre café for lunch and reading. Reading is an important part of ministry to keep up with important research, to fed the spirit, and to find material for worship. This lunchtime I was reading a book called “Why Liberal Churches are Growing.”

Popping back into Chapel I chatted with the Women’s League as they were meeting that day. I did a bit of work in the Vestry, as I do on a Tuesday, with the door open, chatting to anyone who wanted to pop in for a quick chat or a more serious conversation. Later in the afternoon I had a long conversation with the national coordinator of the schools Fair Admissions campaign, to get some advice on starting a local campaigning group – more engaging with the world.

I left Chapel about 6.30 and drove home for dinner. I did a bit more work in the evening and finished working about 9.30pm.

Wednesday

Wednesday I began about 9.20am with a time of prayer. In term time I am usually at the University of Bolton in my role as chaplain on a Wednesday. This takes up about three hours of the day. But term had finished by this week in the summer, and so I didn’t need to go in, which was lucky as I had a funeral to conduct at lunchtime. I also usually like to do some pastoral visits on a Wednesday, but had no time to do any this day.

After some last-minute preparation for the funeral I got to Overdale Crematorium and conducted the funeral at 11.45am. In many ways funerals are the most difficult but also the most rewarding part of ministry. Holding a family through the process of saying goodbye to a loved one is both daunting and also a huge privilege. It is also emotionally and spiritually exhausting. After the funeral I went to do my weekly “big shop” (the time I do this in the week varies) and then went home and took a long lunch to recover.

In the afternoon I got back to work. I didn’t have a service to prepare this week but I did have a Junior Church class to prepare instead. I also needed to prepare to lead the “Twelve Steps to Spiritual Health” group. These tasks and other admin stuff kept me working till about 10pm.

Thursday

I skipped my time of prayer. I don’t like to but sometimes I’m running too late. I drove into Brunch at Chapel and spent the morning chatting to various folks there. The afternoon I got on with various bits of work in Chapel. I wasn’t leading the service on Sunday but there was still the order of service and notices to print, and a story to prepare.

Thursdays are long days for me as I stay in Chapel all day and all evening. At 8pm I led the “be” worship, then afterwards chatted to people, tidied up the Chapel and then went home. I got home at about 9.15pm.

Friday – is my day off.

Saturday

Saturday morning was an early start as I needed to get to Sheffield by 10am. I was attending a conference on “Progressive Church: Reconceiving Christian Community” led by Martyn Percy (the editor of the Why Liberal Churches are Growing book I had been reading). This was a programme run by St Mark’s Centre for Progressive Christianity. It’s important for me to keep up with developments in theology and other subjects to keep my preaching and my ministry fresh. It was a good conference but a long day.

Sunday

Sunday is usually an early start to carefully make sure I have my service fully prepared. This day was slightly different as I didn’t have a service – but with doing Junior Church there were even more things I needed to make sure I had – worksheets, craft resources, visual aids. I get to Chapel at 10am every Sunday to make sure everything is as it should be.

So I sat in for the beginning of the service (led by the Women’s League) then I went out with the children to teach the Junior Church, then it’s coffee time, then I’m running the “Twelve Steps to Spiritual Health” group. I finally got home at about 2.15pm for my lunch.

After lunch I did a few extra bits – and tried to tidy up my home study a bit. I also spent a bit of time updating our website – something I hadn’t done for several weeks.

Then I shot out to get to the Pentecost musical “Spirit” at Victoria Hall – I felt it was important to support this as lots of our neighbouring churches in the town are involved. It was a high quality production, and an enjoyable night (even though musicals are not really my thing!). Then home to bed. Another week gone by!

The week

So that was one week. I added up all my hours and I spent my week like this:

Reading, writing, studying and learning: 8 hours

Travelling: 6 hours 40 minutes

Pastoral care and general social contact with the congregation: 5 hours 45 minutes

Dealing with emails and other general administrative tasks: 5 hours 35 minutes

Preparing for and being in meetings: 4 hours 55 minutes

Preparing and leading rites of passage (funerals and weddings): 4 hours 50 minutes

Leading and preparing worship: 4 hours 15 minutes

Leading and preparing religious education (for children and adults): 4 hours 10 minutes

My own spiritual practice and care: 3 hours 5 minutes

Social justice work: 2 hours 5 minutes

Working on the Chapel website: 45 minutes

Work for the Unitarian denomination: 20 minutes

Ecumenical and interfaith work: 15 minutes

Tidying up the Chapel building: 15 minutes

Total: 50 hours 55 minutes 

I managed to tick off 18 of my 19 “must do” tasks and 9 of 15 “might do” tasks – which is pretty good going on most weeks.

In lots of ways this was not a “typical” week. I didn’t have a full service to prepare as I usually do. I had a funeral which is not very common for me. Some weeks I’m doing a lot more work for the wider Unitarian movement. And obviously I don’t go on a course every Saturday. But then, as I say, there’s really no such thing as a typical week.

This is just a little snap-shot of my ministry. I hope it helps you to understand how I spend my time as Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel.

Stephen. {jcomments off}

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