Sunday 9th May 2021 – Cultivating Attention

Extracts from a Service by Rev. Duncan Voice

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice to begin
to gather our hearts and minds,
into presence,
into being,
into togetherness.
It is the symbol of our community.
May its light burn brightly within us all.

Prayer

Spirit of Love and Life,
We gather together
to be in gentle and loving community.
Present with friends and strangers,
each with our own thoughts and feelings;
but bonded through our common humanity
and your spirit among us.

We each bring the burdens of our heart,
to the love of this moment,
our worries, cares and concerns,
which even in silence are shared by us all.

We each bring the busyness of our minds
into the peace of this moment,
where we let go of the everyday for a time
and become quiet together.

We each bring our feelings and emotions,
to the understanding of this moment,
joy and sadness, peace and anger,
they belong to us all.

May we recognise and respect
our differences and our commonalities.
May all find freedom
May all find truth
May all find happiness
May all find peace
Amen

Story: Birbal and the Challenge

Reading: Luke 13: 18-21 – The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Hymn: 83 Just as long as I have breath

Reading: Concentration by Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditation

Prayer: Prayer for Compassion by Elizabeth Tarbox

Music: River Flow in You by Massimo Viazzo

Address

When reflecting on the story we heard earlier, Birbal and the Challenge, author Bhaskar Goswami reflects that it is a powerful example of the saying, where attention goes energy flows. It is an interesting saying isn’t it, and although I don’t know it’s origins, I can see there is a truth there. How we cultivate attention and what we pay attention to are important to our spirituality and can profoundly affect many aspects of our lives. Not just our ability to stand in a freezing river!

Think about what takes your attention on a day to day basis. It may be the tasks before you or it could be ruminations about the past or thoughts of the future. Sometimes the object of our attention gives us energy, but sometimes it takes ours. Sometimes also our attention can be taken up with unhealthy or unwholesome obsessions. What kind of energy is flowing in these instances and where does this lead?

When I looked up the saying on the internet, trying to find its origin, I noticed it being quoted by a number of business coaches and self-help practitioners, using it in a cautionary way. Thinking in terms of how we invest our energy into our well-being or our business; the sort of thing that may be on the office wall! One article in the Guardian said,

Our life expands in proportion to the amount of attention we pay to our growth and self-betterment. However, our fears, doubts, worries, and other emotions often take a great deal of our energy from us; energy we could have used for our gain.

I can see where this is coming from to some extent, we don’t want to be spending all our time giving our attention to worries and fears, but I am a little sceptical about ideas of growth and self-betterment as an object of our attention; where we might focus too much on “our gain”. In our human lives there are time of joy and suffering, if we think we are going to get better and better, we are probably in for a disappointment. I feel there are more worthy goals for us to give our attention to, such as caring for and helping one another for example.

It is easy to listen to the story of Birbal and the Challenge just on the surface, and think that it’s just a bit of fun. That it is, after all, just a story and doesn’t relate to real life. However, giving our attention to something, something worthy, can help us through great challenges and give our lives meaning. Think for example of people who undertake endurance challenges to raise funds for charity, perhaps in memory of a loved one. The object of their attention gives them the courage and the strength to carry on, to achieve what they need to achieve. This isn’t about self-betterment, although it may have some beneficial qualities. It is usually about helping others or about love.

One of the most remarkable examples I have heard of the cultivation of attention is the story of Lopon-la as told by the Dalai Lama. He says,

The night I fled from the palace of Norbulingka, I went to the chapel to pay my respects, knowing it was likely the last time I would ever see it again. My friend, who was already a senior monk at Namgyal monastery, was there at the chapel. Lopon-la, as he is affectionately known by his fellow monks, did not know it was me, because my visit was top secret, and I could not tell him. Then as soon as I had left the palace, the Chinese bombardment started. They arrested many people and about one hundred and thirty were sent to a very remote area, like in Stalin’s rule, when people were sent to Siberia. After eighteen years hard labour, Lopon-la was able to come to India, and he told me what happened during this time in the work camp.

They had no shoes, even during the very coldest days. Sometimes it was so cold that when you spat, it would land as ice. They were always hungry. One day he was so hungry that he tried to eat the body of one of the other prisoners who had died, but the flesh of the dead person was frozen and too hard to bite. Throughout the whole time, they were tortured.

When he left the camp, only twenty people had survived; he told me that during those eighteen years he faced some real dangers. I thought, of course, he was talking about dangers to his life. He told me he was in danger of losing…….his compassion for his Chinese guards.

I could hear a gasp in the room at this extraordinary statement, the greatest sense of danger for this man had been the risk of losing his compassion, losing his heart, losing his humanity.

There are a number of cases where Tibetans who spent many years of hard labour in Chinese gulags told me that it was their best period for spiritual practice, for developing patience and compassion. (Abrams, 2016)

A remarkable tale in many ways. The object of Lopon-la’s attention where the teachings of the Buddha and specifically his cultivation of compassion towards all beings, even those that imprisoned, tortured and mistreated him. The energy of the Buddha sustained him physically, but most importantly spiritually. The danger of bitterness and hatred manifested itself, but he kept his focus on compassion. This was his small candle in the distance. This kind of attention is devotion of the deepest kind.

Lopon-la’s story clearly astonished and inspired his fellow monks, including the Dalai Lama. It inspires and humbles me too. It is a lived experience that helps us to trust that from the worst of circumstances something good may yet still blossom. That love and compassion though seemingly weak, in fact keep us strong, becoming the greatest gifts we can share in community.

It can be difficult to know what to give our attention to sometimes. There can be many competing priorities, many issues or responsibilities that we have to deal with. Sometimes we feel we just have to plough on. Perhaps what Lopon-la’s experience also tells us though, is that having a faith can give us the energy, courage or determination, or whatever it is we need to get us through. Guiding us to prioritise with love, or perhaps to even telling us that we have done all we can. To have patience and compassion for ourselves too; to take a breath, pause.

Life can be difficult, sometimes very difficult, but we can be there for one another. As we try to live in faith and build our loving communities, we can cultivate our attention and awareness to give us a point of focus and a clearer outlook. A means to see truth, seek peace and live in love.

May it be so.

Hymn: 42 From the Light of Days Remembered

Closing Words: Can You Imagine by Mary Oliver (192)

Blessing

As we go from here may we give our full attention to life. To what is within us, the people we encounter and the world we share. May the energy of love and compassion guide, sustain and be shared by us; and may the God of our understanding be with us always. Amen.

Abrams, D. (2016). The Book of Joy. London: Hutchinson.

Extracts from Sunday 2nd May 2021 – The Truth Within

By Rev. Duncan Voice

Opening Words – Kathleen McTigue (adapted)

Into this moment we bring our hunger for awakening.
We bring compassionate hearts, and a will towards justice.
Into this moment we bring the courage to walk on after hard losses.
Into this moment we bring our joy, and gratitude for ordinary blessings.
By our gathering this becomes a sacred and blessed moment.
May we shelter in its peace.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice,
flame of our faith:
to commemorate our past;
to symbolize all that we value,
that holds us together in community;
and to be a light of hope for our future.

Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love,
We are grateful for this opportunity to gather
and to simply be.
Though we miss being together in person
we reach out to each and everyone here
in fellowship and love.
As we look forward towards gathering in the future,
may we truly appreciate this simply gift.

We take time this morning to remember those
who cannot be with us.
Our families, our friends, our fellow seekers.
Those who are ill and those that suffer loneliness
and spiritual torment.
We hold them in our hearts.
May we seek and discover new ways to reach out
and offer friendship and support.

We remember also those whose passing comes to our mind
at this time.
May they be at peace,
and may our loving memories strengthen and comfort us,
as we continue the journeys of our lives.

God of our hearts,
Help us to be a welcoming and generous community.
Help us to recognise ourselves,
so that we may truly recognise one another.
May forgiveness, reconciliation and peace
be the path we travel together into the future;
living our truth gently and lovingly.

Amen

Reading: John 14: 15-17

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Reading: Psalm 32 Redux by Carla A. Grosch-Miller

Hymn: 11 Blessed Spirit of my life

Reading: Going Nowhere by Lewis Richmond

Quiet Reflection/Meditation

I, the blazing life of divine wisdom,
I set alight the beauty of the plains,
I radiate the waters,
I glow in the Sun, and the Moon, and the stars.
With wisdom I order all things right.
I beautify the Earth.
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I am the rain coming from the dew
that makes the field laugh with the pleasure of life.
I call up tears, the perfume of holy work.
I am the yearning for good.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

Music: Caritas abundat in omnia (Love abounds in all) – Hildegard of Bingen
Address

Last weekend I attended the annual general meeting of the Unitarian General Assembly, online of course! I must admit to being a little daunted by the prospect of an online meeting starting at 11 and finishing at 5; but it was very well organized with periods of worship and breaks, and so it was actually OK. It is still good to gather in whatever way we can at this time, although we of course miss personal interaction a lot.
The meetings, if you have never attended, cover the necessary business matters of the General Assembly, along with proposals and voting for resolutions, and usually there are some guest speakers and workshops. Also, the presidency passes on; this year Ann Mills took over from Celia Cartwright. Sadly there were no speakers or workshops this year, but four resolutions were proposed and subsequently voted for. Debate was not what it normally is, but nevertheless I must congratulate the Essex Hall staff on making it happen at all.
The four resolutions that were passed were:

From the Findhorn Unitarian Network – a proposal that requested the Executive Committee (EC) prepare and present a Code of Ethics, applicable to Ministers, Lay Leaders and Essex Hall staff, for consideration at the 2022 Annual Meetings. For 73, Abstentions 17, Against 25,

From Cardiff Unitarians – a proposal about fossil fuel divestment requiring the GA to completely divest from these investments by 2025 and encouraging congregations to do the same. For 91, Abstentions 10, Against 3,

From Stockton Unitarians – a proposal about provision for young Unitarians. In particular the provision of a residential youth program for 7-11 year olds at the Nightingale Centre in Peak District. This attracted the most controversy as it appeared that our Youth Officer was against; I think because he feared it might tie his hands a bit. He said that by allowing activities and initiatives to grow more organically more young people than ever were engaging in the current programs. I suppose giving the young people more of stake rather than saying this is what’s on offer. Because of his reticence I voted against, but the motion was passed with: For 55 , Abstentions 31, and Against 27.

Finally, a proposal FROM THE LONDON DISTRICT & PROVINCIAL ASSEMBLY (LDPA), THE PEACE FELLOWSHIP, AND TWELVE FULL MEMBERS – this welcomed the foundation of the interfaith Red Cross Memorial Peace Appeal in aid of the Global Coronavirus Emergency Appeal, the Yemen Crisis Appeal and other urgent humanitarian and medical appeals; and it urged congregations to support this as one immediate and direct way to be a force for good in the world. For 92, Abstentions 11, Against, 11.

In the past, some resolutions have been a bit general in nature and while well intentioned have not really made much difference to anything. This year’s ones may not be have been perfect either, but at least they were addressing concerns that perhaps most of us share; environmental concerns, making spirituality relevant and accessible to young people, how we behave towards one another and interfaith work and the huge crises that are happening in some parts of the world and how we might help in some meaningful way.

If you weren’t keen on what you heard though, or you think important issues need addressing, then remember that as a congregation you are entitled to propose a motion for consideration. It’s our democratic process and it could be a way to influence the direction of our movement, so do consider it in the future.

Apart from what I have described so far, we also heard reports from the officers of the General Assembly. This began with Elizabeth Slade, the Chief Officer, who after being in post for just one year, had unenviable task of having to close the London offices and try to manage from home due to the pandemic.

In her report she emphasised our need to find a direction for our churches and chapels, a path through this new landscape that we find ourselves in. She mentioned financial sustainability, which I’m sure is on the minds of many a committee up and down the land. As membership of our churches seems to be dwindling are there other sources of finance, perhaps even other ways of doing church community?

She also talked of spiritual health, reconnecting with our own congregations once again but also the wider community. She said, “Our doors are always open to those who already know the value of a spiritual life…..But if we see spirituality as a universal part of being human, then those who do not see themselves as religious will also be suffering spiritually from the effects of pandemic – and from all else in today’s culture that dishonours our spiritual lives.”

I think this point was well illustrated by her with a quote from John O’Donohue where he says,
“The reductionism and fragmentation of our culture has relegated the sacred to the margins. Yet ironically this very process has only intensified the spiritual hunger that people feel.”
I wonder if these cultural issues are one the most significant factors in the numerical decline of Unitarianism? The annual report indicated that national membership has now dropped below 3000 for the first time, standing at 2810. Some faith groups are very committed to their particular brand of religion, but it seems the majority of the British population has lost this connection; and what is seen as “organised religion” is maybe viewed with indifference, or through stereotypes, or even with suspicion or hostility?

That might be part of the picture, but perhaps we should also ask ourselves how we present our Unitarian churches and chapels to the wider community. How we are seen, if indeed we are seen at all, by those unconnected with our faith community? Do we sometimes give the appearance of being uncommitted? Like it doesn’t really matter, like we can take it or leave it? Whatever the reasons for our numerical decline over the years, we do have to consider the value and the purpose of what we do, and learn how to communicate and share this in an appropriate and honest way. We have to ask, do we really believe that we offer something spiritually valuable?

Well, I think we do have something very special to offer. I think our churches and fellowships are gathering places for people with good hearts. I also think decline in membership is not the only story, that a lot of good is happening. A lot of caring, a lot of love; but these things aren’t really measurable and don’t show up on an annual reports. So we should keep that in mind and take heart.

Spirituality can be a counter intuitive and paradoxical thing sometimes, as was alluded to in our second reading. What is considered great or successful in the material world, wealth, power, status etc. doesn’t really count for much spiritually. In fact most spiritual teachers tell us they can be an encumbrance, taking too much of our time and attention, inflating our egos and detaching us from reality. Of course we live in a material world, but the purpose of our Unitarian churches cannot be a material one. It can’t be all about growth and resources, helpful though these things may be to achieve some worthy aim.

Some people have said that we need great leaders to guide us, but although good leadership is important, I don’t think we should expect the arrival of some kind of super hero! Or consider that this is either desirable or necessary. I would prefer us to focus on finding ways to be together. For together we can do wonderful things. Together we can do some deep listening and some honest sharing. Together we can have conversations in safe spaces and invite people to join us. Together we can listen to one another and express ourselves if we wish to.

We need to do this so that what is really important can begin to emerge. A common understanding that we can articulate, and share, and adapt as we need to. What we might call a shared vision. A truly shared vision, not one that someone has provided for us.

Jesus said that the spirit of truth is within us all. Let us then take time to listen, so that it might guide us, and help us all to live in love and peace.
May it be so

Hymn: 181 Wake, now, my senses

Closing words

Recently while out walking my senses were woken when I was fortunate enough to hear a Nightingale sing. I felt very grateful that these harbingers of Spring choose live in Sussex after their long migration from Africa; and that I can listen to their beautiful magical song. Their habitat is dwindling and they are declining in the UK, but some people are trying to help. Long may they sing, and long may we listen and appreciate them. I leave you with the final two verses of John Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Benediction

As we go from here may we be awake to all the possibilities of life and the truth in our hearts; and may the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen.

Easter Sunday 2021 – Awakening to Our Lives

by Rev. Duncan Voice

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!
William Wordsworth

Opening Words – The Bright Thread of Hope by Gretchen Haley

There is too much beauty
in this world
to give up
on it
yet,
and it is always too soon
to surrender
to cynicism.
Bring your doubt,
your scepticism
your downright confusion
even your bitterness –
but in the midst of all these,
in the centre,
wrap your tender fingers
around that still
“bright thread
of hope,”
feel in your heart that
still steady hunger for
something more,
the vision
we glimpse
every day
in the rising sun
across the foothills
the light
that spreads across
the face
of the one we love
the look of knowing
all there is to know
and still
loving life, loving us
just as it is, just as we are.
For this hour
we come to
celebrate, to praise, to give thanks
to refuse to give up
to steady ourselves
keepers of hope
brave builders of
this still-possible
world.
Come, let us worship, together.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice
as a symbol of loving community.
Here, may we find
illumination for our way,
and the warmth of togetherness.

Lord’s Prayer recast by Jacob Trapp

O thou whose kingdom is within,
May all thy names be hallowed.
May no one of them be turned against the others
To divide those who address thee.

May thy presence be made know to us
In mercy, love and justice.
May thy kingdom come to be in the life of all people.
May it come with peace, with sharing,
And in a near time.

Give us this day our daily bread,
To be broken and blessed,
free from all alienation.

Keep us from trespass against others,
And from feeling that others are trespassing against us.
Forgive our slow, slow forgiving.
Forgive us (for our need is great)
Infinitely more than we have forgiven.

Deliver us from being tempted by lesser things
To be heedless of the one great thing:
The gift of thyself in us.
Amen

Story by Anthony de Mello from Taking Flight

A man took his new hunting dog out on a trial hunt. presently he shot a duck that fell into the lake. the dog walked over the water, picked up the duck, and brought it back to his master.
The man was flabbergasted! he shot another duck. Once again, while he rubbed his eyes in disbelief, the dog walked over the water to retrieve the duck.
Hardly daring to believe what he had seen, he called his neighbour for a shoot the following day. Once again, each time he or his neighbour hit a bird, the dog would walk over the water and bring the bird in. The man said nothing. Neither did his neighbour. Finally, unable to contain himself any longer, he blurted out,
“Did you notice anything strange about that dog?”
The neighbour rubbed his chin pensively. “Yes,” he finally said. “Come to think of it, I did! That dog can’t swim!”

Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

The sea of Tiberius, or Galilee as it is also known.

John 21: 1-13
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Reading: Marginal Wisdom by Leslie Takahashi Morris

They teach us to read in black and white.
Truth is this – the rest is false.
You are whole – or broken.
Who you love is acceptable – or not.
Life tells its truth in many hues.
But we are taught to think either/or.
To believe the teachings of Jesus – OR Buddha.
To believe in human potential – OR a poer beyond a single will.

Life embraces multiple truths, speaks of both, and of and.
We are taught to see in absolutes.
Good versus evil.
Male versus female,
Old versus young,
Gay versus straight.

Let us see the fractions, the spectrum, the margins.
Let us open our hearts to the complexity of our worlds.
Let us make sanctuaries, to nurture our many identities.

The day is coming when we will know
That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than the monochrome,
That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, stubborn rocks in its course.
That margins hold the centre.
From Voices from the Margins edited by Jacqui James and Mark D. Morrison-Reed published by Skinner House Books.

Meditation: Breakfast on the Beach by Cliff Reed

[Let’s first, pause for a time silence before we listen to this meditation by Cliff Reed]

“He comes to us as one unknown” – Albert Schweitzer

Breakfast on the beach.
Fresh fish sizzle over a charcoal fire.
New loaves, warm from the oven, lie in a basket.
The beckoning aromas mingle in the still, morning air,
wafting over the lake where pied kingfishers dive and
a fishing boat heads for shore.

“Come and have breakfast!” – an invitation from a
stranger, from one unknown; an invitation to
restored community, to shared pleasures,
and good company after hard work.

Where, now, is Jesus –
carpenter, cook, and friend of fishermen?

Not in a distant heaven, not in the books of doctrine,
not in philosopher’s creeds:
Jesus is where people gather to share in warm
and wholesome fellowship.

God of our hearts, help us to know you
in the richness of your creation.
Bless all who care for it, so that its bounty
may never end.
May we know you in the stranger
who invites us to share it lovingly,
generously , and wisely. Amen

Address

Easter is here once more. Traditionally a time of hope and renewal. In the stories of the New Testament Jesus returns to his followers; in nature we become aware of increasing activity and new growth, and an emerging warmth that we all welcome. Usually it is a time to gather as friends and families, although for us at this time, this remains a future promise; but also it is a time for us to reflect on where we are spiritually. Do we recognise what is most important to us as individuals and communities; and if we do, is this at the centre of our lives or have other concerns taken its place?
Recently I was watching an interview with Sir Elton John, by Graham Norton, recorded back in 2019 I think. I am not, as a rule, into celebrity adoration, but the interview was quiet frank in places. Elton John is undoubtedly a great musical talent who has enjoyed a long and successful career, but along with the highs have come some lows. In fact some very low points. There were times that were so low they were life threating, involving addiction to alcohol and drugs, along with other obsessions such as a financially ruinous shopping habit.
Eventually he sought help and began to wake up to the utter mess that his life had become, spending a number of weeks at an addiction clinic. There, he recalled, they used a ring donut as a metaphor to think about his life. They asked him to think about what he placed at the centre of the donut, the centre of his life. What had become most important, what did his life revolve around, the drink the drugs etc.; and then to think about what could be there. What were the important things that had been pushed out by addictions and obsessions, what were the important things waiting to be discovered? From there he began to take the first faltering steps of recovery, regaining his health, happiness and meaning in his life; and some form of spirituality I sensed. He’s been sober for over 20 years now.
A donut is an amusing metaphor I guess, but its seems to work as a form of reflection and visualisation about our lives. It’s quiet apt to think about a part of us being a void that can be filled, and perhaps needs to be filled. We can experience emptiness and reach for something to distract us or ease the pain. That thing or things can become wildly dominant in our lives. It seems we all, even if we don’t consider ourselves religious or spiritual, worship something.
To worship means “to give greatest worth to”; it could be anything. We might not even realise it or have considered it, but our lives revolve around something! We may have sleep walked into giving something the greatest importance or value in our lives, when in fact all it does is bring us pain, unhappiness or chaos. Perhaps we may even perceive the centre of our lives as meaninglessness. So finding ways to re-evaluate and reflect on what is at our spiritual centre is important I think!
I consider the stories in the Bible as, among other things, tools for reflection, but I haven’t always felt like that. It has taken me time to find ways of reading them that seem meaningful. At times, and this still happens, I have found them obscure and perplexing. Some bits don’t seem to relate to 21st century life and some bits stretch our credulity. Miracles for example, including the biggest miracle of them all, and what today celebrates, Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to his followers. Some religious groups ask us to put bury our doubts and simply say “we believe”, and these statements of belief become more important than honest reflection; but this doesn’t seem helpful to me.
Unitarian thought is grounded in trying to understand the facts; in the logical, the rational and the reasonable. Trying to discern wisdom among the myths. For example in 1820 Unitarian Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States of America between 1801-1809, created a book which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The book left out miracles and most of the supernatural.
Jefferson literally cut out sections of the Gospels to form the text of this volume, which wasn’t published until after his death and became known as The Jefferson Bible. Unfortunately it didn’t cause him to reflect on his own morals and the fact that he was a slave owner! He was clearly a very clever person, but he apparently couldn’t see the great evil that was before him. Perhaps he relied too much on that great intellect?
The book is a is good indication of Unitarian thought at the time though. Some people were convinced that the words and wisdom of the historical Jesus could be discerned and used as a moral compass, and that the more uncomfortable supernatural bits could be pushed to one side and dismissed. It seemed a more intellectually credible approach. His books ends, “There laid they Jesus: and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” So that was that, no resurrection then!
Facts are important. In a world of misinformation and “fake news” we know this more than ever. Opinions and malicious lies masquerading as facts can be very harmful, creating hatred and mistrust. They can spread quickly too, as author Terry Pratchett puts it, “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on!” But religious or spiritual truth, or experience, is a matter of the heart; and it is the story that opens the human heart not logic or reason or facts, necessary though those things are.
The character Jesus in the New Testament stories becomes the object of our attention and affection not for historical factual reasons, but because he is the embodiment of goodness, of light, of love, of God in recognisable form for some. When the disciples fail to recognise him in their midst they fail to recognise these things in their lives, and we are asked to reflect, are we doing the same? Do we need to wake up to our lives?
In his book Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality Tim Stead says this,
In one of the Anglican eucharistic prayers comes the phrase: “[He] revealed the resurrection by rising to new life”. When I link Jesus’ resurrection with the idea that he was fully awake, I don’t mean he became awake after his resurrection, but that the resurrection revealed that he was a fully awake being – and had been all along.
I realise that we are more familiar with the phrase “awakened one” from Buddhist teaching than in Christianity, and in particular it describes the Buddha himself. But actually many in the Buddhist tradition would not claim the phrase exclusively for followers of the Buddha; they are happy for it to be used to describe anyone who has become fully awake, by whatever path.
By whatever path. We all have our different paths to follow, even if we travel together for a while. So we all share this call to wake up to what is important. Something that we can discover deep in our heart. Somewhere perhaps only our imagination can take us; a place of discovery and possibility.
There can be no doubt about the importance of the resurrection stories to early Christian communities, and later ones, and they may well have understood them in a more literal way, but what was important was how they felt. The thought of Jesus being present among them would have given them strength, comfort and inspiration during difficult times. God somehow became more real, whether on the shore of the sea of galilee or at work or at home; and most importantly this gave them hope.
By reflecting on these stories perhaps we too can share in that hope. By putting aside our incredulity and cynicism, perhaps we can enter this place where we might find comfort or challenge according to our need. Can we unencumber ourselves from intellectual, cultural and theological baggage to simply be? To allow the story to speak to us. To awaken us to a new reality.
May it be so.

i thank you God for this most amazing poem – E. E. Cummings poems | Best Poems (best-poems.net)

As we go from here
may we be awake to
the love in our hearts
and all the possibilities of life;
and may the God of our understanding
be with us now and always. Amen.

Happy Easter

Sunday 14th March – Mother’s Day

Extracts from our online Service, “Letting Go for a New Beginning” by Rev. Duncan Voice

Opening Words by Starhawk

We are all longing to go home to some place
we have never been –
a place half remembered and half envisioned
we can only catch glimpses of from time to time.
Community.
Somewhere, there are people
to whom we can speak with passion
without the words catching in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands
will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us
whenever we come into our own power.
Community means strength to the work
that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing.
a circle of friends.
Someplace we can be free.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice
to shine across the distance between us;
beacon to light our way when times are difficult,
warmth to bring us together in loving community.

Welcome

Welcome to our Service this Mothering Sunday, or Mother’s Day. A day which is also the anniversary of our first online Service. A year ago we entered into the uncertainty of the pandemic and it restrictions, and now here we are beginning to come out of lockdown. It has been a difficult time, but we have continued to light our chalice and gather, and so perhaps as Spring arrives we can begin to look forward a little. Not to make things go back to how they were, we can never go there; but look towards a new future. As our lives have changed have we discovered what is important and what isn’t? What can we leave in the past as we move into the future?

Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love,
We gather ourselves
and we gather with each other
into this to time of prayer and contemplation.
We gather with our joys and concerns.
We gather in peace, in love and in friendship.

On this day we celebrate and honour the mothers
of the world.
Those who suffered to bring us all into this life.
Those who have cared for us.
We think of them with gratitude and love,
but we acknowledge too the broken or distant relationships.
May they find healing and reconciliation.

We acknowledge the sacrifices that the mothers of the world make to feed and clothe and protect their children.
We acknowledge too the inequalities of opportunity and the prejudice that girls and women may face.
We acknowledge the abuse and violence that girls and women may face in the home, in the workplace and on the street;
as we do so we pause to remember and hold in our hearts those who have suffered and lost their lives in this way.

[pause]

We affirm and recognise our role in changing and improving society for women.
May we all learn to nurture and care for one another.
Amen

Story: The Golden Buddha from Wisdom Stories by Bhaskar Goswami

Reading: Discard What You Don’t Need by Shunmyo Masuno

Hymn

Reading: The Zen of Parenting by Kathleen McTigue

Meditation by Achaan Chah

Do everything with a mind that let’s go.
Do not expect any praise or reward.
If you let go a little, you will have peace.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom.
Your struggles with the world
will have come to an end.

Reflection

Last weekend Dawn and I began the task of sorting through the loft in our house. A place where, for over twenty years, we have transferred the surplus items of our family life. Things which had once been important, that had sentimental value; and things that we didn’t know what to do with, maybe they’d be useful again one day? Furnishings, camping equipment, toys, school work, battered old suitcases, etc., etc.. Some things we had even transferred from the loft of our previous house, straight into the loft of this one! So much stuff we could barely move about up there. So something had to be done, we couldn’t put it off any longer!

On a Facebook post I likened this process to an archaeological excavation of our lives. Some of the items went back a long way, bringing back memories of different periods of our lives. Times that almost felt like another life. Some items we couldn’t even think why we had put them up there, a broken suitcase or an old cushion. Others gave us that “ah, remember this” moment. Included in this category were two very tatty old rucksacks.

The rucksacks belonged to a time when we were backpackers, back in the late 1980s. They had travelled many miles with us around Asia and Australasia. We were away from the UK for nearly two years, and although we worked in Australia for a while, for most of the time we lived out of these two bags. We hiked, caught buses, trains, ships and planes with these bags. We stayed in beach huts, remote villages and big city hostels in a dozen different countries with these bags. We valued them and kept them after our travels had finished, taking them with us from home to home.

I thought about how much stuff we have now compared to those travelling days. I felt a little jealous of my carefree old self, but then I reminded myself it would be pretty difficult to raise a family while living out of a rucksack. Certainly in a conventional sense in our country, although many people in the world of course have to manage with very little. So my melancholy and nostalgia turned to gratitude, I have been so fortunate in my life.

Could I live out of a rucksack now I wondered? What would I pack now, in order to leave all the rest behind? What would you pack if you had to? Practicality would surely prevail over sentimentality, but I’m sure some impractical precious memory item would probably go in wouldn’t it? Nevertheless the vast majority of possessions would be left behind. You can’t fit much into a rucksack. Terrifying, liberating or both?

As we go through life we tend to accumulate possessions and many of you will have had the experience of downsizing, where you’ve had to let things go. How was it? Difficult or not as bad as you thought? Our spiritual teachers also suggest that we accumulate other things too which can become burdens, such as habits, worries, attachments, attitudes, obsessions and opinions that can clutter our mind. That can obscure our true nature, hinder us in being the person we might be or slow us down on our spiritual journey. This kind of clutter is not so easy to see, not so easy to let go of either perhaps?

According to Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, an American Mindfulness Meditation expert, the term “letting go” has become a bit of a cliché in recent times, much overused and misused. Nevertheless, he suggests that it is a vitally important practice. He says,
“Letting go means just what it says. It’s an invitation to cease clinging to anything – whether its an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding. To let go means to give up coercing, resisting, struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them, in the intrinsic stickiness of wanting, of liking of disliking. It’s akin to letting your palm open to unhand something you have been holding on to.”

Many people might think of “letting go” a concept found mostly in Buddhism, but it is found in Christianity too in slightly different form. The period of Lent, that we are in at the moment, is a form of letting go and Jesus says a lot about leaving possessions behind to those who would take the spiritual path with him. For example he sent his disciples out with the instruction, “take no gold, or silver or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey.” And think of the man in Mark 10: 17-22 who asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He had followed the commandments since his youth. Jesus looked at him, “..loved him and said “You lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man was shocked, “and went away grieving for he had many possessions.” Later in Mark, Jesus also uses that well known phrase, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

We probably all have some sympathy for man who Jesus told to sell his possessions, and I guess that’s the point of this story. We recognize the pain, or fear, that parting with some, maybe lots of things, would cause us. We often have our focus on cherishing our possessions or acquiring new ones, and the more we have the greater attention this requires; and so our attention can’t be elsewhere. We have to ask ourselves do we have more than we need? Could we indeed give some to those who are in need? Could we let go for the benefit of others and ourselves?

I read recently that MacKenzie Scott, joint founder of Amazon, and one of the richest women in the world, has stated that she wishes to give away the majority of her $53 billion fortune. She apparently gave away $5.7 billion last year alone. Extraordinary amounts of money and welcome support for many charities and groups I’m sure. An unusual position to be in though as the majority of the global population are at the other end of the personal resources scale. Their concern is having enough to live on not how much to give away. However, when our basic needs are met it seems that peace can be found in living more simply.

In Zen Buddhism cleanliness and ordered simplicity are important in life and spirituality. The two go hand in hand, or are a reflection of one another if you like. Start to unburden or de-clutter one and you’ll be helping the other. An important concept for us to reflect on, even if this life style doesn’t appeal. However, I was also delighted to read in Shunmyo Masuno’s piece that we shared earlier, that he included crying as way of letting go. Emotional release is important too. Crying unburdens us as laughing makes us feel happy. There are many ways to let go!

Undoubtedly “letting go” in it many forms can be challenging, but remember Jesus loved the man in the story, and love can indeed guide us. Kathleen McTigue’s reflection that we heard earlier illustrated this. Her son was no longer a boy, but a young man. She still loved him of course, but he didn’t need her to wipe his nose or tie his shoelaces. She had to let the little boy go and embrace her grown up son. A letting go she called relinquishment, “at the core of the spiritual path of parenting.” To treat our grown up children as if they were still small children is not healthy for them or us. We let them go because we love them.

On this Mothering Sunday perhaps we can also flip this to consider the changing relationship we have had with our own mothers over the years. All our relationships will be different, but all will all have changed too. Perhaps you found yourself looking after your mother in her later years. A kind of role reversal, a situation in which in order to move on you have to accept. Letting go of the old way, the old relationship, in order to embrace the new one. Even though it was perhaps not what you wanted or imagined it should be.

It’s time for my old rucksack to go and for a lot more from my loft to be given away. If we don’t let go of old things before we acquire new ones then we start to accumulate clutter in our lives and in our minds. So we let go not to give up, but to move on. To find authenticity, to be more Christ like, to shed the mud and dirt and uncover the golden Buddha within us. As we begin to emerge from this pandemic we can ask ourselves as individuals and communities, what is it time to let go of to live truly and truly live?

May it be so.

Hymn

Closing Words

I’d like to thank you all for be part of this community through your presence and for your continued support. It is has been a hard year, but we remain together in this circle of friendship and faith.

In some churches it is traditional to give away flowers on Mother’s Day, often daffodils. So last year I finished with these words from William Wordsworth and I do so again this year. Let us wander with him.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

As we go on our way this morning may we all dance with the daffodils and may the God of our understanding be with us as we do.

Amen.

Sunday 28th February 2021

Extract from today’s Service led by Stephen Crowther

Good morning and welcome to our service on this second Sunday of Lent during what continues to be an uncertain time.

We are of many different identities, sexualities, diverse beliefs and life experiences. We have chosen to come together in this moment for worship. This makes this a holy moment – a sacred moment.

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….

Reflection:

So, how ARE you really doing? I’m aware of how fatigued I am – how covid-weary I’ve become. And how some of my behaviours are slightly out of sync. (motorway woman?!)

• There are so many differing experiences of living through this shared – common – pandemic.
• And so many lessons being learned and yet to be learned.
• I have discovered my inner covid nazi.
• I have learned – really learned – painfully, of my need for physical touch – hugs
• I have learned that I need people to follow the rules because if they don’t, I feel unsafe moving through the world. I need to feel safe.
• I have learned that practicing the basic spiritual principles of acceptance and gratitude can be challenging – wearing a bit thin of late!
• I have learned the value of those things I took for granted – theatre, film, dinners out with my husband – being able to make plans. It’s downright impossible to make plans these days with everything constantly changing – we don’t know – we cannot be certain in ways that we used to
• I’m tired of the constant anxiety when walking the streets – are you going to give me room? Tired of feeling under threat. Tired of feeling afraid. Tired of living with not knowing.
• There are some who are too afraid to leave their homes. Others living with an existential angst
• Some of us are starved of human contact and company – I mean real company – not the tv or zoom.
• I find myself wondering what the essential travel the constant stream of traffic along the seafront is on!!
• I get angry when I’m following the rules but the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be.
• It’s been hard to make sense of the world at times – hard not to focus on the negative – especially in the face of news bulletins. Hard to maintain trust and faith in our leaders when we get spoken to like naughty naïve children.
• I find it hard to make sense of the fact that soccer matches can take place with players all over each other – yet some of us can’t be with loved ones in their dying. And then I realise it’s all about money being made. And I start to get angry. Leaders travelling outside the guidelines. And I get angrier. How can I feel safe when nothing seems to make sense? It all seems so UNFAIR! I am so tired…
• And in my anger and exhaustion, do I begin to understand other people’s anger. Am I beginning to taste and experience the injustice that others in the world feel about their situation – do I begin to taste what fuels BLM?
• But –
• I am blessed to be able to work from home in comfort. And I’m blessed not to be stuck in a 12th floor flat with a young family. There are NHS workers suffering exhaustion, ptsd – working non-stop. Some other people are bored – empty days. Some of us may feel guilty because we don’t have it as bad as others.
• It can be hard trying to make sense of it all.

Forgive me for going on and seeming to be on a tirade. I’m not trying to stoke anyone’s anger or fear nor am I trying to garner sympathy for myself. I’m just trying to paint the backdrop to our lives and how difficult some of us may be finding the reality of life right now. And how difficult it can be to remain optimistic and upbeat. And if this is your experience, then please know – you are not alone.

We are living through an abnormal time; where we are forbidden access to those things that bring us joy – that feed our souls – theatre, live music, dancing, eating, hugging – simple human interactions etc. – and so many losses – this makes this an abnormal time of extended trauma.
Whatever your experiences, whatever your feelings, they are yours. Feelings are meant to be felt. Supressed or denied they can distort and manifest in other, more destructive ways. Feelings are part of being human – an integral part of the human experience. It’s what we do with them – how we respond to them that is our responsibility. It doesn’t make us a failure if we’re struggling to keep up a cheerful façade. Again, I urge you to hold yourself gently and to share with a safe, trusted other, just how things are for you right now. Listen to one another without trying to fix or change each other. It is in acknowledging and voicing our painful feelings that they can begin to heal. It is the nature of feelings and emotions that they be in constant flux. Things will change in time.

As a worship leader, I can be seen as needing to maintain a positive posture at all times. But I am human. And it is hard some days – really hard.
• No easy answers. And no one-answer fits all. We are all having different experiences. And we each find our own way through this.
• However you are getting through – may you hold yourself gently.
• And know – you are not alone.

All this was washing around my head the other day when I was out walking – on my daily allowed exercise – trying to reflect on this service. The anger and frustration that I often feel these days seemed ramped up a notch or two that day. I was heading home with a storm of desolation raging within me. And suddenly – there it was – the kin-dom revealed. It might feel odd to be talking about God’s kingdom (rephrased as kin-dom) in a Unitarian service – it’s not spoken of very often! But there is was – God’s kin-dom was revealed in a ‘dance’ with a young father pushing a pram. We do the ‘mistaken direction dance’ – we both smile at the situation – at each other – we connect and go our ways. And all the anger and fear and desolation I had been feeling dissolves. A simple human caring interaction brings me gently and lovingly back into my heart – the home of God’s kin-dom. And all is well again. I have reconnected with my heart. Thank you….

Connection. The healing balm of connection.

And in a wonderful God-incidence, that evening, I pick up the new prayer book I was starting and the opening words to the introduction begin – ‘That was a beautiful prayer’ a voice called to me as I finished praying with one of my congregation. I crossed the hospital ward to meet a Jewess recovering from an operation, and, struggling to think of some appropriate response, I suggested we unite in saying the Hebrew She-ma:
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
And you shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your might.’
It says it all. The oneness of God which we need to know and seek to show is found in the love of the heart. it is in the heart that we must stand before heaven and meet with God. Heart speaks to heart.
The heart here is not a souvenir shop of all our past sentimentality nor a barometer of our moods and emotions. It is the focus and centre of our whole life: our understanding and perception, our will and our energy, our whole personality. The heart is where the Kingdom comes, where God’s will is done and heaven is found on earth, because the heart is where we offer our whole selves to God.

Blessing:

May your challenges in life help to build your strength.

May you be forever steadfast in your commitments.

May you always be reminded of your own resourcefulness.

May you be blessed with people who confound, frustrate and annoy you, teaching you patience and the art of forgiveness.

May you be blessed with miracles from unexpected sources when you most need them.

May you come to know your purpose in life.

May you be granted courage to live a life of meaning, not comfort.

May you be granted a strong heart for the times when pain would otherwise break your spirit.

May you not forget that even in the darkest of nights, dawn’s light is always coming.

May you come to know your own resilience.

Sunday 14th February – In Celebration of Love

by Rev. Duncan Voice


Opening Words by Dorothy Grover

O come together in truth;
O come together in peace;
O come together in joy and sharing;
O come together in knowing and caring;
Come together,
O come together,
O come together in love.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice,
symbol of our faith
and guiding light;
to bring our attention
into this present moment,
and unite us in loving community.

Welcome

Welcome to this time together. Today is Valentines Day and so we celebrate love in all its forms. We will begin with a prayer and during the prayer you are invited to light a candle for someone, or some people that you love, or some cause which brings compassion into your heart.

Prayer by Wayne B. Arnason (adapted)

Spirit of Life and Love,
in you we have our being.
Help us to recognize the love that
surrounds us.
Help us to see ourselves as the loving
people we can be.
In silence now, we bring to our
mind’s eye the people who have
loved us and continue to love us,
people who are not here with us
today, but whose love we carry
with us;
people who are there every day, and
whose love we sometimes take for
granted,
people who might be within our
circle of love,
could we but extend it a little further.
In silence now, we hold these people
in our hearts and light our candles.

[Silence and Candle Lighting]

In returning from silence, we ask that
our hearts maybe opened
to all whose names and faces
that crossed our minds,
and that the love we share with the
people in our lives may be our
abiding teacher.
Amen

Story: Birdsnest

Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Hymn: Come Together in love

Reading: by Sarah Yorke, Unitarian Universalist Minister

Loving is more than compromise and trade off; it is mutual nurturing of growth. Loving is more than trust in each other; it is trust in something that transcends human expectation. Love is the mutual gift of freedom with the mutual gift of expectation. Love is more than being true to ourselves; it is being true to a common reverence for life and a common vision for community. Love is more than loving each other; it is loving Life itself. (Robinson, 2019)

Time of Quietness

Reflection

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in god, and God abides in him.”

1 John 4:16

Recently I received a leaflet through my door entitled “Tell Me The Truth”. Intrigued I opened it up. It began “My Dear Friend, may I lovingly tell you that one day you will die and open your eyes in another world: either in heaven or hell!” Well, the first bit wasn’t a surprise, but waking up in another world eh? Heaven they said would be wonderful, but hell would be full of the worst kinds of torments for all eternity. It said that no matter how good or wicked I have been that I’m and sinner and must repent. Any good works I may have done are to no avail! How could I escape hell? By following their prescription of confessing my sins, obtaining forgiveness, confessing to someone that I am a Christian, then reading the Bible and praying regularly.

I must admit to being a bit angry about what I had read. Firstly I was concerned about someone vulnerable reading such a message. Imagine how you might feel if you had just lost someone and that dropped on your doormat. How cruel and hurtful that would be. Secondly, it made no sense to me. The God of the authors was apparently perfectly happy to send the majority of humanity to languish for eternity in, as they put it, “A state of unbelievable anguish, pain and torment, exceeding anything known in this life…” And they started their letter “Dear Friend, May I lovingly tell you…”!!

There seemed nothing loving about the message in the leaflet. Ideas of sin and hell, really seem unhelpful to me. How do they help anyone to live their life? But of course, this was not so much about this life as about salvation, escaping from this life. I tried not to let my anger turn to hatred for the authors, and the group they represented. Not easy for a while though. Could I try to understand them? Perhaps I could learn something?

Salvation played a part in the formation of our church at Ditchling. Our church ancestors, the General Baptists, moved away from ideas of salvation for the few, over 300 years ago; to an idea of salvation for all or general salvation (hence the name General Baptists). Since that time our church has become Unitarian and views have evolved and changed even more. The importance of historical ideas of salvation, doing things now in order to secure a place in heaven later, has diminished to a point where many would probably say they are unhelpful. We tend to be more concerned with this life rather than an afterlife which, if we believe in one at all, is usually thought of as a mystery.

Cliff Reed, retired Unitarian Minister, says this about salvation,
“Unitarians identify the agent of salvation as healing, dynamic love. This is both channelled through others and derived from some wellspring within ourselves. It is love that brings wholeness and fulfilment through the dissolution of the barriers that divide us…….So all those people who bring mercy and reconciliation, liberty and justice into the world are the embodiments of salvation. They are the “saviours” within humanity.” (Reed, 1999)

Unsurprisingly I much prefer Cliff Reed’s interpretation of salvation, where love is the key. Living our lives in a loving way to find fulfillment, wholeness or salvation if you like. Rather than waiting on empty promises of heavenly reward for following some religious dogma, or prescription; or living in fear of cruel threats about what will happen if we don’t. Love is prime, theology can be discussed afterwards. In this way our “good works” do matter, they are the outcome of our loving, living faith.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965), theologian and philosopher, reflecting on 1 John 4:16, put it’s like this, “Therefore, he who professes devotion to God may abide in God if he abides in love, or he may not abide in God if he does not abide in love. And he who does not speak of God may abide in Him if he is abiding in love.” (Tillich, 1956) In other words simply saying we are a Christian, Unitarian, or anything else, doesn’t mean anything without love in our hearts.

Love is small word, but with many meanings. In Greek there are several words for love. Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and philosopher, gives these seven types of meaning,

  1. Eros
    Eros is sexual or passionate love, and most akin to the modern construct of romantic love.
  2. Philia
    Philia is the love between friends. The hallmark of philia, or friendship, is shared goodwill.
  3. Storge
    Storge [“store-jay”], or familial love, is the love between parents and their children.
  4. Agape
    Agape [“aga-pay”] is universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or God. Unlike storge, it does not depend on filiation or familiarity. Also called charity by Christian thinkers, agape can be said to encompass the modern concept of altruism, when defined as unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
  5. Ludus
    Ludus is playful or uncommitted love. Ludus relationships are casual, undemanding, and uncomplicated, but, for all that, can be very long-lasting.
  6. Pragma
    Pragma is a kind of practical love founded on reason or duty and one’s longer-term interests.
  7. Philautia
    Philautia is self-love, which can be healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy self-love is akin to hubris. (Burton, 2016)

Some of those definitions will no doubt be familiar. Perhaps some are surprising. So many possibilities for which we just have one word in English, love.

In the New Testament love is usually a translation of agape. So when Paul talked of love in our first reading he was talking of this kind of universal love; concern and compassion for all. It is used also to describe God’s love. In human terms, it is when we reach out beyond the circle of our family and friends, to those in need, those on the margins of society perhaps. To see all as having worth and dignity. In early Christian communities agape was demonstrated and symbolized through communal meals where all were invited to have a seat at the table and share food.

Early Christian fresco of a banquet located at a tomb in the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome. You can just make out “Agape” written between the two figures on the left. Note, it is a woman holding the chalice.

For people, there are few things as fundamental and necessary, yet fulfilling and enjoyable, as eating. Sitting with others at a meal table is a leveler of sorts, and might be enriching or challenging. As we share food we might have an interesting conversation or we might find someone’s views objectionable. Like the views of my “friends” who sent me the leaflet. But they need to eat and drink as I do, we share this. Despite our different views, we share a common humanity.

The leaflet I received through my letterbox has reminded how different our views and perspectives can be. I neither know or understand the people who sent me that message, but I know that I don’t agree with its content or its presentation. However, I would sit with them, share food, and discuss these things if I had the opportunity. Sitting together might be difficult or uncomfortable, but who ever said practicing love would be easy!

What would I say if I were asked what I believed in? I hope I would say that I believe in love. Love in relationships. Love moving through diverse identities, faiths and cultures that can unite us. Love that inspires freedom of expression, creativity and imagination. Love that is at the heart of caring and generosity. Love that opposes cruelty, oppression and injustice. Love that brings us hope. Whether we speak of God or not, it is love that matters.

I am sorry that we cannot share a meal together at this time, but I know that time will come again. When it does may we sit together in peace and joy and may we celebrate love in its many forms.

May it be so.

Hymn: Come, sing a song with me

Closing Words by W.M. Vories

Life is too brief
Between the budding and the falling leaf,
between the seed time and the golden sheaf,
For hate and spite.
We have no time for malice and for greed:
Therefore, with love make beautiful the deed;
fast speeds the night.

As we go from here may we abide in love and the God of our understanding; and may peace be with us all. Amen

January 24th – One More Step

A Service for Hastings Unitarians given by Rev. Duncan Voice

Opening: Together…as one by Margaret Kirk

We come from separate places to be together here.
We know only a little of each other’s thoughts,
dreams and cherished hopes,
only a very little of each other’s confusion and anxiety.
But together here we are become as one,
lifted by each human presence,
lifted by the spirit flowing between us,
the comfort of togetherness.
Every whisper of truth, every openness of heart
takes us away from our separateness
and binds us to the common purpose of serving what is good,
beautiful and true.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice,
symbol of our Unitarian faith.
Guiding light by which
the story of our community continues,
to a place where love and hope abide.

Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love,
As we gather here this morning
we think first of those suffering due to the pandemic,
whether directly or indirectly;
those that mourn, and those that have died.
Reaching out in compassion,
we bring them into our hearts.

[Silence]

May they find healing and peace.

We think of those who have worked so hard,
and given so much to help others
in these difficult times.
We are thankful for their courage
and dedication.
Reaching out in gratitude,
we bring them into our hearts.

[Silence]

May they find fortitude.

We think of our church community members at Hastings,
especially those who cannot be with us this morning.
Those good people whose physical presence,
and companionship, we miss.
Reaching out in friendship,
we bring them into our hearts.

[Silence]

May they find hope.

We think of all who have joined us in this gathering.
Each with their own joys and concerns.
Each seeking a sense of belonging.
Each following their heart.
Reaching out in loving welcome,
we bring them into our hearts.

[Silence]

May we all find beloved community.

Amen

Story: Heaven and Hell from The Shortest Distance by Bill Darlison

Reading: Matthew 18: 1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? He called a child, who he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Hymn: 124 One More Step (SYF)

Reading: Extract from Anam Cara by John O’Donohue

“In contrast to nature and to the animal world, there is a mirror within the human mind. The mirror collects every reflection. Human solitude is so unsolitary. Deep human solitude is a place of great affinity and of tension. When you come to your solitude, you come into companionship with everything and everyone. When you extend yourself frenetically outwards, seeking refuge in your external image or role, you are going into exile. When you come patiently and silently home to your self, you come into unity and into belonging.
No-one but you can sense the eternity and depth concealed in your solitude. This is one of the lonely things about individuality. You only arrive at a sense of the eternal in you through confronting and outfacing your fears. No-one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself, you are its custodian and entrance. No-one else can see the world the way you see it. No-one else can feel your life the way you feel it. Thus, it is impossible to ever compare two people with each other because each stands on different ground. When you compare yourself to others, you are inviting envy into your consciousness; it can be a dangerous and destructive guest. This is always one of the great tensions in an awakened or spiritual life, namely, to find the rhythm of its unique language, perception and belonging. To remain faithful to your life requires commitment and vision that must be constantly reviewed.”

Quiet Prayer and Reflection

An Idle Day by Rabindranath Tagore

On many an idle day have I grieved over lost time.
But it is never lost, my Lord.
Thou hast taken every moment of my life in thine own hands.
Hidden in the heart of things Thou art nourishing seeds into sprouts,
Buds into blossoms and ripening flowers into fruitfulness.
I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed and imagined all work had ceased.
In the morning I woke up and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.

Reflection

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
attributed to Lao-tzu (c.604 – c.531 BCE)

We live in strange times, when in fact only journeys of a few miles are permitted, let alone a thousand! Nevertheless, we travel on through our lives. Without some of our usual reference points, without the physical presence of many others and being unsure what lies ahead. All of us will be experiencing this thing we call “lockdown” in different ways. Some will busier than usual; doctors, nurses, care workers, delivery drivers. More will be quieter; those who work in hospitality, travel, high street retail, hairdressers and beauticians to name a few. The young not attending school; the retired isolating, unable to pursue interests other than those which can be moved online or undertaken close to home. A walk in our local area, or a brief foray for food, perhaps our only outdoor adventure at the moment.

When I first read that quote from Lao-tzu I began to think about all the ways that we use the idea of “taking a step” in our proverbs, idioms, sayings and metaphors. If we were together I would ask you to shout a few out. Here’s some I thought of:

“One step at a time” – taking things steadily not planning to far ahead.
“Stepping over the line” or “out of line” – behaving inappropriately or disobediently.
Mind or watch your step – be careful!
Being out of step – not conforming.
A step too far – overreaching.
One step forward and two steps back – getting nowhere!
A difficult step to take – undertaking something challenging.
Taking the necessary steps, steps to improve…etc.
I’ll leave it there!

All very familiar and understandable in our culture. I imagine similar expressions must occur in other languages too, as walking/stepping is such a natural, familiar and basic thing to those of us that are ambulant. As we walk down the street toward a destination time passes and we have a sense of going forward. This seems to be consistent with our experience of time and our lives heading in one direction. So the step is simple to relate to, when we think about our lives and the decisions we make and our achievements. Think of Neil Armstrong’s quote as he walked on the moon, “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As those sayings about steps are not actually about walking, neither too is Lao-tzu’s adage. It is piece of wisdom to help us face a great task, or an overwhelming situation, in an incremental way. In Lao-tzu’s day such a journey would most likely have been made on foot, without modern conveniences and comforts, and perhaps with many perils to face along the way. Even today, imagine walking from Hastings to Scotland and back, which is about a thousand miles; it would still seem daunting to us. Which way would you go, where would you stay, what would you take with you, would you have the physical strength? A lot to be concerned about! But after you thought about these kind of things you only have one decision left if you are going to make the journey, which is, when to take that first step. Once you have done that you have started your journey.

If we look back at our own past, although we might not have recognized it at the time, we might see now how small steps have helped us when we have faced great personal difficulty or challenges. Challenges that at the time were like staring up at an enormous sheer cliff face. Seemingly impossible to surmount, blotting everything else from view. Making us feel small and helpless. But somehow we found a way through that time. Somehow we found a way around the cliff face, perhaps a gentler path, maybe a longer route. Maybe we needed help. Importantly we managed to go on, to live.

I saw a television program the other day which made me think of the enormous, and diverse types of challenges that people can face. It was one of those garden make over shows, where a team come in to do up a garden for someone who really needs it. A young girl had been the victim of freak accident where she had been severely burnt by boiling water. Her hands, arms, legs and feet were very badly damaged. She was left with mobility issues, pain, scars, and faced many years of ongoing treatment; and her mother, although not to blame, felt enormous guilt. The whole family were affected.

The girl however was a cheerful soul. She now had physical limitations but she continued to play and have fun as a little girl should. Her life wasn’t over, there were plenty of things she could achieve, there was plenty fun to be had, plenty of life to live. Her steps were difficult and painful, but she continued to take them and brought joy to those around her. It was wonderful to see her so full of life as she enjoyed her new garden. I was reminded that in Japanese Zen temples they have a wooden sounding board, or gong, which is struck periodically to signify that it is time for some part of the monks daily routine. On the board is written something like, “Life is full of fortune and misfortune, but cherish being alive, every single day. Take care, don’t waste time.” To me, the little girl in the television program was the living embodiment of this wisdom.

Two prayers come to mind:

In “The Way of the Boddisattva” Shantideva writes:
“If something can be done about it,
what need is there for dejection?
And if nothing can be done about it,
what use is there for being dejected?

And in his Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Neibuhr says,

“God, give us the grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Perhaps each of us needs to regularly hear the sound of the wooden gong in our hearts to remind us to cherish life despite its difficulties and challenges. Perhaps we need to learn from children who can find joy in the most desperate of circumstances, whether they are ill or living in a refugee camp.

We are greatly challenged as individuals and as communities at present, and we will need to work hard to help each other through. To remind ourselves what is important, or as John O’Donohue put it, to have a “vision that must be constantly reviewed”. As circumstances change we must keep asking, “where are we heading”? How can we live fully according to our values and beliefs in these times?

We are each unique in our outlook and our feelings, but we are not alone. Despite the challenges of life we are together. Together in the faith of our Unitarian community. Together in our love and caring. Together in hope. So let us gather ourselves then, this day, as we take one more step.

May it be so.

Hymn: 125 One More Step Along the World I Go (SYF)

Poem: The Waking by Theodore Roethke | Poetry Foundation

Closing Words: Time by Anon

Take time to think: it is the source of power.
Take time to play: it is the secret of perpetual youth.
Take time to read: it is the fountain of wisdom.
Take time to pray: it is the greatest power on earth.
Take time to love and to be loved: it is a God-given privilege.
Take time to be friendly: it is the road to happiness.
Take time to laugh: it is the music of the soul.
Take time to give: it is too short a day to be selfish.
Take time to work: it is the price of success.
Take time to do charity: it is the key to heaven.

Blessing

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 days;
and may the God of our understanding
be with us now and always.

Let us go now in peace.

New Year 2021 – The Invitation to Love

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

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice,
symbol of our faith community,
sign of our gathering,
beacon of love and hope.


Prayer

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

Quiet Prayer/Reflection

Reflection


Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
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.

Benediction

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.

The Light of Christmas – Sunday 20th December 2020

by Rev. Duncan Voice


Opening Words by Ellen Fay


It is the winter season of the year.
Dark and chilly.
Perhaps it is a winter season in your life?
Dark and chilly there, too.
Come into Christmas here.
Let the light and warmth of Christmas brighten our
Lives and world.
Let us find in the dark corners of our souls the
light of hope,
A vision of the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Let us find rest in the quiet of the holy moment to
find promise and renewal.
Let us find the child in each of us, the new hope,
the new light, born in us.
Then will Christmas come.

Chalice Lighting by Max Kapp (adapted)

Light a candle in the darkness,
And you pierce the gloom;
Light a candle in the shadows
And love fills the room;
Light a candle ‘mid a sadness
And stars come to birth.
Light a candle at Christmas time
And you mingle heaven and earth.

Prayer

God of Our Hearts, Source of all Being,

We gather.
We are together.
No matter the distance between us,
We are together.
In this community of love,
We are together.


We pause to remember those
Who cannot be with us.
Those whose passing comes to our mind
At this time.
Those friends and relatives who
We are missing.
We reach out in love
And bring them into the warmth of
Our hearts and our community.

In this time of Advent,
May we have patience with life
And know peace.
May we discover in our gathering
New hope, new joy and new inspiration.
May the light of love
Be our guiding star.

Reading – John 1: 1-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.


Music: The Holly and the Ivy


Reading: Why Not a Star by Margaret Gooding


They told me, that when Jesus was born, a star appeared in the heavens above a place where a young child lay.
When I was very young I had no trouble believing wondrous things; I believed in the star.
It was a wonderful miracle, part of a long ago story, foretelling an uncommon life.
They told me a super nova appeared in the heavens in its dying burst of fire.
When I was older and believed in science and reason, I believed the story of the star explained.
But I found I was unwilling to give up the star, fitting symbol for the birth of one whose uncommon life has been long remembered.
The star explained became the star understood, for Jesus, for Buddha, for Zarathustra.
Why not a star? Some bright star shines somewhere in the heavens each time a child is born.
Who knows what it may foretell? Who knows what uncommon life may yet again unfold, if we but give it a chance?


Quiet reflection


This Christmas by Cliff Reed

This Christmas I give thanks once more for the birth of Jesus,
For his message of the rule of love, and for the ultimate integrity with which he lived it.

This Christmas I give thanks for all the great souls who have turned our world towards the light, and for the bright festivals that remember them.

This Christmas I give thanks for all the blessings in my life and for the love that has enfolded and inspired me from my own birth to this present moment.

This Christmas I give thanks for my family: those present in fond and sacred memory; those still around me, laying down new memories for our lives’ enrichment.

This Christmas I give thanks for friends both close and distant (however that be understood) and for all who share with me the path of life and faith.

This Christmas I give thanks for the past year, touched as it was by both grief and joy; by the silence of death’s shadow, and by the song’s of life’s celebration.

This Christmas I give thanks for this glorious universe; for the divine in nature and moments of insight and rapture; for the companionship of all who share the breath of life.

This Christmas I feel shame for our weakness, unkindness, and stupidity; for our failure to care for each other and for our earth; but I give thanks that sometimes we care enough to be ashamed.

This Christmas I give thanks that, in our caring, God calls us to continue the struggle for love and truth and righteousness, and gives us the heart to do so.

This Christmas I give thanks for you, my fellow pilgrims. And I wish you and all the earth the blessings of healing, peace and restoration.

Amen

Music: Walking in the Air, Howard Blake, Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reflection


Tomorrow is the winter solstice, when we who live in the northern hemisphere of our beloved planet, experience the shortest day and the longest night. A time of year, also, when those who celebrate Christmas decorate their houses both inside and out. So, if we walk around our cities, towns and villages we find spectacular illuminations. Glowing Christmas trees, Santas and reindeer, lights of many colours and decorations of great variety that shine on dark evenings. And above us, if not obscured by street lights, or clouds, the beautiful night sky of winter, full of stars.
It seems to me that many people have put their decorations out early this year, or perhaps it is just that I’ve noticed them more? Maybe we are all looking for something to light up our lives this year? I must say that I have not always been a fan of Christmas lights in previous years. Sometimes I thought them a bit tacky and, well, maybe a visible manifestation of the festival of the consumerism, that I perceived Christmas had become. But I see them differently this year. I see them for the joy they bring to many people, as they decorate our streets and our lives. An important symbol of hope in the face of difficulties caused by the pandemic.
Christmas lights are a relatively new phenomenon, that have really taken off in recent years with the introduction bright LED lights; which are much more reliable and can be used in more diverse ways compared to the old bulbs. Apparently in 1935 Selfridges, in London, was the first store in the UK to put up lights in the form of illuminated Christmas trees, but the second world war curtailed any further developments. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Regent Street Association clubbed together and paid for strings of Christmas lights; with rival Oxford Street following suit a few years later. Even then it hasn’t been a smooth ride, as the lights have been switched off a number of times due to lack of funds and recessions, including for an extended period during the 1970s.
Now, most towns have some kind of display and some private households are literally covered in lights; sometimes attracting spectators and supporting charities.
So my suspicions of a link between modern Christmas lights and consumerism weren’t unfounded. But whilst I am still concerned about non-sustainable over-consumption of goods and energy, plastic pollution, and the effects on our planet. I also recognize that currently a lot of people’s livelihoods rely on this season of celebration. Redundancies in some areas of the economy such as hospitability have increased dramatically due to the current Covid-19 restrictions. Adding another dimension of suffering to an already extraordinarily difficult time. So this year I welcome the Christmas lights.
Decorating our houses and towns with electric lights may be a relatively new thing, but our use of light in its many forms is ancient. Not just in the physical sense, but in using it as one of the great symbols or metaphors in religion. Light, as fundamental as it is to our physical well-being, is yet mysterious and intangible in some ways; making it a good way to help describe such things as love, spiritual understanding, the Divine, revelation and much more. There are 335 references to light in the Bible, including some of the most memorable phrases.
“Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Genesis 1: 3
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119: 105
“No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light.” Luke 8: 16
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” John 8: 12
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” Matthew 14
“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me.” Acts 22: 6
And our reading earlier from the Gospel of John was full of light references, ending with “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
Of course the use of light in religion is not confined to Christianity. Last week was the Jewish Festival of Lights, or Hannukah, where each night over the eight day holiday a candle or oil lamp is lit. Back in November Hindus, Jains and Sikhs celebrated their own Festival of Lights, Diwali; celebrating the “victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance”.
Light can be awesome and beautiful. It must have seemed magical to ancient folks and it still fascinates us today. Is the anything like a spectacular sunrise or sunset to lift our spirit. But light can also be soft gentle and welcoming, like the lamp in the stable. It can bring us home to others and ourselves, and guide us, like the light of the star. We all need something to shine for us in some way. To give us hope and bring us joy.
In part of our earlier reading from Cliff Reed, written before the pandemic, he gave thanks for the past year. I almost deleted it. Surely it is a year to forget! But then I thought, that would be to neglect what we have learnt, or what we should have learnt. For example if we have not been able to see someone or do something we may now realise how important they are. Perhaps we won’t take so much for granted in the future and possibly we will be even more grateful for the simple pleasures of life? Difficulties can teach us much if we let them, and suffering can allow our compassion to grow if it touches our heart.

This Christmas we can’t gather in the ways we might want to, or indeed are used to, but let us spend some time considering with gratitude the light that is already in our lives; whatever form that takes. Let us spend a little time considering our guiding light; and how we might connect better with that. Let us still celebrate as best as we can. The beautiful light, the awesome light, the light of friendship, the light of inspiration, the light of hope, the light of joy, the light of love that darkness cannot overcome. Let us celebrate it and share it in the ways that we can. Let us be a light in the world. Amen

Music: Ding Dong! Merrily on High, John Rutter


I Will Light Candles this Christmas – inspired by Howard Thurman


I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of courage for pandemic adversity,
Candles of hope for poverty severity,
Candles of compassion for lonely despair,
Candles of peace for hearts full of hatred,
Candles of friendship for broken community,
Candles of gratitude for all that I have,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.

Benediction


As we leave here may we go with joy and peace
in our hearts.
May the blessings of Christmas be upon us,
and may the God of our understanding
be with us now and always.
Amen

Sunday 22nd November 2020

I hope this finds you well. You may like to light your own candle when the chalice is being lit.

Warm wishes and blessings to you all.

Jennifer Sanders – Lay Pastor – Hastings Unitarian Church

Opening words

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity. – John F. Kennedy

Chalice Lighting

This is our commitment to the sacred , the God of our own understanding . May this light illuminate our hearts and minds setting aside all that we think we know for a new experience and deeper connection to the divine.
May it offer a beacon of hope to all that seek spiritual wholeness

Prayers

As we come together in prayer
Divine power, light and love we come together this morning in worship as a community, to remind ourselves of or spiritual bond that is greater and more powerful in this moment than our isolation – Amen

Our opening words are powerful in their meaning and because 57 years ago today JF Kennedy was assassinated by a sniper while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.

Many, who are old enough will remember where they were when this assassination took place . It was perhaps the first time that a significant event, that was to change a nation’s history , had been recorded in real time.
Other significant moments in our lives that changed the course of history were 9/11 and nearer to home 7/7. There was no time to prepare for these and they seemingly came out of nowhere.
A couple of weeks ago we remembered those who faced great danger and gave their lives to defend our freedom. Most recently, all of us will probably remember where we were when our prime minister
informed us that we were about to enter a national lockdown.

These events are imprinted in our memory where perhaps other things dull with time bringing with them fear, danger and uncertainty.

Covid has had such a significant impact on us all. It will be months, maybe even years before the history books can look back on this crisis with some distance and fully evaluate its impact.
For now all of us here are carrying its effects in our personal way .

And what we have all felt at some point is a sense of danger, of fear, confusion about how to protect ourselves, worry about when and if it will ever end.
Just like other events that change the course of history this too will do the same as we are shaped by the experiences we have.
But what does this mean in the context of our spiritual life, the relationship with the God of our understanding, the higher power, the divine spirit and the God in us all ?

Our first reading comes from Lyn Ungar, a UU minister and was written early on in Lockdown and although our restrictions during this period are seemingly not as severe the words ring true just the same

It is entitled Pandemic,

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

A popular meme circulating on social media quotes that to avoid spreading the coronavirus, you avoid physical contact and don’t go into large crowds. To which the “introvert” replies: “I’ve been training for this moment my whole life.”
As are those who have a regular and extensive practice in meditation who are used to time in solitude
But for many of us the opportunity to do things differently has been a challenge.

We have had to dig deep for that sense of resilience for ways to do things differently
For many we have been given time to reassess, to go slower, to identify and sift through. We have needed to drink from the well of the spirit not just once but multiple times.

Chakell Wardleigh a Christian writer and story teller talks about being an overly anxious person—someone who lies awake at night replaying minor awkward encounters from each day and worrying incessantly about things that “might” happen.
These past few months have left her feeling like a marionette puppet, anxiety and fear controlling her limbs and strings, leaving her crumpled in an exhausted heap by the end of each day.
She asks if we can relate ? I certainly can!

And what she has been certain about is the opportunities that the crisis of the pandemic has brought her – Namely stillness, connection and faith.

The Opportunity to Be Still
I am a busybody. I don’t like to sit still. I feel uncomfortable in silence. I often catch myself listening to audiobooks or scrolling through social media to fill my free time. But I’m trying to be more mindful in my life, and I’ve realised that I use distractions to protect myself from anxiety and from acknowledging uncomfortable feelings. As much as I dislike acknowledging them at the time, when I don’t allow myself to feel my feelings and be still, everything builds up inside to the point where I can hardly feel anything, including the Spirit.
While there are definitely times when I need to get up and respond to what’s happening around me, occasionally being still is essential to my emotional and, more importantly, my spiritual health.
Perhaps this time is a rare opportunity to practice stillness—to invite the Spirit and learn how it communicates with me.

The Opportunity to Reconnect
The distractions of the world can often disconnect me from what is most precious and important. The 4 key four key relationships: with our God, with our families, with our fellowman, and with ourselves.”
I know I could be doing better at connecting with these vital relationships in my life. And even as we are asked to become more isolated physically, we are being blessed with time to check in with ourselves, to converse with God, to spend time with the people we love, and to serve and minister to others—especially through the blessing of technology.

The Opportunity to Refine Your Faith
A few months ago I was driving up a mountain on a very foggy night. The fog was so thick that at one point I saw nothing but a wall of white in front of me. My knuckles were clenched around my steering wheel, and my stomach churned with nerves. But I trusted I would reach the top of the mountain if I just kept going. Suddenly the fog cleared, like it had never even existed.
As I looked down from the top of the mountain, I could see everything clearly below. I started thinking about those “foggy” moments life can throw at us. I feel like this pandemic is one of those foggy moments. Although I can’t see what’s coming, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead and contagious panic might feel suffocating.
I believe that faith is choosing to move forward every day, trusting in the greater good even when I am afraid.
When it feels that there is nothing more I can do, I can choose to trust God. I take comfort.

As the days and months go on, the unknown qualities of the pandemic may be alleviated. But in the meantime, we need spiritual practices to lessen the impact of fear and uncertainty. These practices are not intended to sugarcoat or lessen the very real dangers of this global health emergency.
Like the words of JF Kennedy we remain aware of the dangers but seek out the opportunities to be with the sacred, commit to our spiritual growth and keep our connections with ourselves and others

So we take the essence of Chakell Wardleigh opportunities within a crisis of stillness reconnection and faith into an extended period of reflection.

Take some time to be still in your space being reminded of the connection that you have with what is sacred to you and the larger sacred connection we share this morning . You may wish to close your eyes.

Ever loving God, the source of all, we bring our broken selves to you to set aside all that we think we know for a new experience and deeper understating of your love .

Focusing on my breathing
In and out
I can hear the air flow
I can see the sky so high
Like a very accommodating blanket
Dark yet not scary. Without stars.
Hand on my heart
I am reconnecting with myself
When was the last time
I visit myself? Asking ‘how are you?’
For so long I have taken myself for granted
To live for their acceptance
Siblings, colleagues, friends and bosses
When was the last time I treated myself kindly?
Just like a best friend, telling her ‘You are doing fine’
When suppressed tears drop
It’s a caring comfort!
Me with myself.
Seize the moment.

We take some minutes to be with ourselves, ask ourselves how we are and hold ourselves in kindness and compassion . I will ring the bell when it is time to move on

Pause for a few minutes

In the stillness
I feel
I listen
I face my truth
In the stillness
I see
I acknowledge my needs
I let go
In the stillness
I receive
I rejuvenate
I heal
In the stillness
I reconnect
I am one with everything

We take these words of the poem Stillness by Karen Lang into an extended period of stillness

Pause for a few minutes

My lord god I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I eventually know myself and the fact that I think that I am doing your will does not mean that I’m actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact please you .
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire .
And I know that if I do that you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it .
Therefore I will trust you always though I appear to be lost in the shadow of death. I
will not fear , for you are ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone.

by Thomas Merton

We sit together in silent prayer for that connection to be strengthened, to be reminded of its ever present love of nourishment and sustenance

Pause for a few minutes

As our time for silent reflection draws to a close we bring ourselves back to our online community and those that are reading the service from home and we pray together using the words of the Rev Diane Berke

As we feel ourselves enveloped and embraced and surrounded by that limitless, boundless love, we begin to bring to mind those in our lives that we love, whose well-being and health and safety is so very precious to us. In consciousness,

We bring to mind all of those who are ill, not only with coronavirus but with any of the illnesses that plague humanity.

We lift up all of those, all over the world, who are living in such fear right now,

We lift up our leaders and all those with the power of decision making, and we ask that love surround and enter them as wisdom, as strength.

And we lift up the whole of humanity, what beautiful, fragile, tender magnificent beings we are. We ask that this be the moment that the eyes of our hearts are open and that we recognise truly we are all family and we learn to live wisely in deep care and compassion for the well-being of all.

We ask that this knowing of connection be a balm to any sense of loneliness and isolation and disconnection so many are feeling right now. And we ask for the inspiration and the willingness to reach out, to be a presence of encouragement, of strength, of kindness, of reassurance, of compassion to one another.

And finally, we offer you ourselves. We place ourselves, our loved ones, our precious world in Your hands. You know the way to healing. Please show us the way.
Blessed be, Amen

As we leave may we be blessed by the healing power of community and the connection to the divine replenishing out hearts minds and souls
And so it is