by Stuart Coupe
Today we welcome Stuart Coupe, Lay Leader at The Chapel, Billingshurst, to lead our Service. We invite you to read through these words of worship slowly and reflectively, pausing whenever it seems appropriate to you. We begin with our customary chalice lighting, which you may like to say at home as you light a candle or chalice.
We light this Chalice in the spirit of hope and love.
Together we celebrate life.
Together we face the struggles of life.
Together we love.
This service was written after reading the book ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell. For many years Rob Bell was an evangelical Christian who built up a church in America from scratch, to having a weekly attendance of over 11,000. The church started out renting a school gym in Michigan before being in a position to purchase a shopping mall. But over time, Rob Bell changed his views and walked away from his enterprise. He remains a Christian but is much more liberal in his outlook. He recently co-wrote a book with liberal theologian Richard Rohr whose work is often cited in Unitarian worship.
As we gather in prayer, may we remember that prayer alone means little without inspiring action.
May we always remember that true religion is not in rites or hymns or even prayers – the holiest worship of all is in a loving, peaceful, generous life.
Feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and the bereaved, sheltering the homeless – loving others as we love ourselves.
May we do all these things whenever called upon to do so, and may we thus make everywhere we go a temple to that which we worship, and every day a holy day.
So let us honour you, Spirit of love, in the highest way of all.
So may it be.
Spirit if life – open our hearts to the suffering of others. May we see with eyes of compassion; may we hear with ears of love. May we not neglect the needs of our own hearts and be forgiving of ourselves, gentle in spirit. May those who lead us do so with respect and justice, thinking and acting for those in the world who are downtrodden and neglected. Spirit of life, in these challenging times help us to fully experience moments of joy and gratitude, no matter how small or insignificant they may appear.
Hymn – We’ll Build a Land
“As we experience love, there is a temptation at times to become hostile to our earlier understandings; we may feel embarrassed that we were so “simple” or “naive,” or “brainwashed” or whatever terms arise when we haven’t come to terms with our own story.
These past understandings aren’t to be denied or dismissed; they’re to be embraced. Those experiences belong. Love demands that they belong. That’s where we were at that point in our life and God met us there. Those moments were necessary for us to arrive here, at this place at this time, as we are. Love frees us to embrace all of our history, the history in which all things are being made new.”
When I left school at eighteen I worked in a bank. I can’t imagine how much money NatWest lost as a result of my financial incompetence but if nothing else it did sharpen my mind as to thinking about how I might better spend my working life. This said, I’m now the treasurer at Billingshurst. God help us all.
For a while back then, I worked with a girl who I’m going to call Julie. Julie lived for the excitement and thrill of the weekend and on a Monday morning, she’d launch into the office telling us all about her weekend; which night clubs she’d been to, what fella’s she’d met, which Sylvester Stallone or Arnie Schwarzenegger film she’d just seen.
All year, she’d save and save for her summer holiday and spend a couple weeks somewhere warm blowing her hard-earned cash on clubbing and drinking and doing all the things that many teenagers do with a bit of money and bags of energy.
The only thing that slowed Julie down was her asthma.
I also worked with another young girl who I’ll call Sally. She was an evangelical Christian. At that time, I was taking some tentative steps into the world of Christianity through attendance at a pretty conservative Methodist Church and Sally knew this.
I think that Sally assumed that I was a Christian in the ‘same way’ that she was, although at the time, I had very little idea about the different ways in which Christianity has been, and still is, represented.
I kind of got the impression that because she went to lots of Christian rallies and seemed to talk confidently and competently about God, Jesus and the Bible that she was in some way a ‘proper’ Christian and I was scrambling around in the dark.
It was dark because I harboured, mostly secretively, many, many doubts and questions about Christianity.
A few months after I had left the bank (I wasn’t fired by the way, but came close a few times) I ran into Sally at a Christian Arts Festival.
“Shame about Julie.” Sally said.
“How do you mean?” I replied.
“Don’t you know? She was on holiday and had an asthma attack. She died.”
I remember feeling shocked and stunned – not only by the news that fun-loving, life-abundant Julie was dead, but by the comment that followed it up.
“Isn’t it terrible to die at such a young age,” Sally continued, “without ever knowing the Lord and then having to live the rest of your existence in hell.”
I had no response to this other than disbelief and an inner feeling that it did not have much to do with Jesus. At least, that’s what I hoped. I certainly did not have enough intellectual or theological understanding to challenge what she had said. What I do know is that her comments felt to me to be completely the opposite of what my understanding of Christianity was. I couldn’t argue a theological case for my sense of distaste -I’m still not good at this – but I felt that if this viewpoint was what Christianity represented, then I was better off out. So out I went.
I was recently reminded of the episode when recently reading a book by Rob Bell called ‘Love Wins.’ Rob Bell, once a pretty much died-in-the-wool conservative Christian went through quite a significant repositioning of his faith position and whilst he still operates within mainstream Christian orthodoxy, his theological vision is much broader than it was.
Rob’s book opens up with an incident that he experienced which was similar to mine. Somebody in his congregation had commented to him that Mahatma Ghandi was obviously now living in hell because he was a Hindu. Bell uses this comment as a spring point for questions directed at the brand of Christianity that he has since distanced himself from.
Are you sure that Ghandi is in Hell? How do you know? Why have you taken on the responsibility of informing the rest of us? Is this the act of a loving God? What exactly is the criteria for the avoiding hell? Why them and you and me? Why not you and me?
Throughout the book, Bell, I think, is very effective in his questioning of the views that he now find abhorrent because they are first and foremost, common sense questions that anybody, whether connected to religion or not, might ask. There’s nothing ‘high-brow’ or even theological about them at all.
Also, because he operates within an orthodox setting he doesn’t get caught up in the “well what do you mean by God” – thing that we Unitarians often find ourselves negotiating because there is more of a shared understanding within his orthodox circles about what/who God is. Still his legitimate questions are incisive and make the challenge well from within and outside of his own religious community.
Another reason why these expressed doubts are incisive might be because they are asked from a position of humility.
The way that any question can be asked can be aggressive and threatening and many of us will have experienced this at some point, either in the giving of or the receiving of. But questions that are asked in the spirit of genuine enquiry and answers that are listened to with a genuine sense of a seeking to understand can foster genuine dialogue and a whole lot more love.
If we want to genuinely understand another’s religious position and we want to use the answers to help us to test our own positions, then we have to ask the right questions in the right way. This can take a lot of thought and putting questions into a book as Rob Bell does through a process of clear deliberation is a lot easier than thinking of them in a face-to-face dialogue whilst also trying to digest the exchange of responses.
My friend was recently telling me about a late-night radio show where a presenter was interviewing a Benedictine monk. He was telling me that between every question from the presenter there might be up to 10 seconds of silence before the monk responded. This was a little disconcerting at first – radio silence can seem an eerie thing – but overall, my friend found it really refreshing especially compared to the usual, hurried, cut-and-thrust, cat-and-mouse kind of dialogue that is the usual radio-fare.
Rob Bell continues to ask lots of pertinent questions of his own religious community. For example, he talks about the notion of a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus might actually mean.
He writes: “Do you know individuals who grew up in a Christian Church and then walked away when they got older? They were probably resisting behaviours, interpretations and attitudes that should be rejected. Perhaps they simply came to a point where they refused to accept the very sorts of things that Jesus would refuse to accept. Some Jesuses should be rejected.”
Bell argues that ‘which Jesus we are talking about’ may well be dependent on who and how the Jesus message is delivered and he wonders if God really leaves the condition of our religious futures resting in the hands of the competence and views of another single another human being.
Throughout the opening Chapter to “Love Wins” Bell challenges his own religious community with questions that he has struggled to reconcile with the answers that he has been traditionally given. This expression of doubt and enquiry is nothing new to Unitarians whose very existence was founded in the asking of such questions.
We all wrestle with the questions that religion throw up. Whether the frame of reference is Christianity, Humanism, Buddhism or whatever – the questions are there to be lived. Those of us who operate within Unitarianism are fortunate that this can be done openly, with freedom, integrity and honesty. We can wrestle with the questions and also rest in the questions without fear of being ostracised. For that, I often remain confused about what I believe but joyful that I have the luxury of this confusion.
I wonder if Sally is still espousing the views of her youth or if she is out there somewhere asking the questions. Perhaps she would be horrified that I even remember what she said. But I also hope that the possibility of transformation of those who are fiendish and cruel in their views is what lies at the very heart of the message of Jesus and indeed at the heart of all religions because in this, there is hope for us all, no matter what our starting points may be.
May we both wrestle and rest in the questions and be changed for the better in their asking.
May we live our lives with peace.
May we live our lives with love.
May we wrestle and rest in the questions of our lives.
May we go out into the world with the confidence to live our truths.
Postlude: (Aside) I know that Country and Western music isn’t used that often in Unitarian circles and may not be everybody’s cup of tea – but here’s a C&W song to lift your spirits!
‘I Hope You Dance’ Lee Ann Womack.