This Blog Has Moved

June 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Please visit for my current writing. Thank you!

Knowing We Must Die, How Then Shall We Live?

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post originally appeared on the Sunday Assembly blog

As part of my education to become a minister for non-religious people, I’ll work in a hospital as a chaplain for three months. It’s the part of my training I’m both most excited and nervous about. Chaplains can be called into all sorts of situations – an unexpected diagnosis, a new birth, serious injury and, all too frequently, death. They’re often the only ones in a hospital who can provide the loving presence and careful attention that medical staff are too overworked to provide.

Working in a hospital gives a unique perspective on life. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse wrote this insightful article about the top five wishes of those who are dying. Her list is short and simple, and these are the same themes my student-chaplain friends find time and again. The wishes are –

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Death isn’t something we usually want to spend much time thinking about, but it’s the one thing we can be sure of. Wayne Muller in his book How, Then, Shall We Live suggests the practice of saying to ourselves ‘I could die today’ each day, together with some mundane act. I’ve been trying it before I get out of bed, which has been surprisingly less macabre than you might expect! Knowing that we will die focuses the mind, clarifies our intentions, and gives us fresh eyes with which to appreciate the world and the ones we love.

What would your day look like if you knew it was to be your last? Who would you speak to? What would you leave aside? Where would you go? It’s amazing how the least important things in our lives can become the ones we spend most of our time on. How can we avoid regretting those same five regrets that Bronnie Ware picked up?

Sunday Assembly’ers around the world are trying to live better, help often and wonder more and by coming together on a Sunday, we remind each other how we can do that. Perhaps a daily practice like this one simple sentence, ‘I could die today’ will help each of us keep our eyes on the prize throughout the week as well.

How We Gather – A New Report On Non-Religious Community

April 18, 2015 § 3 Comments

My colleague Angie Thurston from the Harvard Divinity School and I published a report this week about the nature of millennial non-religious communities. Have a read!

How We Gather

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 18.44.57

Personal Practice Is The Backbone of Community

March 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post originally appeared on the Sunday Assembly blog

Every morning I creep out of bed and sit down on a cushion in our coat closet. It’s the only place in the house where I can guarantee 15 minutes of uninterrupted quiet – even if I’m surrounded by muddy boots. I close my eyes and spend the next quarter of an hour having my brain take me away from my breath, which I am trying to focus on.

I’ve been doing this for four years, and I’m still as distracted as ever. And that’s fine. Meditating isn’t about getting ‘good’ at it, it’s simply about doing it over and over again.

Secular meditation is my personal practice, and I’m not alone. Apps like Headspace and groups likeJuniper are growing very quickly – and this book and CD by Mark Williams is absolutely fantastic if you want to give mindfulness a try.

But a practice can come in all shapes and sizes – singing, swimming, painting, reading, walking, stretching, or just about anything you choose. What matters are two things;

1) Your intention – you keep bringing back your mind to focus on the practice.

2) Your commitment – you do the practice at least once a day, even if only for a couple of minutes.

Having a practice is a bit like having a dog. It looks at you with great love and affection, but also knows that you could do better. There’s real trouble if you don’t take it out for a walk at least once a day. And it can be the greatest friend you have!

Leading a community is hard work. Hard. Work.  Things will crop up that you’re responsible for – finances, resolving conflicts, developing new leaders – that are less easy to share around. In those moments when it feels like you just want to pack it in, that’s when the benefits of a personal practice really show. You might notice that you have more patience, or can suspend your judgment more easily, that you forgive mistakes with more humour. Having a practice isn’t a miracle cure for all that is difficult, but it has a habit of paying off when you most need it.

For me, much like the scientific literature on mindfulness suggests, I’m more able to pause when I start feeling stressed or angry, and more able to choose to be kind. Community works best when we’re all paying attention to how we show up and how we treat each other. If we truly want to build lasting, loving communities, it’s time we figured out what our personal practices are that will keep us there.

True Belonging: Families In Community

March 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post originally appeared on the Sunday Assembly blog

True community is always intergenerational. When I walk into a gathering where there are children running around and old people smiling knowingly, I’m immediately put at ease.

In community, we see the fullness of life. We remember our own childhood and get a glimpse of life to come, as we grow old. So often, new communities are built around existing friendships so that there is little diversity of age. For a founding team, taking the time to meet others across age groups and invite them in can be one of the key ingredients of longevity and success.

Families with kids are a great gift to those who are not surrounded by their own loved ones. There is a real generosity when people who might be alone for much of their time get to enjoy the laughter, play and silliness of a young family. Even the tantrums and tears remind them of what life is all about! 

The gift of families in community goes both ways of course. For a child, being surrounded by people of all ages whom you know, and who know you, is nesting in true belonging. And there is nothing better than knowing you belong. Whether to a family, to a place, or to another person – we yearn for this sense of belonging. I was lucky enough to grow up in a school community where this web of relationship was thickly spun. At the festivals we celebrated, the plays we put on, and the daily walk to school, I was assured of the constancy of life. 

That reliable pattern matters a great deal for a child. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and philosopher, describes childhood as a magic forest. It is the time of most intense happening, where the most immense experiences of wonder, discovery and difficulty take place – and for which children often don’t yet have the words and thoughts to make sense of. This forest can be a fearful one, full of known and unknown dangers, or it can be a place of enchanted adventure. Surrounding children with loving, familiar and encouraging faces that they see time and again are crucial to making that magic forest of childhood a safe one. 

Later, as teenagers, older friends and acquaintances become important to us as they witness our development as individuals. Teenage years are all about identity formation and distinguishing ourselves from our parents. To have older people treat us ‘like adults’ is the most wonderful thing. I remember being driven to the school bus by a family friend who encouraged my interest in politics (something we didn’t talk about much at home), who engaged and sharpened my opinions and made me feel like I had something to offer. 

These intergenerational relationships are difficult to build if not in community. What a gift that there are places like Sunday Assembly where we can meet one another across those barriers of age, and weave a web of belonging. 

People That Sing Together, Stay Together

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post is cross-posted from the Sunday Assembly blog.

Every year I look forward to the Sweetback Sisters’ Christmas Sing-A-Long Spectacular – a honky-tonk festive romp featuring hits like ‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’, all performed on banjo and double bass, while the crowd throws in harmonies of varying degrees of skill. For the final song, the lights switch off and the whole room sings ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ a cappella. It starts off ironically, but by the end we can all feel the magic. That is – until we try a verse in German and the hilarity returns.

I’ve always loved singing together. As a kid, my family would drive for hours from the UK to Holland to visit family, and we’d be singing the whole way. Simple rounds, old folk songs, bad 90s pop songs, show tunes, made up songs – we sang it all, and we sang them together.

Too often, singing is dismissed as silly entertainment. But it’s much more powerful than that. It’s a social technology.

Singing expresses what words cannot. Singing together helps us overcome social formalities (anyone singing Bon Jovi at Sunday Assembly will know what I mean), and can cheer you up when you’re feeling down. It can even help diffuse tension and refocus our work. Civil Rights leaders in America would often turn to songs in the middle of difficult meetings to help remind them why they were working for freedom and to help renew their courage.

The health benefits of singing are well documented. Recent research in Sweden demonstrates that when we sing together, the physicality of breathing at the same time brings our heartbeats into sync, lowering our heart rate variability. Singing can help improve our memory and overall wellbeing. Scholars such as David Huron go further and argue that music even fulfills the Darwinian function of helping humans bond. Some of the most amazing hospice work involves teaching those who are dying songs that they can sing together in their final weeks of life.

Singing is a social technology because it allows us to do things normally out of reach. We can’t all talk at once, but we can all sing together. Singing allows for each voice to contribute in its own way, and creates harmonies impossible to craft on your own. The songs we sing connect us to people and places that matter to us. Not only what the song is about, but whom we learnt it from and with whom we’ve sung it since.

For those of us building new SA communities, the songs we choose can set the tone for who we become. Take time to reflect on the songs that matter to you and the community you’re building. What do you want to remember? To celebrate? To commiserate? Songs can help you do all this and more.

José González has a new track out this week that features the Sunday Assembly congregation in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the end of the video, as the song comes to a close, you can see a magical joy in the faces of everyone singing along. As they sing, “Let the light lead you out”, a knowing smile crosses José’s face as Sanderson wildly claps along in the background. As a musician, he knows the power of song. May that be true for all of us.

What Can Harry Potter Teach Us About Evil?

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post was published initially on the On Being blog.

What can Harry Potter teach us about evil?

I spent each night this week watching the Harry Potter films, with a double-bill finale on Friday evening. By watching and talking about them with the same friends each night, it felt like we were confronting the recent horror stories in the news through the metaphor/reality of the wizarding world.

For a children’s series, the themes of the books are dark, so I kept returning to the question of evil. What is it? Where does it come from?

J. K. Rowling‘s message in the series is that love wins. That love overcomes even death. Harry is protected by his mother’s love, a love so primal that Voldemort’s killing curse is unable to break it.

In the final book, when Harry realizes that a piece of Voldemort lives in him, and that he must die in order to break Voldemort’s power, he willingly walks into the forest to meet his death. This is an act of love — for his friends who are still alive and fighting, and for those who have gone before. (This story is in so many ways a very Christian story, a story of sacrifice and resurrection, and indeed the author meant it thus.)

The development of Harry’s courage and essential goodness is contrasted with what we learn about Voldemort, or Tom Riddle as he was at Hogwarts. Harry is nurtured in loving relationships throughout the books with the Weasleys, Hermione, Sirius, Hagrid, and, of course, Dumbledore. All this despite spending his childhood with a difficult aunt, uncle, and cousin.

In contrast, Voldemort is abandoned at birth and institutionalized in an orphanage. He is so scarred that, by the age of 11 when Dumbledore informs him of his place at Hogwarts, he already finds pleasure in cruelty. His obsession with power only grows in school, and he consistently breaks off any potential relationship in which he might experience love.

Can Voldemort’s racism, violence, and murder be explained by this loveless childhood? Can we explain the killing of innocent people, whether in Paris, Syria, or the streets of Ferguson because of the social and psychological conditions their killers have experienced?

The philosopher Susan Wolf argues “yes.” In her essay “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility,” she asserts that those with particularly bad upbringings cannot make strong moral judgments because they have been taught the wrong values. She likens this to people suffering from psychosis because psychotics are unable to make accurate judgments about the world. Wolf explores the idea of a Deep Self, which might be translated into the wizarding world as a soul.

The poetic beauty in the Potter series is that in order for Voldemort to overcome death, he must create Horcruxes, by killing others and destroying his own soul. Wolf’s idea of the Deep Self is shaped in childhood to be either sane or not. But it seems to me that Voldemort passes this sanity test, that he is able to understand, evaluate, and revise his actions from a rational standpoint.

Hannah Arendt explores the origin of evil differently. Writing after the Second World War, when thousands of everyday people participated in the most grotesque killing systems, she places evil not in personal characteristics but in systems of power enabled by banal, implicit acceptance. In Origins of Totalitarianism, she asserts that bad actions reach the magnitude of “evil” only when we stop questioning them, when we allow them to become boring. We can see this logic at work when the Ministry of Magic refuses to acknowledge Voldemort’s return, or even more so when the Death Eaters take control of the Ministry and staff continue their jobs as before.

Arendt drew these conclusions from studying the life of Adolf Eichmann, an official responsible for the transportation of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Rather than being driven by demonic motives, she explains:

“It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed [Eichmann] to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”

Arendt convinces me of how Voldemort could rise to power, but is it enough to explain his own motivations?

As a boy, Tom Riddle (Voldemort) was sorted into Slytherin House, the house for witches and wizards who would do whatever necessary to be great. A simple reading of the Potter series would identify all Slytherins as inherently evil. But Professor Snape, perhaps the bravest of all of Harry’s allies, is a Slytherin and counters this claim. I, too, have been sorted into Slytherin House.

What Rowling illustrates with the Sorting Hat is where our strengths lie, and with what we may be tempted. What Slytherins must be watchful for is their temptation by power. Born into rejection and isolation, finding his only sense of self in his ability to control others, power gives Voldemort meaning. Voldemort’s evil is that he consistently chooses this power, at any cost. As Dumbledore says to Harry, “It is our choices that show us who we truly are, not our abilities.”

None of us are born inherently evil. But we are born into a world where the battle for good and evil rages. Not just in the headlines, but in our own hearts. What the Potter series teaches us is that we must consistently and together examine our actions, to find where the seeds of evil have taken root — in our racism, our selfishness, or our hunger for power.

bell hooks, the anti-racist feminist scholar, speaks of love as the practice of freedom. Perhaps Dumbledore had read her. In his explanation to Harry on why he survived Voldemort’s attack, Dumbledore says, “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.”

Love is what saved Harry from Voldemort every time. And so too, I hope, will it save us.

For those interested in some light reading/watching, I highly suggest –

  • Chris Crass’ beautiful essay Expecto Patronum, sharing what lessons social justice organisations can learn from the world of Harry Potter. (Clue: Hermione’s feminist leadership, overcoming the Voldemort principle of oppression, and love as the practice of freedom.)
  • J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnificent exploration of why imagined worlds matter and how to honour them. On Fairy Stories – one of my favourite readings for my Divinity degree so far.

We Can Do Better

June 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

The landscape of Britain’s religious and spiritual life is changing. We all know fewer people are attending worship services, and that young people have lower rates of belief in God. Yet often, the data presents us with really interesting puzzles of how people understand themselves. For example, 11% of British atheists also call themselves Christian and 35% of people who never attend a religious service believe in some sort of ‘God or Higher Power’. A growing number of people who don’t fit into a religious box are claiming a ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ identity, something Tom Shakespeare argues against in this article on the BBC. Instead, his proposal is that people become religious-but-not-spiritual, to benefit from traditions and avoid supernatural beliefs.

“If you’re an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will. If we do it right, religion helps us lead better lives, with a commitment to justice and social action. Sociological research shows that involvement in organised religion is good for our health and well being.”

This is all good and well, and indeed, at its best, religion can do these things. As a Quaker, Tom has found the right tradition for him – one low on doctrine, and high on social justice work and community. I’ve attended a small number of Quaker gatherings and the folks there couldn’t be nicer. I remember being introduced to three Quakers, the first of whom believed in God, the second who wasn’t sure, and the third who was an atheist. I like that comfort with complexity. (This in itself seems to be a growing trend. My colleague Rev. Erik Martinez Resly at The Sanctuaries in DC has written a great piece exploring why the young people he works with are less interested in whether God is ‘real’ or not, and more interested in why does it matter?)

But I think Tom’s offer to us non-religious folks is a weak one. Joining in with religious life as a non-believer doesn’t feel integral. Even if I am welcomed with open arms, at some point there is the awkward moment of division between me as a non-believer and much of the community that is bound by faith. 

More than that, I think he misinterprets what being spiritual-but-not-religious means to people. He sees it as a new-age category where all SBNR’s use crystals and have their palms read.  

It’s that [SBNR] often retains the mumbo-jumbo, aspects of religion. People have rejected the shelf with the ready-made religious beliefs, and gone straight around the corner to the pick’n’mix shop to buy a more or less random set of beliefs which are, if anything, even more incredible. Many people who are spiritual but not religious reject the organisation but hang on to the supernatural bit. But I don’t want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence.”

My professor Nancy Ammerman at Boston University, has studied what people mean when they claim to be ‘spiritual’, and it is rather surprising. Religious people use the word to mean a religious spirituality, i.e. – a relationship with God or belief in religious teaching. Both religious and non-religious people use it to mean ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule, but non-religious people use ‘spirituality’ to mean a sense of something more, something beyond the everyday. There is often no direct definition for what that may be, but there is a strong worldview of experiencing life as more than the sum of its parts. 

So why can’t there be a place for people like this to come together? The Sunday Assembly has already stepped back from its initial use of atheism, and now embraces all sorts of non-believes, including those who are spiritual-but-not-religious. I think what most ‘spiritual’ people are doing is rejecting dogmatic, judgmental and backward looking religion and finding meaning elsewhere. Yes, they may be statistically less interested in community – but I think this is largely because they don’t see anything that caters to them! We’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness in the West; one-in-four Americans cannot name a single close friend with who they can talk about their personal troubles and triumphs. 

I’m really glad Tom has found a place for him, but I think we need to do more than simply invite people into existing communities to meet the needs of those rejecting religion.

Survey Results: Community for the Non-Religious

June 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

A big thanks to those of you who helped complete and shared the survey I put together exploring what a community for non-religious people might look like. Nearly 800 people responded, which was fantastic!
This pdf shares the results of the survey and gives you a sense of what I’ve been learning this year in my studies at the Harvard Divinity School. I’m excited about training to become a minister of non-religious people, so if you’d like to talk more – please let me know, I love exploring these questions. 
Download the survey results here. (pdf)

Holding and Letting Go

March 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

We have a call to live, and oh
A common call to die.
I watched you and my father go
To bid a friend goodbye.
I watched you hold my father’s hand,
How could it not be so?
The gentleness of holding on
Helps in the letting go.

For when we feel our frailty
How can we not respond?
And reach to hold another’s hand
And feel a common bond?
For when we touch the heights above
And every depth below,
We touch the very quick of love;
Holding and letting go.

Malcolm Guite