Monday, 30 May 2011

What do we expect from life?

I was visiting another chapel yesterday - the service was on the theme of joy. Towards the end the service leader said something along the lines of what a dreadful six months the world had had with earthquakes and tsunamis; the threat of nuclear contamination; and the Arab uprisings bringing death and destruction. There may have been more - my memory tends to be a bit hazy these days.

I was struck by this reflection on the last six months - there had been many days when there were no earthquakes and no tsunamis. There were countries where there was no political unrest and no civil war. There would probably be many people who would say that they had had a good six months.
And anyway, 'What do we expect of life?'

Whether we believe the gods or God has a hand in it, what is our expectation? That life will always be trouble free, that the sun will shine during the day and it will rain only at night? That all people will live together in harmony? That the natural world will always be at peace?

We only have to look at Wikipedia on the
page on natural disasters to see that they happen on a fairly frequent basis - for example did you know that 56,000 people died in Russia last year due to a heat-wave? On the page on ongoing conflicts over 15,000 died last year in Mexico's war on drugs. So part of this is about what gets reported -perhaps a heat-wave is not as spectacular as an earthquake plus a tsunami, despite it killing many more people. Perhaps the war on drugs only kills people who are seen to be guilty.

I think that we need to accustom ourselves to the facts: our world can be a dangerous place. We, here in the UK, in 2011 are fortunate to live at a time and a place when we are safer than the vast majority of humanity.
So it is not just when the news tells us that there are dreadful events happening but all the time that we need to be mindful of our own privilege and not squander it.

As a faith community we have a duty to find out about the world around us and to talk about such things – Channel 4’s Unreported World is for me a recently discovered gem. We also have a duty to give something of ourselves – something that costs us. It is in community that we can nudge and be nudged. There is no joy in seeing others suffer but there is joy in knowing that together we can all make a difference, even those of us who only have a ‘widow’s mite’. We can make a difference to at least one person – probably someone we don’t know but nevertheless connected to us by the life and spirit which flow through us all.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Models for moving forward

I thought that when I started writing this blog that it would be easy to identify theories of community development and mould them for our purposes. I should have known better having worked around community development for many years and being confounded by the lack of theory - I thought that it was just us.

Anyway there are certainly organisational theories and some interesting insights into how to develop. One of these is Appreciative Inquiry which has been used in the US with the Unitarian Universalist Association and some of their churches. In some ways Appreciative Inquiry is similar to Solutions Focused approaches which I have mentioned in July last year.

Here are the Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry from a presentation at the Florida UUA District:
  1. In every congregation, some things work well.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Asking positive questions influences the group for the better.
  4. People are more willing to journey toward the future when they know they can keep the best of what is past.
  5. There is no need for detailed analysis of problems.
Solutions Focused approaches would say - find out what you do well/what went well and do more of it/do it again. These positive approaches I think suit Unitarians very well.

I will leave you with these thoughts as I spend some time thinking about how these approaches could be used by our communities.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Acting as a community

If we want to be seen as a community we have to act as one. But what does this mean? A community is defined as a group of people who share something - with geographical communities what is shared is physical space. There are some communities defined as communities of shared experience such as groups for people with certain disabilities e.g. the Deaf community. For our faith community it is about shared interests. But what is the interest that we share?

We return again and again to the same place - which for me is about shared values and principles. We act as a community when together we make those values and principles real. I think that it is often the small things that reinforce our feelings of being together and acting well. For example, when one person has a good or bad experience we recognise that by connecting and marking the event e.g. by sending a card or a message.

Of course it is also about the big things - the way that we make decisions and the way that we handle potential conflict. For example if we know that someone is unhappy with a certain aspect of what we do, how do we handle this? Do we ignore it? Do we act defensively? Or do we engage in meaningful dialogue? Do we consider the finding of resolution a spiritual imperative or a do we think it stands in the way of our spiritual imperatives? How we deal with difficult situations holds up a mirror to our actions and lets us know if we are living our values.

Whilst our communities may have agreed values and principles it can be enlightening to understand what our own values and principles are. For me there are some clear drivers to how I behave. This is off the top of my head and so a little random and unformed.

(1) I commit to being present - perhaps when I am not feeling 'in' the mood' I make the effort to go and be there. Being present is not just physical presence but about emotional presence (hearing the feelings behind people's words and actions) and intellectual presence (engaging with our communities' thinking). And of course spiritual presence (holding onto faith)

(2) I bring my whole self - not just the good or even just the needy parts - but all of myself as a sign of commitment and faith.

(3) I commit myself to action - responding to information and sometimes taking the initiative to stimulate action.

(4) I am committed to learning from others.

(5) I commit to developing wisdom.

For not only are we working with our communities to act well, we are at the same time working with ourselves so that we may act well. In the Tao there is a lovely phrase, right action. In acting right as a community we have to act right as individuals - we aspire to be more than we are now.

Monday, 9 May 2011


This weekend I have been immersed in our Unitarian community. On Saturday I had a Communication Commission's meeting in Manchester followed by the East Cheshire Union's AGM at Dukinfield in the afternoon followed by tea and buffet - delicious! I covered over 100 miles by car and also had a train journey from Ashton to Manchester. Getting home to an empty house, my 18-year old daughter was out celebrating a friend's 18th, and my mind was buzzing.

I watched some TV hoping to empty my mind so that I might sleep well. But as soon as my head hit the pillow my mind started racing again. So many ideas and issues - so many important things - what to do, what to say - so many happy exchanges with like-minded people. On waking very early I got up and turned on my computer. I had to get at least a few of my thoughts written down. I then wrote on my other blog and prepared the announcements for the morning's service. I was feeling jaded by then - not enough sleep and too much mental activity - and although I like services I could happily have stayed at home and snoozed.

As I drove there with the radio on, listening to messages of love passed from one person to another via the DJ I began to reconnect with the world outside and was happy that there was such love around. I parked my car and spied two of my friends and we juggled my bags and their garden produce so that we could help each other to the Meeting House. A lady who had just got out of a car called out, 'Are you going to the Unitarian church?' 'Yes,' we replied, 'are you?' Turns out that Cathy and Jack from Washington State were staying with Helga and Mark from Crewe and always tried to visit a Unitarian chapel whenever they visited somewhere new. We chatted with our visitors as we walked towards our Meeting House.

When we arrived others came forward to welcome our visitors and I had some time to put packages down and get sheets of paper out of my bag. The mother of one of our member's had just died - he was not there but we like to be with people in spirit at difficult times. We were unsure about whether one of our members was on his way - if he is coming then we start the service a little later to allow for his bus journey. So it was a bit delayed and a bit raggy at the start. Our bus-rider arrived and we felt able to then hold our bereaved member in our thoughts and send love and comfort.

One of our members led the service on awe and wonder. It was a stirring service with mainly unfamiliar hymns which we did our best with. We finished with Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. What would our visitors think? They loved it. And they loved the welcome. And they loved, as we did, that sense of connection. Now they will be included on our list to receive our newsletter.

We were asked in the service to think about those things that made us feel 'wow!' Whilst I like a good view, it is also human connections that make me feel 'wow!' The simple pleasures of feeling connected to so many people over a 36-hour period. The joy of listening to the radio and feeling warmth as messages of love are sent by and to people that I don't know and probably will never. Thinking about all the opportunities to connect - I asked Helga about her name, her father was German and had been a prisoner of war. 'Locally?' I enquired.' 'No, near to Leicester, ' she responded. It just so happened that I was going to Leicester that afternoon to my sister-in-law's 60th birthday celebrations. I also have a family connection on my paternal grandmother's side.

As I left to drive home I felt so proud of our community for all that we do together - at how we work so hard to translate our values into real attitudes and actions. I reflected on the rest of the weekend and the broader network that we belong to and the feelings of sincere love that underpin my experience of our Unitarian community. It is not just a feeling of 'wow' but a more sustained feeling of awe and wonder at the dynamic of this, our religious community.