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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

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.

 

Are Unitarians Christians?

An article based on a reflection given by Stephen Lingwood in January 2010

There’s an old joke that goes along the lines of this: Question: why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly? Answer: because we’re always reading ahead to check if we agree with the words in the next line. There’s an element of truth in that. I certainly do that, especially in an ecumenical Christian context if I’m singing words that I’m unsure I agree with: words about worshipping Jesus, or about the “sacrifice” of his death, or words that suggest the Christian way is superior to other faiths. I check the words, and if I can’t in conscience sing them, then I won’t. This tends to happen when I’m joining in ecumenical Christian worship, which I do quite often; and which we all do as a congregation at least once a year.

Every year during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January the churches in the town centre come together for their morning worship. In many ways this is a wonderful thing. But it does leave us, as Unitarians, checking if we agree with the words. We may feel a bit uncomfortable in such situations, so it’s worth exploring that discomfort. It’s worth exploring our relationship with the Christian community.

The first thing I want to say about this is that I genuinely think Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre (CTBTC) is unique. It must be one of the most active, progressive, friendly, and diverse ecumenical groups in the country. It’s a wonderful group to be part of. But I do sometimes feel a tension in our ecumenical relations because Unitarians are different. We are a very different kind of church to most others. Sometimes we can be afraid to say this. Sometimes we can be afraid to be loud and clear about how we are different for fear of being thrown out of ecumenical groups. We know this has been the experience of many Unitarian communities around the country. We know that in many local Christian ecumenical groups Unitarians are not welcome. And we know that in the national ecumenical structures Unitarians are not allowed to be members. We often paint ourselves as victims of intolerance when we talk about such things, but frankly I think that is a bit unfair to these ecumenical organisations. Because, let’s be brutally honest: not all Unitarians view themselves as Christian. You don’t have to view yourself as a Christian to be a Unitarian. And yet we also demand to be counted as Christians by other Christians. It seems to me that we want to have our cake and eat it. If we want to belong to such organisations then we must be able to speak more clearly about how we relate to the Christian tradition.

 

So that leads us to that over-arching question: are Unitarians Christians? Are

we Christians?

 

I want to give my own thinking here, with the proviso, as is the Unitarian way, that you are free to disagree with me. The first thing I’d want to say when tackling this question is this: the life and teaching of Jesus is a vital source of faith for us. It has been for four hundred and fifty years, and there’s no sign that we’ve completely discarded it. There is a still a huge amount of inspiration and wisdom we can get from Jesus. But what is Jesus to us? I would say that Jesus for us remains the primary prophet. When speaking of prophets we could call Jesus a first among equals.There are many other prophets, and we recognise that. And Jesus was not the only prophet, not the first prophet, not the last prophet, not even necessarily the best prophet (it’s difficult to know what “best” would mean in this context), but for our community the primary prophet. The first and most obvious voice we turn to for spiritual guidance.

The second thing I’d want to say is this: each of us is as much a child of God as Jesus was. What Jesus was we can be too. Just as Jesus was filled with God, so we can be too. This is an important Unitarian understanding, incarnation (God-dwelling-in-flesh) is as true of you and me as it was of Jesus.

That’s what Christianity is for us. Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century Unitarian minister said this, “Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God. It demands, therefore, a good life of piety within, of purity without, and gives the promise that whoso does God’s will shall know of God’s doctrine.”

Paul of Tarsus wrote ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” If the same mind, the same way of being, the same spirit of love, the same Godcentredness is in us that was in Jesus, then we will live in a Christian way. Note that this doesn’t means you’re called to be Jesus, to behave in exactly the same way. Rather you’re called to be you. But you’re called to be you in a Christ-shaped way. What does that actually look like? Well Jesus gave us a very simple formula for judging this. He said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Our Christianity, our Christ-ness, is show by the life we live. The fruits of the Christian life include humility, creating equality, care for the poor, forgiveness, love of enemies, and sharing of material goods. As the Gospel of John says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.”

As Unitarians we believe we can live this way while receiving inspiration from Buddhist meditation, pagan rituals, or Hindu scriptures. All that helps us in a life of love is welcome. We can receive inspiration from anywhere. And we can also live in this way while having all kinds of doubts about metaphysical doctrines. Or even throwing out ideas and doctrines that are unhelpful.

So, are Unitarians Christians? Well the answer is yes, if what we mean by “Christian” is a community whose members are trying to become more Christlike: more filled with God, more filled with love, practicing care for the poor and outcast. And that’s very challenging. It’s challenging because if we say our Christianity is not about beliefs, but about what we do, then we are inviting people to judge us by what we do. We are inviting people to come and see how Christlike we are. That’s a tough challenge. But one that is worth meeting. As I believe the Way of Jesus is a joyful, life-giving adventure that can transform lives and the world.

Stephen Lingwood

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