by Duncan Voice
Opening: by Sarah Yorke
We receive fragments of holiness,
Glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.
Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are,
And, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown
We light our chalice,
symbol of our faith community,
sign of our gathering,
beacon of love and hope.
Spirit of Life and Love, Source of all Being,
We gather at the beginning of the new year,
looking forward with some uncertainty,
unsure of what lies ahead.
Help us to be unafraid,
to find reassurance in connection and community.
Aware of the passing of time, we are also aware of:
those who cannot be with us,
those whose passing comes to our mind,
those who are ill,
those who suffer.
We pause to hold them in our hearts.
Help us to step forward into life with good intention.
Though the door of our church is shut for now,
May the door of our hearts be ever open.
May we see the green shoots emerging from the cold earth,
and may we greet others in peace, as we journey into the coming year.
Reading: Jesus Is Presented in the Temple, Luke 2: 25-33
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Reading: New Year By Elizabeth Tarbox, from Life Tides, published by Skinner House Books
Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.
Susan Coolidge (1835-1905)
If life is indeed a journey then we have to take time to rest, to look back and also to look forward. Despite all that has happened, all that may happen, to “take heart” and prepare to begin again. This time of year, around Christmas and New Year, provides us with such an opportunity. To face with an open-hearted attention the difficulties in our lives and the suffering we experience, but also to be aware of the beauty and the joy that exists. To try to plot a course that gives our life meaning and purpose when much seems to be uncertain and unsure.
Sometimes we talk of New Year’s resolutions. Have you made one? A resolution to do something or not do something, to keep you on track or to find a new direction maybe? Usually these resolutions concern our physical world. Eating more healthily perhaps, taking more exercise, making more effort to keep in touch with a friend, or on a grander scale to fulfil some ambition. What about a spiritual resolution though? What kind of words could we find to articulate that?
Spirituality is an intimate and personal thing, which is not really compatible with measurement and analysis. We are told in our first reading that Simeon was righteous and devout and that the holy spirit “rested” on him. What would be the outer manifestation of this? Would Simeon have thought of himself in those terms or have others made that judgement? Sometimes we know when we share a little time with another person that they have something about them, don’t we? Simeon, of course, saw this in the infant Jesus.
Simeon could see both the message of love that Jesus would bring into the world but also the conflict and inner turmoil that would occur as people heard this message, “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
People would be challenged to move away from old certainties and give up their old lives. To take a journey of less material wealth, success and achievement and more altruism, kindness and love. And Mary his mother would have to watch him suffer for bringing this message, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon, could see both the suffering and the joy.
In our second reading Elizabeth Tarbox says she is not going to make a resolution, or ask God to resolve anything, but talks in terms of a self-inventory. Aiming instead for the “continued willingness to keep the doors of [her] feelings open, to participate in life as well as to observe it, to contribute more to solutions and less to the problems….” She also uses that wonderful phrase, “I keep open the invitation to love.” The invitation to love is what all great spiritual leaders offer us.
The invitation to love as expressed in religions is often referred to as the golden rule. Shared by Jesus through the well-known aphorism, “love your neighbour as yourself.” The Buddha puts it like this, “When you see yourself in others, it is impossible to hurt anyone else.” According to Lao Tzu, “The world is transformed by those who love all people, just as you love yourself.” And Hillel the elder, who is believed by some to be the father of Simeon in our reading, said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
These are difficult times that we live in to be sure. Learning to live in love, to accept the invitation, is a great challenge. In our isolation we may feel we have lost many of the things that made our life meaningful. We may feel we fall far short of these ideals of loving others and ourselves most of the time. Occasionally people say to me, “oh I couldn’t come to church” hinting that they feel they don’t measure up to some perceived ideal of a pious church goer, when in fact none of us do; and perhaps we wouldn’t want to! We’re not clones. We each bring our own unique personality, skills and, well, rough edges, doubts and fears; and of course we change.
With spirituality it is not so much about the destination as the journey. Some people may be concerned about the afterlife, but we Unitarians have always been more interested in the present. Spirituality is part of our human journey which, of course, lasts a lifetime; and so we should have compassion for ourselves if we stumble and fall along the way. In fact its vital that we do. Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas says this,
“…having compassion for yourself means you honour and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, loss will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and your fellow humans in the experience of life.”
Rabbi Hillel said “go and learn”, this is what we are challenged to do. To learn how to find connection with love and compassion, and to find our way of expressing it; for our own well-being and for the well-being and care of others, people or animals. We don’t have to become the great spiritual leaders whose lives are now myth and legend, but to learn from them, to find a direction in which we can become ourselves. Fully ourselves, as best we can, even in the face of difficulty. Practising our compassion, helping one another, sharing what we can and looking for inspiration and joy in the world around us.
Even in these difficult times there is much to inspire and cheer us. For example wildlife has begun to thrive in many areas and more people have developed a greater appreciation for the natural world. More people have started growing vegetables, and flowers to encourage insects. Including me, and I also got a bee home for Christmas, which I shall put up in the garden soon. More people are shopping locally and considering the ethics and sustainability of their purchases. For example, according to the Co-Op, Fairtrade purchases are up by 14 percent. More people have talked to, and helped, their neighbours and there having been many stories of human caring and kindness. Communities have come together.
So let us set our direction for the new year with hope, and may love sustain and guide us we explore and learn and care together.
May it be so.
Poem: Caring by F.R. Scott
Caring is loving, motionless,
An interval of more or less
Between the stress and the distress.
After the present falls the past.
After the festival, the fast.
Always the deepest is the last.
This is the circle we must trace,
Not spiralled outward, but a space
Returning to its starting place.
Centre of all we mourn or bless,
Centre of calm beyond excess,
Who cares for caring, has caress.
As we go from here
May we accept and keep open
the invitation to love.
May we journey with
humility, gentleness and an open-heart
into the coming year;
and may the God of our understanding
be with us now and always.
Let us go now in peace.