Wednesday 14 October 2020

Harvest Thoughts



Matthew 13: 1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose, they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Each year we celebrate "The Harvest" although probably the nearest any of us get to the harvest these days is either to get a glimpse of the hay making or harvesting as we drive or walk around the countryside or as we see all the products of farming conveniently cleaned, processed and packaged for sale in the supermarkets.  We live in an age of relative high technology. No doubt in a hundred years or so from now, future generations may well look curiously at the backwardness of our present food production methods. 

Farming has gone the way of many other industries, with the emphasis on mechanisation and economy of scale.  It’s also true to say that modern farming is a much more solitary occupation. In the past, one of the most joyful and communitarian aspects of farming was the way that the farmers would assist each other on the big jobs like harvesting and haymaking; jobs which needed to be done quickly and efficiently.  The coming together in mutual assistance, the satisfaction of a good harvest and the entertainment of good company; at such times could be bonding and very human.

But in the throes of this reverie or romanticism, one can easily forget the hard work and the day-to-day drudgery of farming.  I should imagine that physical and mental toughness is required when dealing with drought or floods and animal welfare.  In addition, there are other considerations, such as maintenance, animal feed, fertilizer and manure, not to forget the office work, the accounting and the tax returns.  These aspects of farming were as real 100 years ago as they are today and even before then, farming was governed by the seasons, by the weather by market forces and the iron law of supply and demand.

When we look at the discipline and the imperatives that have driven farming throughout history, we can see that farming has not only been an integral part of past societies, but actually the basis for them.  This to such an extent that wealth in feudal society was based almost entirely on the ownership of the land.  One of the great philosophical questions has always been the question of where the source of wealth lies and in the 18th century, a group of economists, the Physiocrats, argued that wealth came out of the soil, from the value of land and agriculture. Alternatively, wealth or value is only created by those who put the seed in the soil, who reap the crops, and by those who process and deliver the food and the finished product ready for the table.  Notwithstanding the grace of God, through the forces of nature and favourable conditions, the harvest is a triumph of labour, of science, tenacity, skill and ingenuity.  The modern harvest stands as a monument to our social economic development to humanity's continual striving to control the environment, to be free from hunger and therefore to be free to be able enjoy life more fully. 

Such freedom brings the opportunity to exercise the potential of the human mind and its imagination in pursuit of goals that would hitherto have been undreamed of.  Without the efficient production of food, without the harvest, there could have been no industrial revolution, no mass production, no motor cars or aeroplanes and no advances in medical science and other knowledge. Moreover, there would definitely not be any exploration of outer space, no mobile phones, robots or computer technology.  It's amazing when you stop to consider the speed of human technological progress and how far it has advanced over the past 200 years. But, let us consider that this has only been made possible through farming and it is even more amazing when we consider that the land that feeds us and gives us our daily bread works from a layer of soil that is no more than six to twelve inches in depth. Environmentalists and scientists are right to be concerned therefore for the welfare of this planet, for our very survival depends on a conscious responsibility for what is after all a living planet. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, The Parable of the Sower  Jesus uses a farming story to illustrate a spiritual truth and points to the rewards that will be received by those who fully open themselves to its message, a message whose seed needs to take root and grow in the hearts and minds of its hearers, but there are the seeds also that don't succeed.  Those seeds fall on the path way, some seed falls on the stony ground and other seed falls amongst the thorn bushes where their growth becomes choked. 

Out of the seeds that fail it is the seeds that fall on the stony ground that most people seem to remember.  Perhaps they are the seeds that closely resemble our own human nature.  When we hear a spiritual truth, or when we become inspired by a success story, we want to emulate it.  We feel that we should go ahead and sign up for that study course, give up smoking, or improve our prayer life. However, something always seems to get in the way as soon as things get hard, inconvenient or when we meet opposition, we find the roots of our inspiration have not sunk very deep and we will know if we are honest that the end of our much-trumpeted project is in sight.  Where there is no success there will be no harvest to celebrate. 

In the gospels, we are told also, that Jesus went to every town and village where he taught in their meeting places.  He preached about God's kingdom and he healed the sick. Jesus was a man of great spiritual insight and he understood the human condition.  Crowds of hundreds if not thousands pressed in on him eager to learn the meaning of his message and how their lives could be healed. 

When he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them."  They were confused and helpless like sheep without a shepherd; he said to his disciples "A large crop is in the field but there are only a few workers; ask the Lord in charge of the harvest to send out workers to bring it in.

(Matthew 9: 36-38)

In the King James Bible, the quote is, "The harvest is plenteous but the labourers are few."  The harvest is plenty but the workers are few. However which way you may wish to interpret this, there is one thing that stands out - there is no real shortage of anything in this rich country of ours, in spite of fear or pessimism our needs can be met and our lives can be fulfilling.  The harvest is indeed plenty, and we should remember this every day, every time we go shopping or enter a supermarket, for we are met with such abundance. Food in abundance, luxuries and other day-to-day commodities hitherto undreamt of by past generations. And much of this has not even been produced in Britain but rather has come from Europe and from distant countries, from all parts of the globe.  We take it all for granted in spite of the massive round the clock effort that takes place three hundred- and sixty-five-days days of the year to ensure that we consumers may have all we need.  It seems to me that in spite of this non-stop twenty-four a day harvest we are neither grateful nor happy.  I often wonder when I walk round the supermarkets and look at people's faces why they seem to be unhappy, I think 'miserable' is the word I am really looking for - how many times have we said, or heard someone say "I hate shopping".  We need to look at our blessings through fresh eyes.  Through the eyes of people new to this country, people who come from places of want, countries that are desperately poor where even clean fresh water for many is unobtainable; when they see what we take for granted, they cannot believe the sheer luxury of it all. 

The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few, the trees are laden with fruit, there are miles of fields covered with golden wheat, a potential harvest alive with the possibility of fulfilment.  It's all there for the taking, but to farm and then reap the harvest is not a passive act - it requires courage and determination, it requires tenacity.  A wayside pulpit once posted outside our chapel read: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."  Opportunity dressed in overalls and looking like work is not usually what we want to hear.  I once had the privilege of meeting the actor and comedian Norman Wisdom; he said to me, "People used to say how lucky I was, and I used to say Yes, and isn't it funny, the harder I work the luckier I get!"

Perhaps the best start we could make would be to count our blessings, to be grateful for all we have and to understand that life becomes more meaningful in the struggle to succeed rather than in allowing oneself to be defeated by despair.  Spiritual secrets are really not ‘secrets’ at all; they are secrets in one sense only - in that people choose to overlook them and that is why ‘the workers in the field’ are few even though opportunities are often free as the best things in life are free and yet often there are few takers. Thomas Payne, the English-American revolutionary once wrote, ‘The harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value.’ Let us strive be the workers in the field.

Thursday 8 October 2020

Civil and religious liberty the world over? Where are the Unitarians?

In my role as a minister, I mostly write concerning the moral and spiritual life. However, I feel that under current circumstances that I should say a few words concerning the present COVID-19 crisis. It seems to me that the Church as a whole has nothing to say on this situation other than to echo the official line of the government. Either that, or it remains muted.

Below I re-print a copy of the monthly letter I normally send out to my congregation.


 Dear Friends,

Unitarians are supposed to be in favour of religious and civil liberties. In the past year we have seen the suspension of religious and civil liberties throughout much of the world and in the United Kingdom. I am of course talking about the government’s response to COVID-19. In March, the Imperial College warned that unless certain measures were taken, the virus would lead to the NHS being overwhelmed and that there would be 250,000 deaths in the U.K. As we now know, nothing on this scale actually happened. But the government response, at the time, to this and other dire predictions resulted in an unprecedented lockdown and the severe curtailment of civil liberties not seen since the days of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. The stated government objective last March was to ‘flatten the curve and to protect the NHS’.

This being achieved, in July, we were allowed to return to public worship under somewhat restricted conditions. Previous to this, our last Sunday service had taken place on the 15th March. From the General Assembly as a whole, I have not heard so much as a whisper in terms of challenging the government’s actions or the massive propaganda campaign to which we have been and are continually made subject too. This particularly nasty virus has a lethality within the normal range of flu, but it is a fact today that pneumonia and flu is killing more people than COVID-19. Even the publicity given to rising COVID-19 infections cannot alter the fact that its lethality within the population as a whole remains low.

Moreover, it is accepted that COVID-19 can be a fatal infection but not in 99% of cases. When this virus first came to public notice our government leaders could be forgiven for saying that they knew very little about it. This argument no longer holds water. We know that it affects a certain demographic; the elderly and those with certain pre-existing health conditions. Not one healthy child has so far died from COVID-19 and furthermore there is no evidence that children can actually pass the virus on.

As we continue through October, the massive wreckage to the economy and people’s lives wrought by lockdown measures is obvious and getting increasingly worse. As we continue to receive the media’s government inspired propaganda, we should bear in mind the recent statements from government scientists forecasting that have stated that by the middle of this month, each day there will be 200 deaths per day from COVID-19 and each day there will be an extra 50,000 new cases. Taking into account the available information, we can see that this is not likely to happen, neither is there going to be a ‘third wave’; a ripple maybe.

To be clear, the flu season is now upon us and of course there will be some increase in the prevalence of COVID-19, but it is not going to have any significant impact. In two separate statements the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has suggested that he may suspend his ‘rule of six’ on Christmas Day thus allowing grandparents and others the right to attend a family gathering for dinner and furthermore that this coming winter is going to be a ‘bumpy winter’ for all of us. But it’s been unrelentingly bumpy since the lockdown began on 23rd March. I suppose we should be ever so grateful to the Prime Minister that he is considering letting us have Christmas dinner with our loved ones.

The Prime Minister’s calculation is perhaps that the cavalry will arrive by then or shortly afterwards, in January in the form of a mass vaccination programme that may be rolled out with some assistance from the military. This view was recently expressed in a speech to the House of Commons by the Conservative MP, Tobias Ellwood. Mr Elwood is the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. He also holds the rank of Lieutenant General in the 77th Brigade, the psychological warfare unit which assists the Cabinet in shaping public discourse and controlling the Covid-19 narrative.

In the same speech to the House of Commons, Mr Elwood said, ‘I believe that the biggest challenge will be in managing the transition period – potentially up to a year – when parts of our society have been liberated from the threat ​of COVID-19 and seek to return to normality, but those who have yet to be vaccinated are still subject to social distancing rules.’

Whichever way you look at it, current government thinking and policy is impacting adversely on the population as a whole and has enormous implications and consequences for religious and civil liberties. Increasingly it is being shown that the thinking behind the government’s behaviour is both irrational and authoritarian. Those who have legitimately challenged the government’s narrative are regularly dubbed by the press as ‘conspiracy theorists.’ The use of such dismissive terms, it can be argued, is merely a device to shut down the debate. But then public confidence can become somewhat dented when some of the statements of the ‘conspiracy theorists’ actually turn out to be true; 'The Great Reset' comes to mind. Speaking of public confidence, who could actually believe that the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance has £600,000 of shares in vaccine maker, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). According to the Metro newspaper, ‘GSK is one of over 20 pharmaceutical firms around the world racing to provide a vaccine for coronavirus. The manufacturer has deals with the British and US governments to supply them with jabs, subject to terms in a final contract.’

In a similar article published in The Telegraph a statement read:

‘Government denies claims of potential conflict of interest, maintaining he is not involved in commercial decisions on coronavirus vaccines.’

No conflict of interest? We might beg to differ.

My best wishes as always,