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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

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.

Engaging with the World

An article based on the reflection given by Stephen Lingwood, 30 January 2011

We have a few martyrs in Unitarianism: those who gave their lives for the Unitarian faith, and for Unitarian values. Michael Servetus is the most obvious example, who was burnt at the stake in 1553; but much more recently than that we do have other martyrs. One of them was an American Unitarian Minister called James Reeb.

In 1965 Martin Luther King was campaigning for the right to vote for black citizens in Alabama. During a voting rights march a young man called Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed. The protestors tried to organise a march to Montgomery but were met with state troopers with clubs and whips. Martin Luther King called for clergy of all faiths and all people of conscience to support the black citizens in Selma, and many people responded, including the Unitarian James Reeb.

 

Reeb went to Selma, and on the night of the protest was attacked by four white segregationist and beaten to death. His murder prompted American President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights act of 1965.

What was the faith that James Reeb had in his heart that led him to Selma in 1965? Reeb actually grew up a strict conservative Calvinist. He went to Princeton Theological Seminary and then became a chaplain at Philadelphia General Hospital. The hospital mainly served the poor and disenfranchised of the city; many of them addicts.

In that hospital Reeb had a kind of crisis of faith. His theology told him that these people deserved their suffering, that it was God’s just punishment for their sin, and nothing compared to what they would suffer in the afterlife. But his heart told him that God had nothing but love and compassion for these people, and that he was asked to respond with nothing less.

He had a conversion, his heart opened, and he realised that any God worth worshipping had only love and kindness for those who suffered. He wrote in his journal, “When the moralist in you dies, then life begins.”

Reeb began to follow the path of Love which lead him to become a Unitarian minister who dedicated his life to serving the poor; and eventually lead him to give his life in Selma, Alabama.

Jesus said, “A tree is known by its fruit.” A tree is also known by its roots. James Reeb’s life was rooted in that experience of the open heart; that knowledge of Divine Love; that understanding that God, whatever God is, approaches this world with nothing but love and compassion. That God is love, God is compassion.

Faith is not about believing in God, faith is about beloving God: loving God, and loving what God loves. This is the central Christian insight; this is the heart of Jesus’ teaching: you cannot love God without loving your neighbour; and you cannot love your neighbour without loving God. The two are intricately connected. It’s not just that faith without works is dead: faith without works is impossible.

If we truly walk that spiritual journey, if we truly open our hearts to God, then we cannot help but open our hearts to one another. If we walk the spiritual journey, then it becomes natural for us to engage with the world. The spiritual journey naturally opens our hearts to the world, naturally leads us engage with the world with love and compassion.

And when we engage with the world, with an open heart, and an open mind, when we engage with the vision and compassion to see the suffering in the world, then our compassion leads us to a yearning for a better world, just like James Reeb. We encounter those things that cause suffering, those things that prevent love, those things that James Reeb came up against: racism, poverty, prejudice. We could even names these things with a theological word, we could name them as sin. Yes, hold on to your hats, I said it: sin!

I want to name just a few sins that seem to me to be the most pressing in our world today. The first sin I want to name is inequality. We live in a country that is more unequal than ever before. The gap between the richest and the poorest keeps getting wider. The irresponsible actions of the banking industry have led us into a recession, and now the government are drastically cutting public spending. In the news this week 1,300 jobs could go at Bolton Council, with Children’s Services possibly the worst hit. This is the reality facing so many of us in Bolton today.

The next sin I want to name: violence. We live in an incredibly violent world and we don’t always notice it because it’s so universally present. War is the norm rather than the exception. When did we get used to that idea? The idea of constant war? We don’t go to war once a generation or once every 100 years to defend ourselves. But we’re told again and again and again that war is necessary; that war will create peace. And in Iraq we saw not war as a last resort, but an eagerness to war, which is very disturbing.

The other sin I want to name is prejudice against minorities. First prejudice against Muslims. This is a really disturbing trend. This came to our doorstep in the English Defence League last year: whipping up fear and hatred against Muslims. This is exactly the kind of rhetoric used against Jews 80 years ago. Oh, “they” are plotting to take over the country, to take over the world. This is dangerous nonsense! And we need to name it as such.

And the other one I want to name is prejudice against gay people. This week a leading gay rights activist in Uganda David Kato was murdered. This is after a Ugandan magazine called for him and other gay rights activists to be hanged. A law is being considered in Uganda that would have the death penalty for homosexuality in some circumstances. And a lot of this stuff is being supported by conservative religious forces.

The Unitarian Church in Uganda is fighting very bravely for gay rights at the moment, but face violence and enormous pressure. But they are standing up for gay people, they are one of the few religious voices standing up for gay rights.

In the face of all this sin, our temptation can be to despair. Our temptation is to say, “What can we do? What can we possibly do to make a difference?” But we must not despair. We must realise that it’s not our job to come up with a grand plan to fix everything. It’s not our job to think up grand solutions. But it is our job to love. It is our job to walk the spiritual journey that requires us to meet God in other people; to engage with the world with an open heart and an open mind; to engage with compassion and imagination.

Loving the world is not simply a matter of just being nice to those we encounter – it does require us to engage with the issues of the world, and to do what we can. Justice is the social form of love.

What can we do? Firstly we can speak up: we can name injustice, we can name sin, we can name prejudice, and we can refuse to go along with it. We can speak truth to power. And we can do simple things: writing letters, giving money, caring and for those we engage with.

Simple things, but things that do make a difference. How do we know we can make a difference? Because we already have. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. Whenever people visit this chapel I always tell them about all the social justice and service projects that began in this place: Bolton Street Angels; Fortalice Hostel; the Interfaith Council. And further back this was a congregation of trade unionists and suffragettes. And Bolton itself, as a democratic borough, was campaigned for by members of this chapel.

That open-minded faith, that experience of the love of God has led Bank Street Unitarian Chapel to engage with the world for generations. And that continues to be our purpose: to engage with the world, to love the world, to work for justice in the world. To open our hearts to that Holy Love that will guide us.

It’s not our job to do everything. But it is our job to engage, to love, to walk the spiritual path that opens our hearts to the world. I want to end with the words of Dorothy Day, she said:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

 

Inspiring Spiritual Journeys

An article based on a reflection given by Stephen Lingwood, 23rd January 2011

 

“Where my free spirit onward leads, well, there shall be my way;

By my own light illumined I’ve journeyed night and day.”

Alicia S Carpenter, Hymn 212 in Sing Your Faith

Every one of us is on a journey. We are all walking on this pilgrimage of life; walking and exploring, and maybe seeking a better path. There are so many seekers in this world, searching, yearning for more love, more community, more meaning, more joy, more purpose in their lives: seeking a better path.

 

Every year thousands of people go on pilgrimages. Not just orthodox believers either, but quite often spiritual seekers, searchers, explorers going on pilgrimage to look for something.

One of the most popular pilgrimages is the one to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Thousands of pilgrims every year walk for hundreds of miles across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to reach either the cathedral, or the coast. It takes about 40 days, walking all day, mainly alone, sometimes accompanied by other pilgrims, then staying at a hostel at the end of the day. This is a tough physical and mental challenge.

A friend of mine has walked the pilgrimage and she said that the mental side was much tougher than the physical. The physical journey was tough, but the mental journey involved being all alone with your own thoughts day after day, walking through that barren landscape.

And yet every year the number of people making this pilgrimage rises. In 1985 there were 690 pilgrims. Do you know how many there were in 2010? 270,000 pilgrims (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James). Each of those pilgrims was searching for something more, searching for something worthwhile, searching for a destination worth heading for, searching for a journey worth undertaking: the inner journey of the spirit.

I’ve told the story before of Nasrudin searching for the lost jewel. The story is that Nasrudin was on his hands and knees in the street outside his house carefully searching the ground. A friend of Nasrudin approached and asked him what he was up to, and Nasrudin said, “I’m looking for the diamond that fell out of my ring.” His friend began to help, until a neighbour approached and asked them what they were looking for. Nasrudin’s friend explained the situation, so the neighbour began to search too. Then a few more people arrived, then a few more, until there were a dozen people, all on their hands and knees, carefully searching for that glint of light in the dirt that could be a diamond.

Eventually one of the searchers said to Nasrudin, “Tell us, exactly where were you when the diamond fell out?” Nasrudin replied, “I was in the kitchen of my house.” “What?” replied the helpful neighbour, indignant, “If you lost the diamond in your kitchen, what are we all doing out here in the street searching?” “Ah,” said Nasrudin, “Because there’s more light out here.”

We are all searching, but we’re not always searching in right places. As liberals we can come out with things like, “All paths are valid,” “Whatever journey you’re on, that’s fine,” “It’s all just different paths up the same mountain.” Well maybe, but does that mean that there are no paths that lead down the mountain? Does that mean that there are no paths that lead in the wrong direction? That there are no ways to live your life that are at best unfulfilling or at worst dangerous? Does that mean it’s OK to search for the lost jewel in the street when you lost it in the kitchen? Or is that stupid?

We search in the street because there’s more light, because it seems easier to us, it seems like the best place to search. But you’re never going to find the diamond in the street if you lost it in the kitchen. And there are plenty of places you’re not going to find that deeper meaning and purpose to life. I used to think that there are many paths to the Divine, but increasingly now I think there is only one; it’s just called by many different names. But there are many paths away from the Divine. There are many paths that will get us nowhere.

You see, everyone has a path, everyone has faith. Everyone has a direction in which they point their lives, and we could call that their faith. If you don’t like the word “faith,” try the word “trust.” Everyone has something that they put their ultimate trust in. It might be what they claim it is, or it might not be. It might be money, family, alcohol, fame, nation, career, romance, religion or political ideology. Everyone has faith in something. The question is: is this a good thing to put my faith in? Will this lead my life in a good direction? Am I on the right journey?

Some of those things may not be bad per se, but if they are the things you put your ultimate faith in, then you may end up disappointed. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it well, “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that... That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

What we are worshipping, we are becoming. We become the journey that we’re travelling. We all worship something, we are all journeying on a particular path, but we need to ask the question: is this a path that is going to get me somewhere worthwhile?

Lots of people ask this question: is there more to life than getting a job, paying your taxes, and watching telly? Is there something more trustworthy? Is there something more meaningful? Is there a deeper joy? Is there a better path? Is there something worth searching for? Is there a journey worth undertaking?

We are here at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel because we think there is a journey worth undertaking. Our purpose is to walk that journey that offers deeper meaning and joy. Our purpose is to walk a spiritual journey; and to inspire others to do the same. We are here to witness that there is a better way, there is a better path: the path of the spirit.

The path of the spirit is not a doctrine, not a belief; it’s a way of being, it’s a way of life. It means an intimate relationship with the Holy. It means slowing down and making time for prayer. It means opening your heart to love. It means connecting, not being cut off from the world in a shell but really connecting with people, with the planet, with your God. It means living a life of compassion, joy, generosity, and service to the world.

Now you might want a more detailed description, but the fact is the spiritual path resists any tight description placed upon it, because if you define it too tightly it becomes a kind of idol. Even in religion and spirituality that are many misleading paths. One of the worst is to think you’re already at the destination. You can think you’ve got it all: all the truth, all of the Divine. But if you think you’ve arrived, then you’re definitely lost.

The spiritual journey is a journey. And while we’re still breathing we’re still on the journey. Every single one of us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, we’re all still on that journey. Our purpose is to be a place where we can deepen our spiritual journeys through worship, prayer, and service; and to share our spiritual journeys with one another, because the pilgrimage is much more fun in a group of fellow pilgrims.

Our purpose is to invite others onto the spiritual journey. Our purpose is to inspire others to undertake their own journeys. We can’t force people onto their spiritual journeys. Every person has to find their own spiritual journey. As Kahlil Gibran says in his wonderful book The Prophet: the Teacher cannot give you their wisdom, but can only give you their love, and lead you to your own wisdom. You cannot offer the spirit to anyone. You can only love them, and inspire them to find the spirit themselves; inspiring people to look within themselves, and start their own journey.

Our purpose is to inspire spiritual journeys. That is our task, and we need to realise the urgency, the importance of this task. We are not gathered here for a trivial purpose, we are gathered here for a life-changing purpose. We need to remember all those spiritual seekers out there, desperate for something more; all those people who are spiritually hungry and religiously homeless. How can we not do all we can to give them spiritual sustenance and a religious home?

We offer sustenance for the spiritual journey here in this Unitarian community. Unitarianism has inspired my spiritual journey. Unitarianism has opened my heart and my mind to the Loving Spirit. I was desperate and lonely as a spiritual seeker, and when I came home to a Unitarian community it gave me a place to belong, and a place to grow my heart and my mind, and a place to walk my spiritual journey with other pilgrims. How can I, how can we, deny that opportunity to others?

And I’m not saying that Unitarianism is the only community to live out that spiritual journey. If people can find that life-giving spiritual sustenance elsewhere, good luck to them. But there are plenty that can’t. I tried for years to be an Anglican, I couldn’t do it. The words stuck in my throat and got in the way of my spiritual journey. I didn’t make a very good Anglican, but I’m can have a good try at being a good Unitarian. For me Unitarianism is the only community where I can live out my spiritual journey, and that’s going to be true for lots of people too.

Unitarianism offers an open-hearted, open-minded spiritual community that welcomes people with their individual gifts, their doubts, beliefs, their bodies, and their loves. We are a pilgrim people with a mission to inspire people to walk their own spiritual journeys, and to invite people to join us in our journey. The inner journey of the spirit. That journey leads inwards to the spirit, but at the same time, it leads outwards to the world – to engaging with the world. But that is a topic for another time.

 

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