Today is Whitsun. A traditional Christian festival, with much older roots, that is perhaps unfairly overlooked by Unitarians. It is a festival that speaks of the ineffable quality of the Spirit. It is a festival that reminds us of the oneness of humanity. An opportunity for new beginnings. The longer title of 'White Sunday,' from which Whitsun derives, can also bring to mind ideas of freshness and new beginnings. The scientific fact that 'white' is merely a combination of many different colours is surely further food for thought on the importance of the oneness of humanity - the need for cohesion and community. In our Service today, we read from the Biblical Book of Acts (Acts 2:1-13), and from a series of 'factual' pieces on the nature of 'white'. Our Sermon today, which focussed on the way the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or 'The Weeks', is repeated in the stories of Pentecost, and how the message of these can still be relevant to us today, is available as an MP3 download via the link at the top of this post.
Sunday, 12 June 2011
Sunday, 5 June 2011
MP3 (Click Here)
Our 'New Membership' Service at Bessels Green this morning used prayers and readings by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was born in Calcutta 150 years ago in 1861. He was a poet, philosopher and politician. His spirituality was drawn from Hinduism, but he was a member of the liberal Brahmo Samaj movement that brought other religious ideas to Hinduism.
Tagore was and is much admired by many Unitarians for his liberal and inclusive religious ideas; he was twice a guest lecturer at the then Manchester College in Oxford.
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has declared 2011 as the year of Tagore. Tagore was open to new concepts and welcoming of new ideas, new people and new approaches. He was therefore, I believe, an ideal support to our Service today, where I was delighted to welcome formally 3 new members to the congregation.
The following are the words of the Sermon today, that can be downloaded as an MP3 by clicking on the link at the top of this post. A pack containing some of Tagore's words, and some more information about him can be found at the Unitarian Worship Material site, by clicking here ( *)
We are gathered here this morning for a number of reasons. Probably as many reasons as there are people. Perhaps more reasons than there are people. Sunday morning worship can mean many things to us. There is a bond of fellowship to others in the congregation. A pleasure in meeting with those we have known for several years, those we are just beginning to know, and those who we may be meeting for the very first time.
There is perhaps an idea that we learn something at a Sunday morning service. On this occasion, perhaps, there are things to learn about Rabindranath Tagore. Or maybe we also learn a little more about ourselves in the time we spend together. Times of stillness and prayer can certainly lead to that deeper place within us, the spiritual core hidden deep in the fabric of our very being.
Tagore made a wonderful statement:
‘By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower’
and I think this can apply to a loving congregation and its Meeting House. There are many pieces gathered here today. Individuals, the light, the wonderful music, stillness, prayer. Like petals, each of these pieces are precious and wonderful. Yet they are not the whole, they do not on their own tell the entire story. Yet together, these petals do gather the beauty of the flower.
As Unitarians we are of course open to learning. We are committed to the evolution of our faith, for new ideas, new approaches, new challenges. And this is why, I believe, we still have so much to learn from others, both alive and now passed on. Tagore for example provides so many facets from which we might learn, and upon which we might build our own approaches to life and our inner spirituality.
I am not going to lecture you this morning on the life and works of Tagore, but it may be helpful to know a little of his life to appreciate the relevance many of us still think he might have for us in the 21st Century.
Born in Calcutta in 1861, Rabindranath grew up as part of a wealthy and prominent family. His mother died when he was very young, but his father was a religious reformer and scholar. The family grew up with close ties to their Indian culture and traditions, but also tried to infuse them with new Western ideas wherever that seemed to work.
Rabindranath caught the poetry bug early on – after beginning to write poems at the age of 8, he had his first book published when he was 17.
In the late 19th Century Tagore travelled extensively. He studied Law at University College, London, but left after the first year as he couldn’t stand the weather. He moved to East Bengal, now Bangladesh, and collected folk stories. Between 1893 and 1900 he wrote seven volumes of poetry, and also prose novels and short stories.
In 1901, Tagore founded a school near Calcutta, Visva-Bharati, which taught both Indian and Western philosophy. Tragically, in a short period of time after this, his wife and two of his children died young.
He was a prominent figure in politics, an early supporter of Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to British colonialism – but he was careful to avoid narrow nationalism, focussing instead on an ideal for a new world-order based on trans-national values and ideas. He travelled tirelessly seeking greater understanding between East and West. He died in 1941, aged 80.
For those of us interested in the spiritual elements of life, and seeking new ways to learn more about ourselves, Tagore is an impressive and memorable figure. His words often speak to a deeper part of us. I first came across his poetry several years ago when putting together my first Services as a lay preacher for my home congregation in Horsham. It was a piece called, simply, ‘Joy’, that I read and recognised as touching the parts that other poems could not reach. So I added it to the Service.
Afterwards, I was astonished to be told by several of those present that Tagore was admired and held in high regard by Unitarians. I thought I’d found a perfect unknown. But no, these things never work how you imagine they might.
For Unitarianism, as a movement that has long championed the value and importance of inter-faith activity, Tagore will always be an important figure. He was a member of the Brahmo Samaj movement in India. The Brahmo Samaj was a liberal Hindu movement, that had been created from the remnants of the Calcutta Unitarian Society. That Society had itself been created by a 'converted' Baptist, William Adam, who had found Unitarianism from working with a leading reforming Hindu, Rammohun Roy. The Calcutta Unitarian Society fell as it became more focussed on the Christian element, and instead it transformed into the Brahmo Samaj, taking the liberal Unitarian approach to evolving religious thought and applying it to the indigenous Hindu philosophy.
This idea of an evolving religion, one that can learn from the philosophies of others is of course something we can recognise as being dear to our own hearts. And that was also so at the start of the 20th Century.
Our college in Oxford, then called simply Manchester College, was a leading source of interfaith learning, and was one of the first colleges to offer comparative religion as a topic. Its then principal, J Estlin Carpenter, became the first professor in Comparative Religion for the University of Oxford in 1915 – and studies of world religions have been compulsory for all students for the Unitarian Ministry ever since.
Carpenter was particularly fascinated by the idea that Eastern religions, for him primarily Buddhism, could bring new dimensions to our existing Unitarian faith. This chimed well with Tagore’s own approach – which looked at how Unitarian belief, particularly the Unitarian challenge to orthodox Christianity could be applied to the existing Hindu faith.
Tagore was brought to Oxford twice where he lectured at Manchester College, with significant press coverage. There are still photos at the college of Tagore, with long flowing robes and wild beard, standing at the door of the college Chapel with trim, besuited and bespectacled Oxford dons and students. But he was the star, the one they looked to.
And I think that it was not just Tagore’s approach to interfaith and the evolution of religious belief that appealed so much. It was also his poetry, which speaks of the spirit, the Brahman, the absolute truth known only deep within ourselves, as integral to our path through life.
The same stream of life
That runs through my veins night and day
Runs through the world and dances
In rhythmic measure.
How modern is that? It could be any one of our more modern spiritual pieces, one from the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section of Waterstones rather than the Religions section. Yet this was written over 100 years ago. A synthesis of many religious traditions. From the Hindu idea of Brahman connecting us all, to the words of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded by Luke and Thomas, that heaven is here on earth and is within us all. And on to the ideas we hear so much of at the present regarding the interconnectedness of life – both within and without ourselves.
And it is this interconnectedness that I believe Tagore reminds us of again and again. Through his devotion to bringing greater understanding between East and West in political, spiritual and cultural issues, we can be reminded of the interconnected nature of our world. Our approach to secular life, our politics with a small ‘p’ is bound up with our religious and spiritual self. We must learn to let those different spheres of ourselves recognise each other.
Tagore was keen to stress the reality of Brahman or, if you prefer, God, in our everyday lives. This should not be confined to the time spent in the temple or church ‘being religious’, but instead should permeate the very way we live our lives. We can all learn from such an approach.
We are today celebrating the arrival of three new members to this congregation. As we welcome them as members of an existing community, it is essential too we recognise that they are accepting us as part of their lives. We look to be mutually supportive to one another, there is no ‘new’ and no ‘old’ member or friend to this congregation. We are always learning.
Each petal we represent is beautiful in itself. Yet together, as Tagore put it so well, we can provide the collective beauty of the flower.