Ditchling Communal Service, Sunday 19th April 2020

by Stephen Crowther

Bless us, O God—
whisper in our hearts and light our times.
Help us to understand your love and your law
and bring them to bear on the world’s ills.
Let all the people of the earth praise you
with all their diverse voices.
Let them call out the ten thousand names.
Let all nations praise you with the best of their ways.
Let us all enjoy each other’s wisdom.
Let the peoples of the earth bless the earth
and heal her together.
Bless us, O God, with your presence in our hearts,
And in the soul of our nation.

(Doubter Psalms Psalm 67 by Christine Robinson)

Have a candle ready to light. You may want to play some gentle music for 5 or 10 minutes before we start at 11.00.

11.00am: On this Sunday morning in this strangest of times, we gather ourselves in and light a candle.

(light your candle)

As we join with others in our community, isolated in our homes, separated by a pandemic, may we be reminded that we are never alone, that we are always connected with each other and with the wider world.
May the flame of this candle connect with the light in all our hearts bringing trust and hope to each of us at this bewildering and fearful time in our lives.

(pause)

Welcome to our ‘online’ service at this unprecedented time in our history. It may seem a little inappropriate to greet you with ‘good morning’ but I wish you a very good morning – whatever the state of your heart or frame of mind this morning.

In case there is anyone joining us, who doesn’t normally worship with us on a Sunday, I would like to extend a special welcome. Unitarians have no fixed statement of beliefs or creed to which you have to agree in order to be accepted. Our attitude is that religion is wider than any church or faith-group, and deeper than any set of beliefs. Here we practice a free faith unfettered by dogma.
As such, when I speak of God, I invite you to bring your own unfolding, personal and intimate understanding to the name – for it is yours and yours alone and may just be your most intimate relationship of all….

Opening Words: NONE OF US ARE IMMUNE by Jeff Foster

It’s going to be okay.
It really is.

We will face this situation together with love, humour and patience.
We will weep together, we will laugh together.
We will discover togetherness in our apartness.

And the worst of it will end one day.
And we will have learned so much by then.

We will now be called to face very difficult feelings inside of us.
Fear. Grief. The loss of an old way of life. Our devastated plans.
We will learn to face ourselves. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Nowhere to go except within.

A sacred quarantine.

We will learn to face our boredom. Our restlessness. The part of us that wants to be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else, having some other experience, in some other Now, living in some other life.
We will let go of the wonderful future we had planned.
We will let the fantasy future die, release it, and grieve it.
We will return to the solidity and warmth of the present.

We will make the present into our home.
We will begin again, here, build a new house on new soil.
We will explore a new way of life.
Strange, at first. But full of possibility.
Slower. Kinder. Quieter.

We will talk to each other honestly about death, and life, and impermanence, and how we feel about all the changes that have come to us and our loved ones.
We will learn to value life a little more.
Yes, perhaps we will learn to value life a little more.

And live with our hearts cracked slightly open to the elements.
And lean into uncertainty, and find our salvation there.

None of us are immune to change.
To rupture. To the shattering of old, familiar forms.
This is the way of things, this has always been the way of things.

From this perspective, nothing has gone wrong.
Crisis simply means “turning point”, and none of us are immune from the turning.

The breaking of the old makes way for the birth of new.
It has always been this way.

Love. Humour. Patience. With these things, we will come through.
Stronger than before. Renewed. Ready.

If you wish, please join in singing our hymn, Trust in Life

Words by Sidney Henry Knight, music John Bacchus Dykes, from Hymns for Living, published by The Lindsey Press, used by permission

Trust in Life

We do not seek a shallow faith,
A God to keep us free
From trial and error, harm and death,
Wherever we may be.

For none can live and not grow old,
Nor love and not risk loss:
Though life brings raptures manifold,
Each one must bear some cross.

When future days seem but a mass
Of menace more than hope,
We pray not for the cup to pass,
But strength that we may cope.

God grant us faith that when some ill
Unwanted comes our way,
Deep in our hearts, thy Spirit will
Give power to win the day.

And if from fear of pain or strife,
Calm peace we cannot win,
Then give us faith to trust thy Life
Invincible within.

Reading: from The Grace of Waiting by Margaret Whipp
The tragedy of our impatient generation is that we live as functional atheists, blind and deaf to the loving entreaties of this God who waits eternally for our embrace. Whether it is our shallow hedonism, which demands the immediate gratification of all our egotistical desires, or our self-determined Stoicism, which boasts of its own capacities for endurance and heroic indifference, we resist God’s patient invitation to embrace life’s necessary waiting as a matter of grace.
Grace is something entirely different: it is the quality of tender relatedness that is suffused with realism, mutuality and gratitude. Our word for ‘grace’ derives from an old French word for ‘kindness’. It bears the echoes of divine mercy and favour, of elegance, good will and virtue. Grace has the connotations of a blessing, a quality of the sacred, and implies beauty, ease, and fluidity. Grace seems endlessly responsive to our longing for it.
Grace is the beautiful alternative to our ugly and selfish refusals to wait on God. Grace is the conscious choice we make to enter into communion with the loving patience of God, who is eternally creating and re-creating our wonderful world. Grace is the delicate sense of reverence we feel for the gift of a life that we did not manufacture; and grace is the profound sense of respect we owe to the rhythms of an infinitely complex ecology of breathtakingly diverse life-forces that are not ours to command.
Grace is the readiness to embrace, and to be embraced, by a loving providence that will always exceed our limited capacity for comprehension and control. Grace, even in the white heat of terrible waiting, is the peace that passes all understanding. Grace breathes patience, learns wisdom, spreads forgiveness. And grace, within and despite our unfathomable waiting, overflows with a deep and sincere gratitude.
(from The Grace of Waiting pp 97-8, copyright Margaret Whipp, 2017)

(pause)

As is my daily custom, I was sitting quietly in my garden the other morning, reflecting on the unprecedented events that are unfolding in our lives, realising that we don’t have experience or knowledge to draw upon for guidance – and how unsettling this can be. And then I noticed Spring springing – and so, I realised in that moment – of course! – there is hope – God’s creation will continue to show forth despite current events and however these events unfold over the next few weeks and months. And so, in that vein, I offer the story of The Survivor Tree:

Story: The Survivor Tree (Inspired by a True Story) by Cheryl Somers Aubin, 2011 (redux)
A month after the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, recovery workers on the site discovered a few green leaves showing through the grey concrete and ash. Clearing the debris, they found a badly injured Callery Pear Tree. It was the last living thing to come out of the rubble — a charred stump that, to an untrained eye, looked dead. She was taken to a nursery outside the city, and put in the care of Richie Cabo, a City Parks Worker, who cared for her and helped her grow back to remarkable health. No one was sure if she would live. But the following spring, a dove built a nest in her branches and new green buds appeared.
After its recovery and rehabilitation, the tree became known as the “Survivor Tree” and was finally returned to the Memorial at Ground Zero in 2010. New, smooth limbs extended from the gnarled stumps, creating a visible demarcation between the tree’s past and its present.
Each year since 2013, seedlings grown from The Tree have been sent to communities throughout America that have experienced tragedies in recent times – and this has included 28 fire houses spread across Long Island. Last year for the first time, seedlings were donated internationally – to Madrid to mark the bombings there in 2004. Today, the Survivor Tree stands as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth.

(pause)

I’m wondering if we are not all Survivor Trees – standing as living reminders of resilience, survival and rebirth. I’ve started referring to this time we’re in as The Great Pause. Because everything feels like it’s on hold. All the measures that climate change and ecology experts have been calling for, are now being enacted – but not from our human choice. And so, I take comfort from the belief that a greater plan is at work here – ‘…for there is a Force of love moving through the universe that holds us fast and will never let us go’ (Julian of Norwich). And I find this confirmed by the beautiful weather we’ve been having. It’s like this Force is saying ‘while you’re having to experience this terrible crisis, here’s a gift to help you through….’. Maybe this is what we could try and do over the coming weeks – open more to this truth and to God’s presence – draw closer – maybe use this time to reaffirm our trust and faith that all will be well if we rest in God’s love, knowing that…. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)

Words from Elias Amidon entitled World Worry:

I wonder if the extreme of world worry, when we become overwhelmed by the anxiety of knowing the earth’s life-support systems are collapsing, isn’t in itself a kind of defence, a way to defend our hearts from being present. Being overwhelmed, we curl into anticipatory grief and the certainty that everything’s hopeless.

I think here of the prayer-words of Etty Hillesum a year before she was murdered at Auschwitz: “These are times of terror, my God. Tonight for the first time I stayed awake in the dark, my eyes burning, images of human suffering parading endlessly before me. I am going to promise you one thing, my God, oh, a trifle: I will not let myself weigh down the present day with those fears that the future inspires in me…”

Those are the words of an undefended heart, open to the hurt of the world without letting that hurt crush her heart’s presence. An undefended heart is in this way the requisite condition for survival, maybe not physical survival but survival of the most noble aspect of the human spirit. If, in the end, the earth’s human experiment does fail, at least we will have succumbed with our hearts alive and loving.

(from Notes from the Open Path posted online Sun 01/03/2020)

(pause)

As we enter a time of Prayer and Quiet Reflection, let us join in prayerful stillness. You may want to direct the focus of your attention inwards, bringing it to your heart – penetrating its walls and spending a few moments breathing into it deeply.

O God, we pray, not to request your presence, but to call ourselves into it, for the sustaining peace, the wisdom, the silence are nearer than breath. You are the ground of our being – the mover, the fire, and the place of rest.

(pause)

Prayer for a Pandemic by Cameron Bellm

May we who are merely inconvenienced
Remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
Remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home
Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close
Remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel our trips
Remember those that have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market
Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home
Remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country,
let us choose love.
During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,
Let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbours.
Amen.

(pause)

At this time, let us bring to our minds and hearts all those who are suffering with the coronavirus – with isolation – with fear – and as difficult as we may find it, we may include ourselves.

(pause)

While many of us are confined to our homes, let us bring to our minds and hearts all those having to work at this time. In particular, we think of the NHS front-line workers and key staff who are working relentlessly to bring healing and an end to this pandemic. Let us silently offer them our respect and gratitude.

(pause)

May we hold those who we brought to mind in the loving and healing light of our hearts.
May those who are suffering be released from their pain.
May we all be released from our pain.

(pause)

Come, Holy Spirit of Love.
In the silence come to us and bring your peace;
Rest in us that we may be tranquil and still;
Speak to us as each heart needs to hear;
Reveal to us things longed for;
Rejoice in us that we may praise and be glad;
Pray in us that we may be at one with you and each other;
Refresh and renew us from your living springs of water;
Dwell in us now and always
Amen

Silence for aprox 5 minutes and/or some music

Music by Elizabeth Hornby

In this time of isolation and quarantine, it may feel as though we’re stuck in a tomb – like the one Mary found empty on Easter Sunday morning. But when our stones are rolled away and we can finally come out of hiding – will we be transformed? Resurrected? For, in one sense, the life we have known has died. In this time of great pausing, I believe we are being offered a chance to ‘take stock’ – to review our lives and to discern our priorities for living a whole and Godly life – in the Light. Because, if nothing else, we have discovered that life can no longer be taken for granted. We have the opportunity to be born again into new life – a new way of living.

Here, Elias Amidon speaks to these thoughts:

Reading: In the Shelter of Each Other by Elias Amidon

Pandemic spring. You’re told to go inside, close the door and wait. You do what you’re told. You wait.
The telephone rings. How are you? Are you okay? Do you need anything?

Days pass. People are hurting. The numbers rise.

You get quieter – or wish you could. When something gets you annoyed, you notice and back off. What’s the point?

At breakfast there’s talk of selfless people caring for others, countless millions of them in countries you’ve never been to. You want to applaud them like the Brits did from their doorsteps, a magical applause sounding like a sudden spring rain falling on all the roof tops and gardens.

It’s odd but you feel like taking care of someone or something, do some little kindness you haven’t done before. You clean the fridge.
You speak on the telephone to a friend and after you hang up you remember that you forgot to say the one thing you really wanted to. You call back.

One night, turning away from sleep, you get up before light. You make a cup of tea and sit by the window. An image comes unbidden of an old man struggling to breathe and a masked nurse entering the room. You wonder what it’s like to die like that, or to die in any way at all.

You try to imagine dying, letting go that last time, saying goodbye that last time, dissolving into God knows what, and you feel suddenly a tenderness flooding your heart, a tenderness for everyone and everything in this world, and the feeling keeps expanding, opening out from you, a beautiful, inexplicable radiance flowing into the air around you and into the sleeping house and into the space between the houses and between the budded twigs and out beyond to the approaching dawn. It’s as if the foreboding of death has turned into something so precious and dear you feel the whole world is wrapped in it and is sheltered in it, a warmth, a caring holy love and thankfulness, and you know it’s not just rising from you but that’s it’s trying to rise from everyone, and you don’t understand it and you know you don’t need to.

Dawn comes, and another day, and another. You feel different. You feel bigger than you were. Kinder.

Then one day the all-clear sounds.

Doors open. Neighbours come out of their houses. They’re smiling. Something’s happened to them like something’s happened to you. We’re not what we were. We greet strangers and shake hands. We say, How are you? It’s so good to see you! You must come over for tea! The waitress comes to thank you for the cookies and all the other things you left on her doorstep. Up and down the street, people are chatting and laughing, kids are running around, the trees are waving.

It feels like the beginning of the world.

A robin on the lawn looks up and sees you, and now she’s just as happy as you are.
(Notes from the Open Path posted online Wed 01/04/2020)

(pause)

Closing words: some words that I return to again and again by Teilhard de Chardin, SJ:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
(excerpted from Hearts on Fire)

Blessing
May the wind of the Spirit blow through our world, giving the answer of God’s everlasting love. And so, as you re-enter your day, may you go with peace and joy in your heart.
Amen

You may want to close by playing reflective, quiet music.

3 thoughts on “Ditchling Communal Service, Sunday 19th April 2020

  1. Thank you Stephen for this service – It brought an added calmness to me after a week of slightly raised anxieties.
    And thank you Duncan for facilitating and caring for us all.

    Like

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