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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Minister's Message - April 2014

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

Gospel of Matthew

 

As humans, our instinctive desire is for things to stay the same. Even when we know we are stuck in a life-pattern that is unsatisfactory, or self-harming, such as addiction, we would prefer to continue with the pain we know, than risk a change. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” we think.

Jesus, and many other spiritual teachers, teach that our liberation comes from dying to the old life, “taking up your cross,” and being born again into “eternal life.”

I’d like to consider what this means, not just for an individual, but for a community. Communities, such as churches, always busy themselves with trying to save their life. The highest good, they believe, is for the community to continue, unchanged, for as long as possible. The institutional momentum, what we seem to “naturally” busy ourselves with, is to “keep things going” “keep the show on the road.”

And yet “those who want to save their life will lose it” – so many churches, despite their best efforts to “keep the show on the road” close down. What might it mean for churches to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow the spirit? What might it mean for churches to not see their task as keeping the show on the road but to see their task as dying to be born to eternal life?

It might mean not seeing that the church has a task, but rather that a Task (a very important Task to do with saving the world) has a church as an instrument to achieve that Task. And the question is: is the church prepared to sacrifice itself for the fulfilment of that Task? These are important questions, and I’m wrestling with them myself as I consider all this. But it has long been my belief that Unitarianism in this country is dying. The latest Annual Report from the General Assembly confirms this with a drop in membership of 84 people – from 3,468 to only 3,384 Unitarians. The real question is – what kind of dying does the future hold? Will we desperately try to save our own lives – and then lose them? Or will we in fact take up the cross, follow something bigger than ourselves and in dying to something old – be born into Eternal Life – a Life somehow much deeper and more important?

This is the Easter question that I’m pondering right now.

Happy Easter

Stephen

Minister's Message - March 2014

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah

 

 

Great Jewish prophets like Jesus and Isaiah saw that religion had one test that it needed to pass: are the hungry fed? Are the naked clothed? Are the children, the poorest, the most vulnerable, treated with human dignity and care? If religion did not lead to the care for the least then it was a religion that God hated (the prophet Amos does not shrink from this kind of language).

This is why I believe it is a time for people of faith and all people of goodwill to speak out about the hunger crisis facing Britain right now. Half a million people last year had to use foodbanks. Five thousand five hundred people were admitted to hospital for malnutrition. This is a national scandal and the government urgently need to make sure the welfare system provides a line of defence against people going hungry in this country. That’s why I will be joining in the National Day of Fasting on the 4th April to support the Ending Hunger Fast Campaign. As we enter into Lent, a traditional time of fasting for Christians, it is appropriate to thinking of fasting, cutting down or giving things up – but this seems especially appropriate this year as there are many people, not voluntarily choosing to fast, but being forced to by circumstance. People of faith need to choose not just the fast of giving up food but the fast of loosening the bonds of injustice.

In faith, love and hope

Stephen

The Politics of Baptism

In December 2011 David Cameron gave a speech in Oxford commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. In that speech he said very clearly “we are a Christian country.” What he meant by that, he said, was, “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”[1]

It was a pretty reasonably speech, its tone was not extreme, but David Cameron was nevertheless, wrong. I don’t think this country has ever been a Christian country, in the sense that it has never been run according to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, of any true spiritual teacher.

To understand this we have to understand a bit more history than David Cameron does. When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the favoured religion of the Roman Empire Christianity lost any chance of remaining true to its radical roots. Christianity became more and more defined by creeds, and less and less as a radical way of life. Once persecuted, soon it became the persecutor of pagans and heretics, abandoning any Christian sense of forgiveness, compassion and non-violence.  Once the religion of peasants and those on the margins, now it became the religion of Emperors, kings and armies. Once preaching that the last shall be first, now it modelled its own organisation on the hierarchical Roman Empire.

As Christianity moved north the story was much the same. Take Clovis, the king of the Franks. In the midst of a battle he decided to call upon the Christian god to help his victory. He did win the battle, and so converted to Christianity. He was baptised, along with 3000 of his soldiers in one mass baptism in 496. [2]

The Christian god was now simply a totem to call upon for a barbarian king who murdered his rivals. The Franks became a “Christian nation” in name, but it has to be asked what part of this has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth? Europe was certainly “Christianised” but was it ever really converted? Was it converted to the values we find in the Sermon on the Mount?

In the centuries that followed it was simple assumed that if you were born in Europe you were a Christian. And so we see the practice of baptising babies, declaring babies to be Christians, not because they had any understanding of Christianity, but because they lived in a “Christian country.” Christianity had become a national and ethnic identity, and very little else. It was in only in monasticism that the idea of Christianity as a radical way of life was kept alive.

But this understanding began to fall apart in the Reformation. For the first time the masses had the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what they found there. And many came to the conclusion that what was passing as Christianity had very little to do with what Jesus was actually about.

The most radical came to the conclusion that the Trinity was not in the Bible, and people like Michael Servetus were persecuted and martyred for holding this opinion.  But that wasn’t the only issue. Some radicals came to the conclusion that it was only now that they really understood Jesus, it was only now that they were truly becoming Christians, and so to mark this as adults they were baptised again. These groups came to be labelled as Anabaptist, simply meaning they were baptised again.

This was both theological and politically radical. By being baptised again they were making a radical political statement. They were saying they were not Christian by virtue of being born in a “Christian country” – they were only Christian when they themselves committed to the way of Jesus. They were undermining the idea of a “Christian nation” that had existed since Constantine and Clovis. And that was very dangerous, because it suggested their loyalty was not ultimately to the state, but to a higher cause.

What we call Anabaptists were a diverse group of radicals across Europe, but one particular movement is part of our story as Unitarians. In Poland in the sixteenth century a movement arose that is sometimes called Socinianism after Faustus Socinus – although the movement actually existed before Socinus joined it, and it was officially called the Minor Reformed Church. These were radical Anabaptist Unitarians.

To understand these Anabaptist Unitarians I want to tell the story of one man whose name was Jan Niemojewski. Jan Niemojewksi was a Polish nobleman and district judge. He studied in Germany and while there caught the spirit of the reformation. When he returned to Poland he met Martin Czechowicz, a radical preacher, and he began to take on Czechowicz’s teaching.

Niemojewski was baptised and committed to living a life based on the Sermon on the Mount. He used his considerable riches to found a Unitarian church; he freed all his serfs; he resigned his office as a judge as it might have involved him using the death penalty; he took Jesus’ words seriously and sold his property and gave the money to the poor. When a meeting of noblemen was called he appeared, not dressed finely with a sword as all other nobles were, but dressed plainly and with no sword. Soon after he and others relocated to the town of Raków, which became the centre for Polish Unitarianism, and he was active in the movement for all his life. [3]

The Polish Unitarian movement was unfortunately persecuted out of existence. And I can’t help wondering if we lost something absolutely vital in losing them. You see, we always talk about Unitarian history, and Unitarianism, as if it’s all about the doctrines – even in a negative sense: we don’t believe in the Trinity; we don’t have creeds; or that old phrase “whatever you want to believe, you can believe it.”

And we talk about this as if that’s what matters. That’s not what matters! That’s just the process of getting some things out of the way. If a belief truly gets in the way of your spiritual progress, then put it aside. But that process of putting beliefs aside is not what Unitarianism is all about. We put these things aside to a get a clearer picture of what really matters. And what really matters is that faith is a life-transforming experience.

Jesus’ ministry began with a transforming spiritual experience at his baptism, where he saw a dove and heard a voice saying “you are my beloved.” He then went into retreat in the desert. And when he appeared and began to preach, what is it that he said?

His first message was this: repent! [4]

Now we Unitarians can be quite uncomfortable with a word like “repent.” It feels like a word connected with shame and guilt. We can think it means to feel sorry for the things we’ve done wrong.

But repentance is much more than that. It means turn around, the Greek word used means “turn-about” like a soldier, it means transform, it means free yourself. We’re talking about that transformation that Jesus lived after his baptism, that transformation that Jan Niemojewski lived after his baptism.

James Luther Adams, the greatest Unitarian thinker of the twentieth century said,

“The element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius. We need conversion within ourselves.” [5]

I’ve told the story of the conversion Jan Niemojewski because I think that’s what Unitarian stories should look like: not just a story of finding a spiritual home, but a story of turning around and living radically different values. We need to re-discover than dynamism of our spiritual ancestors. We need that emphasis on conversion, that emphasis on living radically that we find in the Polish Unitarians.

We need conversion – a conversion rooted in direct experience of the Holy. It’s not a matter of do-gooding out of a sense of guilt, it’s a matter of finding freedom in a spiritual path that makes us realise what’s really important, and what isn’t. And it begins in that experience of knowing our own belovedness, our own divinity, as Jesus realised at his baptism.

When we are converted, to knowing our own belovedness, we begin to find that freedom, that dynamism. And we find a new faith. Not faith as a set of beliefs, but faith as a radical spiritual way of life.

So when David Cameron is talking about us as a Christian country he is talking about the Christianity of Constantine and Clovis – a Christianity that endorses war, a Christianity that endorses the agendas of the elite. He is not talking about the Christianity of Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke (known as the Magnificat) that says that God lifts up the poor and sends the rich away empty.

Rather, our country lifts up the rich and sends the poor away empty; our country sees the richest continuing unscathed, as David Cameron has rejected the Robin Hood Tax to tax banking transactions and yet the poorest are suffering the harshest cutbacks.

David Cameron is not talking about the Christianity of the Beatitudes that says “blessed are the peacemakers” – when this country continues to promote arms sales to regimes who continue to oppress their people, [6] and when this country continues to spend billions and billions on its own weapons of mass destruction.

Our country stands in need of baptism, of deeper conversion to the way of justice, compassion, love. As do we, we stand in need of baptism.  Maybe not literally (although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the practice of adult baptism) and maybe not once and for all; maybe every day we need that baptism – that spirit descending on us – telling us that we are loved and challenging us to live as if everyone else is too.

May that spirit of love and spirit of challenge guide us each day.

 

Stephen Lingwood

 


[1] http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/king-james-bible/

[2] Kee et al, Christianity: A Social and Cultural History (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), 165.

[3] Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, Vol. I: Socinianism and its Antecedents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947) 336-337.

[4] Mark 1:9-15

[5] Stephen Lingwood, The Unitarian Life (London: Lindsey Press, 2008) 167

[6] http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15973

Minister's Message February 2014

 

"Let us cultivate boundless goodwill… Even as a mother watches over a child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the whole world.”

The Metta Sutta, Buddhist scriptures

Part of our tradition in Unitarianism has come from a movement called Universalism. The Universalist Church in American merged with the Unitarians in 1961. In Britain the General Baptists were Universalists and merged with our Unitarian movement in the nineteenth century. Universalists taught that God’s love was universal, for all God’s children, and that God would not condemn any person to eternal torment in hell. The upshot of this is that we too must love with a universal love for all persons, without exception.

The Buddhist call such a love “boundless goodwill.” It is real challenge to live in this way, but it is the call of our faith. As the sun shines on all people equally, so our love must shine, unconditionally, out into the world. We can’t force ourselves to love boundlessly like this, but we can “cultivate” it. What we can do is remove the obstacles that stop us from loving. We can notice our mental habits of dividing and labelling people, projecting our own insecurities and fears onto others. 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.

The purpose of our spiritual community is to open our hearts and our minds to this unity; to experience our deeper and spiritual Oneness.

In faith

 

Stephen

 

Open Hearts and Open Minds

An article based on a relfection given by Stephen Lingwood, 20th February 2011

Many years ago there was a boy called George. He was a French Protestant refugee growing up in England, 300 years ago. At age 12 his father sent him to sea as a midshipman, and he was sent as part of a small fleet on a diplomatic mission to the North African coast.

In Algeria something life-changing happened to him: he met Muslims. Now he had always been told these were barbarian people, infidels, lost souls: the part of humanity predestined to hell. But when he met them for himself – he realised that these were people with compassion, with love, with a life of prayer – all those things that he considered “Christian” – he observed in these Muslims.

Something changed in George that day: his heart opened, his mind opened. His heart opened to seeing those Muslims in Algeria as good, as God-filled people; and his mind opened to the idea that maybe God was bigger. Maybe God didn’t just care for Christians. Maybe God’s love was wider than he had ever imagined. Maybe God’s love extended to all people, regardless of race or religion.

George de Benneville (for that was his name) then spent the rest of his life preaching a Gospel of inclusion, a Gospel of Love. He preached that God would not condemn people to hell. He preached universalism – that God will save all people; that God’s love is infinite.

This is just one story that is part of our heritage as Unitarians. The funny thing about Unitarianism is that it has never been spread through missionary work. It didn’t start in one place, and was spread to other places by sending missionaries. Unitarianism rather is a lot of individual stories of people having those moments of open hearts and open minds: of finding and seeking a more expansive faith. So Unitarianism started independently in France, in Hungary, in Poland, in Britain, in America, in India, in the Philippines. It started with a few individuals beginning to question, beginning to think for themselves, and coming to a faith of open hearts and open minds.

You see, a lot of times religion shuts down our minds. A lot of times religion expects us to leave our minds at the door. A lot of times religion thinks it has all the right answers. There is a story that a preacher was once talking to a Sunday School class and he said, “I have a question for you. What is grey, has a bushy tail, quite small, likes to climb trees, and likes to eat nuts?” And there was silence. And the preacher said, “Come, on. It’s a really easy question.” And one child tentatively put his hand up and said, “Is the answer…. Jesus?”

Because Jesus is always the answer right? That’s what we can be taught. There’s always a simple answer: Jesus. Whatever the question is, the answer is Jesus. Of course when you actually read what Jesus said you find he’s much more interested in questioning your answers than answering your questions.

God, the Universe, faith, Life – is bigger than we know; is bigger than we will ever know. So we must have an open mind; a mind open to what new truth we will discover.

The Unitarian faith is not about having all the answers. We do not claim to have the ultimate truth. We do not claim that we are the only people with the truth. We simply claim that this is a place for a spiritual journey.

When we began to construct our draft mission statement a few months ago, it became clear very early on that we wanted to include the phrase “open hearts and open minds.” We’ve had that phrase on our railings for the past year and it seems the more I think about it, the more I realise the depth of that phrase.

So many times we have closed hearts. Our hearts are closed because of pain, because we don’t believe we’re good enough, because our society teaches us to be anxiously striving for more of everything. When our hearts are closed, we’re cut off from the world. We fear the world, we believe the world is a frightening place. We believe the world is out to get us, or at least laughing behind our back. Or we believe the world is a boring place, a grey place, a meaningless place.

We all feel like this sometimes. But sometimes our hearts open: our hearts open when we connect with another human being. Our hearts open when beauty takes our breath away. Our hearts open when, like George to Benneville, we realise a greater truth, we break out of our narrow ideologies.

But these moments are fleeting, and sometimes our heart closes again. So we need to practice again and again opening our hearts. That’s what our mission is here at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel. We meet, and we worship, to keep our hearts open; to remind ourselves of a deeper purpose to our lives; to open our hearts to a greater joy; to open our hearts to more love.

Maybe sometimes our hearts close once more, and we need to come back to the Source, back to the root, back to that promise of the Spirit: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19)

An open heart, a loving heart, a heart that cannot keep from singing.

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