Are We There Yet?
Address to the Anniversary Service 2010
by Michael Dadson - Minister with Unitarians in Macclesfield and Staffordshire
Click here to download MP3 of this sermon
First Thoughts: Being Here
"As David lifted a suitcase onto the conveyor belt (at the airport check-in),
he came to an unexpected and troubling realisation; that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday."
This observation was made by Alain De Botton, philosophical writer and programme-maker, in an intriguing little book called
'A Week at the Airport', written last year when he had been commissioned to spend a week as Writer in Residence at Terminal 5 of
The imagery of travel is familiar within this community, as a useful way of expressing our take on religious truth and the
spiritual path; how often have you heard a Unitarian voice say that we are concerned not so much with the arriving as with
the travelling . . . that the destination is less the focus than is the journey itself?
And Alain De Botton was mindful of the power of such imagery as he settled at his desk near to where thousands of passengers
would check in for thousands of journeys. He reminds us that:
"the journey . . . was once an essential element of religious pilgrimage, defined as an excursion through the outer
world undertaken in an effort to promote and reinforce an inner evolution."
Now, in watching and talking with countless present-day passengers, who had no conscious sense of themselves as any kind
of pilgrims, he yet detected a hint of that longing, a largely unacknowledged hope that journeying to somewhere different might
offer restorative and even transformative possibilities. He portrayed it in a way that sounds almost prayerful.
We may ask of our destinations, 'Help me to feel more generous, less afraid, more curious.
Put a gap between me and my shame'. Travel agents would be wiser to ask what we hope to change about ourselves
rather than simply where we want to go.
The opening observation about David and his suitcase has already alerted you that there is a cautionary note to be sounded here.
De Botton points out that there is something incomplete, and not particularly grown-up,
about projecting a wish onto a destination, or onto the journey itself, that we may be made better by it . . .
because we ourselves are part of the equation. This was David's realisation:
He had booked the trip in the expectation of being able to enjoy his family,
the Mediterranean , some spanakopita and the Attic skies,
but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of
his own being; he was bringing himself with him on his holiday."
This evening I want us to reflect upon the yearning for progress and change - yes, on an individual level,
but perhaps more so on the level of the Unitarian and Free Christian community, in representation and celebration of
which we gather here.
And I want to call into gentle question that oft-used imagery of the journey, wondering whether we understand it and employ
it incompletely. Beware the seduction of the idea of travel, of looking out and ahead and elsewhere in search of transformation;
we bring ourselves too, wherever we go. As individual travellers, and as a community travelling in one another's company,
let us not fall prey to the lazy and simplistic notion that the grass will be greener somewhere else, in some future time,
than it is right here and now - if we can but see it.
In recent times this community has been thinking a great deal about where we want to be going, where we think
we want to get To ; this evening I want to suggest, ever so 'umbly, where I think we need to
Be - and to what purpose.
It's not always easy to think clearly, or to see clearly, amidst the influences and distractions of our setting.
As an organisation, as well as individuals, we live within a culture which teaches us to speak the language of continuing
progress and change; the climate of the Western consumerist society is all about aspiring to a bigger brighter future,
assuming that growth is an imperative for survival - The imperative - The One True Way.
But our very own John Naish - journalist, author, and member of the Brighton congregation - published his challenging book
'Enough' in order to call into question the prevailing priorities and preferences by which our society operates.
He contends that it is the growth imperative - followed with unquestioning, acquisitive, almost fundamentalist, zeal -
which led us into the latest financial crash . . . as it has previously led us, regularly and reliably, into cyclical
money melt-downs. Given this perception, John asks whether it is the right approach to take at all; are there not other,
and perhaps better, ways to organise ourselves? He says this:
Logic suggests that it is time for fundamental change, a revolution in human thinking as great as the one that brought
us the consumer society over the past five decades . . . but currently all debate about this is banished to the margins,
derided as hippy, naive, or airy-fairy .
I will return to John later on, to bring you a suggestion as to what that fundamental change might be, and where the
debate about it might be stimulated. For now let's stay with the 'simple matter' of his questioning of the growth imperative.
Not long ago I had a fairly intense conversation with a retired industrialist about this. The initially defensive -
and slightly irritated - response, that of course growth is essential to survival, gradually moved to an acknowledgement
that in fact it is development from depth which is crucial; development of ideas and understanding, of products and processes,
which are consistent with the underlying principles and values of the enterprise in question. Simply trying to grow, without
attention to those things, will lead to unsustainable overstretching, and gradually to the under-use and eventual redundancy
of warehouses, of factories, of offices, and of people.
Speaking to a spiritual community which has itself become somewhat concerned with growth,
I'm wondering whether that last sentence rings any unsettling bells for us. Can we recognise any of those dangers -
unsustainable overstretching and over-commitment, buildings being under-used and eventually redundant,
so that the people who were busy there find there is nothing going on any more?
Speaking to the spiritual community I was so relieved to discover and excited to join, I'm wondering whether there
is a prophetic message which it might be ours to give to this society in this time. Might it be our task to seek to stimulate
that debate so easily derided as hippy, naive, or airy-fairy? Might we not take that fevered imperative to look outward and ahead
- in search of bigger, better, different - and temper it with the call first to look within and know what is there . . .
what is here . . . not to be so preoccupied with building for the possible future that we forget to grow into
the possibilities of the present?
I'm indebted to The Week - the weekly digest of the daily papers - for this pearl of wisdom from baseball player Dan
Quisenberry: "I have seen the future. It's like the present . . . only longer."
This reality, here and now, is where the action is. In the present is surely where we create the foundations for the
future, and those foundations can not be square and true and trustworthy if we are not secure and true in our understanding
either of ourselves or of each other here and now; if we are not authentic and whole in our occupation of this time together.
For the sake of the future, then, let us secure the present. Because flights of fancy aside, phases of spiritual journeying
notwithstanding, we do always return to who and what and where we are. Alain De Botton captured this reality in
the baggage reclaim area at the airport:
After hours in the air, free of encumbrance, spurred on to formulate hopeful plans for the future
by the views of coasts and forest below, passengers were reminded,
on standing at the (baggage) carousel, of all that was material and burdensome in existence.
You've spotted that I'm zero-ing in on baggage as a symbol of the abiding reality of who we are, and I realise that
some of you might be worrying about Peter Sampson. If not, let me tell you why you should! At no. 87 in the purple hymn
book we find words written by Peter, entitled 'Leave behind your bags and baggage' .
I'm not quarrelling with Peter here - I like him far too much to do that! - and anyway I do have his permission to
take this different view. Neither am I suggesting that his words are wrong; indeed there are certain times in certain lives when a complete break and a fresh start are necessary . . . and there are certainly times when, spiritually, any of us might long to be set free from our own lives and skins, and all that they contain, on occasion with the kind of intense yearning we find in the psalms . . . but therein lies a whole different sermon, or series of sermons, or course of counselling sessions . . . For now:
I am wanting to enter a plea here in defence of some baggage - the baggage which we pack, and whose contents
I hope we regularly review, as our kit-bag for the spiritual odyssey.
All of our living is a gift, and a source of gifts, as our experience of life offers us the chance to store up understanding -
to grow and deepen in the wisdom which comes from experience.
In this way we identify and pull together the contents of the baggage with which we embark upon our various trips and excursions,
the different legs of our journey through life. We each travel with our personal 'kitbag' - emotional, psychological,
theological and spiritual - packed with care and discernment so that it might equip us for whatever we may find ourselves facing.
In the reality of the airport, the bags and cases are fairly different on the outside, and absolutely different on the inside,
but - no matter who is the owner, or where they sat on the plane - they are all equal in the jumble of the baggage carousel.
At that moment of the return to the common challenge of dealing with real life, of coming back to earth, those travel bags are
equally present, equally valid, though limitlessly different.
Alain De Botton paints a word-picture of both the physical reality and the mood of that scene:
Around the carousel, as in a Roman traffic jam, trolleys grimly refused to cede so much as a centimetre to one another.
Although each suitcase was a repository of dense and likely fascinating individuality -
this one perhaps containing a lime-coloured bikini and an unread copy of Civilisation and Its Discontents, that one a dressing
gown stolen from a Chicago hotel and a packet of Roche antidepressants - this was not the place to start thinking about anyone
In the shared reality of this moment, gathered as a spiritual community, I call upon us to create a different visualisation,
a different reality, of that scene here - and actually to do a little of that thinking about other people; about one another.
At that moment of the return to the common challenge of dealing with real life, of coming back to earth, those travel bags
are equally present, equally valid, though limitlessly different. So, at this moment, let our personal kitbags be equally present,
equally valid, though drastically different . . . and welcomed, one with another.
Earlier on, I wondered about where we think we want to get To , as a coherent community, and said I would
suggest where I believe we need to Be . That suggestion is: Here. Here is where we need to Be.
This evening I want to offer you a mission in two stages, of which Stage 1 is: Be who we truly are - each and all together -
consciously, honestly, intentionally. . . right here, right now, together.
A secure and coherent future - either for each of us as individuals, or for all of us as a community - is built on the present; it is founded upon a truthful occupancy of the way things really are for us here and now, and not on a wish list of how things could be, if only . . .
If the future is indeed 'like the present, only longer', hadn't we better attend to our present reality so that its extension into the longer future is something worth having?
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Then followed a time of meditation - suing words, images and music - which invited people to reflect particularly
on the eighth portion of the Tao Te Ching:
When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you
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Second Thoughts: Inviting Others to Be Here
I want to suggest to you this evening that not only is it pleasant to manage to be truly here, together, in honest and
accepting relationship, but that there is a power - an important power - in that ability . . . in the knowledge that we are rooted
in a unity deeper than our diversity.
That power gives us a purpose - the purpose I said I would come to - and an imperative, other than growth for growth's sake,
to follow and to promote. The society in which we live is in desperate need of the human ability to live together,
and of the spiritual need to live at and from the depth of soul - both of which we, at our best, can achieve, and model,
Stage 2 of the mission - should you choose to accept it - is not only to realise what a potent and essential gift we have
to offer to our society, but to go ahead and Offer It!
I'm talking now about what we can offer - what I believe we must offer - from the secure foundation of
our 'carousel community', to a society in which 'religion' struggles to find a place at all; where people are content to live
without it, and the traditional authority of religious teaching and teachers is widely treated with apathy, held in contempt,
or quite simply unheard-of.
These are no longer changing times; these are deeply changed times. In a speech to the International Association of Philosophy,
which was published in 1993, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn argued that ' now we have ditched our old religious and moral frameworks,
we have lost our sense of community and of life's higher meaning' .
And in case you hear that and wonder what the implications of such a general statement might actually be, just a few weeks ago
The Guardian reported on a poll of 10 G20 countries conducted in January of this year, which 'attributed the credit-crunch
and its ensuing economic recession to a crisis of ethics and values'.
In her Guardian column, Madeleine Bunting explained that poll in the Guardian, and the widespread devaluation of ethics and
values, like this:
We lost a language in which to think and argue about ethics. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the vexed
legacy of institutional religion and the long shadow it still casts. The promotion of ethical behaviour has been bound
up with particular institutions, and as they decline, it leaves a vacuum of authority.
Who dares talk on this subject with confidence?
It prompts fear that any such discussions are really a Trojan horse for promoting a religious belief.
It would appear that for the majority of the society in which we live, religion has had its say and its day.
It hasn't taught effectively enough and is widely discredited. . .
so it is no longer available to religion to solve the problems of society, and any such attempt will generally be
received with scorn and scepticism.
If religion has been popularly consigned to the past, does that mean the whole spiritual endeavour is moribund, and we but dodos awaiting the inevitable? I believe not; indeed I believe that the situation offers both a challenge and an opportunity to which we are peculiarly equipped to respond. I believe that we have a precious opportunity: a freedom and a responsibility to speak a different message from a different place.
Beneath all the complexity and competitiveness of the airport concourse - all about different airlines jostling to attract more passengers than each other - there is a deeper level at which the simple, shared, inescapable humanity of everyone is restored. The baggage hall is where each must pick up once again the threads of their actual lives, and the baggage with which they plan to tackle it. Is this not the real-life level of soul at which we have already celebrated gathering, and at which we can invite anyone to join us?
And in and from that different place our different message becomes clear. We are not simply saying 'Come fly with us'. . . and competing for those bums on transitional seats; rather we are saying 'Come, take hold of your life with us' . . . and giving people the chance to seek transformation of their lives at a deep and lasting level.
Surely before and beneath all the practices of religion and concerns of religious teachings - and beneath the differences which religion and religious teachings can create - lie the elemental issues of life itself, and surely a compassionate call to engage with those universal issues can not fall on deaf ears.
Can we not say, with one voice: "Our concern is for the life of the soul ; for as many people as possible to join with us at the deepest level of reality, to find and celebrate whatever meaning and beauty we can in life and its living"?
Can we not also say: "All are welcome to search and wonder with us, and then to find within our broad community their preferred ways of exploring and expressing the spirituality they discover in the process."
The freedom and joy for us is that we do not need to require particular responses from particular people. It may be that they find their way to a fairly conventional form of free or liberal Christianity, to a universalistic take on world wisdoms and traditions, or to a humanistic and explicitly non-religious spirituality; but let it be our joy that they have responded to the promptings of their soul at all, and have found with us and through us a language in which to express and celebrate their delight.
So, to simplify still further the message and call I can hear us issue to our neighbours: "Come, whoever you are, to consider life with us, and to try the range of responses we can offer you."
I wondered earlier about that societal imperative towards growth and progress. Solzhenitsyn says:
"There can only be one true progress; the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individuals"
In response to that John Naish (as advertised) comes finally to offer his suggestion as to how society now needs to evolve if people re to be able to counter the all-consuming culture of consumerism and recover their balance, their sense of meaning and purpose and sheer humanity:
The next path we must take extends beyond the basis of material comfort. Our yearning souls can never be stilled by promises that the next material item will bring fulfilment (or if not the next item, then the one after that). We have to think beyond material and social acquisition,
to explore the dimensions of our lives that have been marginalised, caricatured, derided,
and ultimately made taboo by consumer culture - the dimensions of our spiritual selves.
As a community, then, can we have the clarity to see that it is our opportunity to take up that call for our neighbours in society to recover their spiritual selves.
But, as a community, can we also have the clarity to see that the call will not be welcomed, probably not even heard at all, if it feels like a call to religion . . . if it smacks of that Trojan Horse of Madeleine Bunting.
Sadly, (says John) the spiritual path is blocked by religions bickering among themselves and fighting with each other. And 'personal spirituality' has been hijacked by hawkers of superstition and tat.
But in fact, as a species it seems that we can't stop being spiritual - it just comes out in increasingly perverse and misshapen ways, such as superstition, fundamentalism, and celebrity worship.
There are far more nourishing ways in which to harness it, but . . . where is the debate?
Let us be the voices for which John longs - and I know that he's wondering where on earth he'll find them!
Let us be those voices, calling in unity and unanimity for people simply to attend to their soul - to be at one with themselves, their lives, and this world as it is, in the baggage hall of the present moment. Let us be one in issuing that invitation to all our neighbours, for their own sake, for all our sakes, for the good of the society in which we all live.
There is a famine in our churches. Because the soul is not preached.
Genius leaves to haunt the market-place. Literature becomes frivolous, and society lives to trifles
Ralph Waldo Emerson - Divinity School Address, Harvard, 1838
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