Sunday 18th October – Success and Failure

Extracts from this morning’s Service at The Old Meeting House, by Rev. Duncan Voice

Story

Once upon a time, a woodcarver made a magnificent statue, a true work of art greatly admired by one and all. Even his sovereign, Prince Li, was full of praise and asked him for his secret. The sculptor replied, “How can I, a humble man and your servant, possibly have a secret from you? I have no secret, nor is my art anything special. I shall tell you, however, how my work was done. When I decided to carve a statue, I observed that I was too full of vanity and pride. So, I worked for two days to rid myself of these sins, and believed I was then cleansed of them. But presently I discovered that I was impelled by envy of a colleague. Again, I worked for two days to overcome my envy. Thereupon I found I longed greatly for praise. It took me another two days to make this longing vanish. Finally, however, I noticed that I kept thinking of how much money I might get for the statue. This time I needed four days, but at last I felt free and strong. I went to the woods and when I found a pine tree and felt we suited each other, I felled it, took it to my house and set to work.
(from Etty Hillesum: The Complete Works 1941-1943)

Reading:

Luke 9: 23-25

23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

Reflection

In a book of quotations that I have, called “1001 quotations to inspire you before you die”, there is one by the former first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. It says, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” It was apparently taken from a self-help book that she wrote called “You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life”, published in 1960. The specific chapter was called “Fear – the Great Enemy”. The full passage, from which the quote was taken, goes like this,

“The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to get to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I like the idea of challenging myself to do a thing I think I cannot do, but was she really serious about that penultimate sentence, “You must succeed every time”? Really! Eleanor Roosevelt was 76 years old when that book was published 60 years ago, so perhaps it represents a different time? An early version of the many self-help books that have been published since by people who have succeeded in in life. Or at least believe they have! Nevertheless, I still find it an extraordinarily unforgiving and ultimately self-defeating sentence, because who succeeds every time? Let alone when faced with something they fear. And if you think you have succeeded all the time, have you really pushed the boundaries of what you believe is possible? In other words, if you have not experienced failure have you really lived?

She is right however I think, that fear can inhibit us and drain our confidence; and fear of not succeeding can be included in that. But what is success in life anyway? We measure the success of individual tasks such as passing an exam simply enough; you meet a set requirement and you are counted as successful, or not as the case may be! Some people are really good at that, but even this simply scenario doesn’t give the whole picture of everyone’s journey to that point. Real life is much more complicated than pass or fail, and many things that are important are not measurable.

But we do laud people as being successful in life. Often in quite superficial ways too. The most obvious being those who are rich and famous. We shower them with praise or awards, admire their achievements, their perfect bodies, their shiny white teeth, their style and elegance and extravagance; but then we also savour the moments when it all comes crashing down around them. They weren’t so perfect after all it turned out. They were human too! Never mind, bring on the next bright young thing!

Success in professional sport is another area of narrow focus in our society. Many of us follow some kind of sport and cheer when our athlete wins gold or our team wins the cup, but for every winner there are of course many more losers. When only winning is considered a success, people go to extraordinary lengths to do so. Some use illegal methods, such as taking performance enhancing drugs or resorting to other forms of cheating. Such is the desire to win at any cost.

Think also of recent reports of physical and mental abuse emerging from the world of UK gymnastics. I heard one gymnast saying recently, that she would gladly exchange her hard won medal to have not experienced the torment she went through on the road to success. All eyes were on the prize of winning. Most people never saw, or didn’t want to see, the pain and misery she was enduring. The real cost of this so-called success.

There is no doubt that achieving excellence in any field of human endeavour, whether it is science, sport, music, literature or something else, requires great talent, dedication and hard work; and almost certainly the support of a great many other people too. And although we should be wary about the potential cost, why not celebrate success that may bring benefits and/or joy to millions. But most of the world’s human population never experience this elevated status themselves or achieve “greatness”. Will never appear in the halls of fame or be included in the history books. Where does that leave us? Are we the failures, the losers? Well, only in the sense that everyone is, but as nobody succeeds all the time, nobody loses all the time either.

We all experience success and failure, although it may not always be apparent to us which is which sometimes. Not only that, both success and failure have two faces, not all success turns out to be good, not all failure is bad. Also, too, the completion of a particular task or episode in a life, is not necessarily the end of the story. And in any case completing tasks or achieving objectives, is only part of living.

Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and spiritual author, says this,

“Success has a great deal more to do with being than gaining. Whatever we gain can be taken away from us by [others]. But real success rests on what we become, that is not given to us to us by anyone but ourselves.”

In other words, becoming who, or what, we really are, instead of what someone else says we should be. Shedding unhelpful motivations, like the wood carver in our story, to discover a more honest and authentic way of being; and accepting the consequences of that, possibly less money, less prestige, etc. Finding some sense of fulfilment, peace or happiness.

In this way our failures contribute to the success of our being too. Our mistakes and our vulnerabilities, don’t define us in totality, but they are part of us. They colour our being. Art Lester, in the concluding remarks of his article “Learning from Losers” that we from heard earlier says,

“What are we afraid of, really? Being discovered to be weak, vulnerable, corruptible, insecure? Of being found out? Well, that’s just three letters away from the heartfelt desire of us all: being found. Being found to be human. Being ourselves, being known.”

It is such a relief, where we don’t feel successful, to be able to talk about our problems and issues and feel we have been listened to. To feel we have been understood. When I meet with other Ministers, we often have an in-gathering where we meet in small groups and we each have the opportunity to talk for, 10 or 15, minutes about where our heart is at that time. Great trust is required for this to work, but it is a valuable opportunity to reveal that hidden part us. To say, what for one reason or another, we cannot usually say. Each time, a new moment, something different.

Success and failure do matter in many areas of life, but sometimes we can step out of these judgements. At our meditation group for example, as part of our practice, we try to steer clear of notions of success and failure. We are not trying to be the best meditator, not failing when we can’t sit still or our minds are full of busyness. Our approach is to try and accept the experience of our meditation for what it is, which changes each time we take our seat. Of course, I’m sure we all judge it at some time, but non-judgement is our aspiration. It may not be applicable to all aspects of our lives, but it is helpful, I think, to inhabit a different way of being at times. In particular in our spiritual lives, where we might turn for nourishment and peace.

Each of us will have a different outlook on life, and different views about what we think is important and therefore have different motivations for our actions. But sometimes it is perhaps worth reflecting that it is the small things, that may go unnoticed by most people, that may be the most important. Caring for someone, listening, living gently alongside nature, creating beauty and those small acts of kindness. And as one famous storyteller Aesop said, “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Perhaps success in life is in fact simpler than we ever imagined.

May it be so.

Music: (Something Inside) So Strong by Mica Paris

May we all discover that “something” inside,
and may it make us strong as we face difficulty,
and may it help us to show compassion for others in their time of difficulty.

Sunday 11th October – Life, Meaning and Purpose

A short reflection by Rev. Duncan Voice

“Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything or you look at your own life and your part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and interest and praise. Beyond all and in all is God.
Perhaps the book of life, in the end, is the book of what one has lived and if one has lived nothing, he is not in the book of life.
And I have always wanted to write a book about everything.
That does not mean to write a book that covers everything – that would be impossible. But a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of everything. That has its own beautiful life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a book.

Thomas Merton
(When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, Sorin Books)

Reflection

Looking out of the window of my study I see a crane fly, or daddy long-legs, resting on the other side of the glass. It is that time of year when these gangly creatures appear, as if from nowhere. For a few weeks they fly about crazily outside, and straight into the house if the door is open; bumping into walls and ceilings and windows, before their short life ends. I usher them out if I can, but sometimes I come across a small body on the windowsill or floor. Is my crane fly waiting for the right moment to go search for a mate, or is it’s life nearly over? Any last thoughts? Was it all worth it?

The annual flight of the crane flies no doubt provides a food bonanza for some bird species, but some people are not so keen. A daddy long-legs bumping into your face, or hair, isn’t pleasant, but in truth they are otherwise harmless. It is easy to simply dismiss them as an irritant though, a pest or an inconvenience; and certainly not easy to understand their life. First as a larva, a leather-jacket as we call them, and then as an adult who lives for just 10 to 15 days. They have no human qualities; and they are not fluffy or cuddly or cute. No personality that we can discern, no uses to us. In other words, not easy to love. So we may see them as having little worth, but perhaps such a view just shows the limits of our willingness to understand, and the narrowness of our perspective.

Scientists believe the humble crane fly has been around since the early cretaceous period, which was about 140 to 145 million years ago. They’ve been a great success as a species, surviving many mass extinction episodes and outliving the dinosaurs by many millions of years. They can survive in a variety of environments and cousins of the crane fly on my window inhabit every continent on Earth, except Antarctica. Consider how many crane flies there are in the world. Think of their yearly life-cycle repeating for 145 million years. Imagine an ancestry that went back that far! The point is we can’t, really. We can’t really appreciate those time scales, the variety and scope of crane fly existence; and certainly not what it means to be a crane fly; a part of this wondrously successful species. And yet, life courses through them as it does us, we are connected.

I don’t know what a crane fly thinks when he looks at me. Probably not much as he has a very small brain, and this is considered to be a distinguishing feature between most animals and humans. Our larger brains enable us to undertake complex reasoning, problem solving and to reflect, to be aware of ourselves and the world around us to some extent. It’s tempting to therefore consider ourselves superior, but as the saying goes, this is like comparing chalk and cheese. Life is expressed in many varied ways and notions of superiority seem misplaced and irrelevant I feel.

This is expressed quite beautifully in the Tao Te Ching:

“Every being in the universe
is an expression of the Tao.
It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being
spontaneously honours the Tao.

The Tao is the natural order of things, the nameless essential life force, and every being is said to be an expression of this. In other words, everything has its own place in the great cycle of life and its own value. A crane fly does what is does, simply and naturally, as far as we can tell. It is not really for us to attribute meaning to its life, but we can respect it as being as being a wonderful expression of life. In our own lives though, we do seek meaning.

Unfortunately, another unique ability that humans have is for causing death and destruction to our own species and others on a huge scale. Sometimes through intention, sometimes through ignorance. Our activities so often seem to be contrary to the natural way of things, harming life and the environment. In order to stop these destructive cycles, we need take a clearer view and develop a greater awareness of all that is around us, and with which we are inextricably linked. All that is around us, not just the useful or the beautiful.

In our reading Thomas Merton invites us to consider the potential of the natural world for helping us with our reflections on our life’s meaning when he says, “look at your own life and your part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into infinite further possibilities.” So perhaps we can use our ability, this gift that we have for reflection, to do just that. To seek understanding through a gentle curiosity and approach our interactions with the natural world with reverence, respect and wonder. To find purpose in caring, and healing the wounds of the world. A difficult task for sure, a struggle like life itself sometimes, but surely one that is of the greatest value.

May it be so.

The theologian Dorothee Soelle said, “What do prayer and poetry have in common? They connect us with our hopes. They take us out of hopeless misery. They remind us of our purpose.” (Dorothee Soelle Essential Writings, Orbis Books)
So, we close with a poem and a prayer.

Poem

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high I the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(From “Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver, Penguin Press)

Prayer

The Light of day

So long as we enjoy the light of day
may we greet one another with love.
So long as we enjoy the light of day
May we pray for one another.
(A native North American prayer: Zuni)

I enjoy film music, and I found this version of a beautiful piece of music from composer John Williams. Used in the film Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, it is called “A Window to the Past”. I hope you enjoy it too.

Sunday 26th September – Our Hidden Courage

A short reflection by Rev. Duncan Voice

I have walked the long road to freedom.
I have tried not to falter;
I have made missteps along the way.
But I have discovered the secret that
after climbing a great hill,
one only finds
that there are many more hills to climb.
I have taken a moment here to rest,
To steal a view of the glorious vista
that surrounds me,
to look back on the distance I have come.
But I can only rest for a moment,
for freedom comes with responsibilities,
and I dare not linger,
for my long walk is not yet ended.
Nelson Mandela

When I was young, and a member of my local scout group, we once went abseiling at some nearby rock formations. I’m not talking about huge mountains or formidable sheer cliffs, but some sandstone outcrops about 5 or 6 metres high. Standing at the bottom looking up they didn’t look too high to my 12-year-old self; but looking down was a different matter. The ground looked a long way off! Then I discovered that abseiling meant leaning backwards over the edge, at 90 degrees to the rockface, and walking down while suspended from a rope. Fear began to rise within me and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do it, or indeed could do it!

Hanging back, I watched as my friends went over the edge. Some seemingly relishing the moment they leaned back and disappeared from view. I’m sure some of them were nervous too, but I was too consumed by own sense of impending doom to notice. My nervousness just seemed to be increasing! Finally, they had all gone and there was just me, a scout leader and an instructor. Nowhere to hide now. Could I make some kind of excuse? No, it was too late, I stepped forward to be strapped into the harness and attached to the ropes.

I shuffled towards the edge. My friends milling around below, some waiting for me to finish so that they could have a second go. I positioned myself on the edge looking at the instructor. “Just gradually lean back”, he said. A surge of fear, no I couldn’t do it. Another try and another, still I stood on the edge. Every time I leaned back; my fear made me want to lean forward. Each time this happened, I heard patient words of encouragement from the leaders, “It’s ok, take your time”. I was certainly doing that! By now I had become the centre of attention. Some shouts of encouragement from below. Just lean back. Then somehow it happened. I was standing on the rockface suspended by a rope, looking at the sky. That, I learned, was the difficult bit over. The walk down was relatively easy, and as I neared the ground, I actually enjoyed it – a bit. A small leap for mankind, but a giant one for me!

Once was enough for me that day though. It never became a hobby, but I did do again, once or twice. Later that day my scout leader came over to me and said he was proud of me for overcoming my fear. He said it takes courage to face your fears. That it was ok to be afraid and that there would be no courage needed if I hadn’t been afraid. I thought he was probably just been nice, but over the years I have come to appreciate the truth of this, how there are many times that we need this thing we call courage to help us through our difficulties; and how transformative and important the difficulties that cause us fear can be. Of course, during life’s ups and downs sometimes our courage fails us, but as long as we live, we have the chance to try, or start, again.

As a 12-year-old I didn’t have to go abseiling, but in another sense I did. I wanted to try it as my friends had, and so somehow, I had to face my fear. Fear makes us want to run away and hide. We want it to go away or for someone else to sort it out, but if we are going to do what we need to do, we need to dig deep, as the saying goes. The words and support of others help us, but we need to do it ourselves. In some circumstances, and at times in our lives, we may have very low reserves of courage though; we can feel tired, beaten and thoroughly wretched. But the potential for cultivating courage always exists within us I feel, we just somehow need to discover, or unlock, the hidden treasure of our inner strength. However, opening ourselves up to the fear that we have can be incredibly challenging.

I’m not a psychologist, but I know that people are very complicated and that for some people professional help and support is needed for them to face their fears. We might perhaps think it seems much safer to keep our fears hidden rather than have them exposed. We might feel we are much less vulnerable that way; but there is nothing wrong or shameful about being afraid. When we begin to understand this, we can cultivate compassion towards ourselves, and others who may be feeling fearful, especially in times of difficulty such as the pandemic. In fact, if we are experiencing some fear too, it helps us to empathise and to have the desire to help and support others.


True courage is not about superheroes, it is a quality of the heart and can be observed in everyday people as they face life’s challenges. However, I have been greatly inspired recently by the life of Etty Hillesum who I quoted from in my last Service. I recommend reading Patrick Woodhouse’s book “Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed” as an introduction to her. Her spiritual journey in the face of the most terrifying of circumstances, the holocaust, encourages me to believe in the potential within us when we begin to understand ourselves. She speaks to us across time, to share a message of great possibility and hope. Patrick Woodhouse says:

“Etty interrupts the mood of our time and invites us to be courageous. Courage was perhaps her greatest virtue. With courage she faced up to her personal chaos and found her self; with courage she went deeper in her journey of exploration and discovered the divine ground of her heart; with courage she refused to hate; and with courage she refused to hide, choosing to embrace the fate of her people and loose her life. She showed that a truly human life is lived on the courageous paradoxical path of self-discovery and self-emptying. So, in the midst of darkness she found joy, and was alive in that place despite the power of death.”

May we find the courage we need in our times of difficulty and help when we need it. May we learn from our struggles and difficulties to become encouragers and healers.

“We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds”
The final words in Etty Hillesum’s diary, 13th October 1942.

You may like to sit for a few moments of quite reflection before reading our closing words from John O’Donohue.

For Courage by John O’Donohue

When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as stone inside,

When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world,

Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.

Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark.
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
Will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!

Excerpt from Benedictus: A book of Blessings by John O’ Donohue, published by Bantam Press

Sunday 20th September 2020

By Rev. Duncan Voice

Here is the transcript from some of our Service at Ditchling this morning. Unfortunately we are not able to include all the readings, but have referenced them. We met for the first time in six months which was lovely, but we are aware that not everyone had this opportunity. So here is our humble offering:

Opening

We come to this time and this place:
To rediscover the wonderous gift of free religious community;
To renew our faith in the holiness, goodness, and beauty of life;
To reaffirm the way of the open mind and the full heart;
To rekindle the flame of memory and hope; and
To reclaim the vision of an earth made fair, with all her people one.

Chalice Lighting

We light this flame,
this symbol of energy,
of light, of life,
to remind us:
of the energy within us,
of the light of our life,
of the light that is in us,
of the light that is us.

words by Janet Goode

Prayer/meditation

Spirit of life, God of our understanding,
As we gather once again in our beloved meeting house,
in an attitude of prayerfulness,
each in our own way;
we are thankful for this opportunity to be together,
and for the blessing of the present moment.

We pause to remember those who cannot be with us:
those who we care for and who we are concerned for,
those whose passing comes to our mind at this time.
We hold them in our hearts,
during this time of peace.

Some of us bring with us our doubts and questions,
may these help us to grow in spirit.
Some of us bring with us our anxieties and problems,
may these help us to grow in self-awareness and caring.
Some of us bring with us our gifts and our loves,
may these help us to grow in joy and sharing.

May we see the beauty that is in the world around us,
to lift our souls and restore hope to our hearts.
May we walk a path of peace and happiness together,
helping others as we go.
May we act as a balm to heal the wounds of the world.

Amen

Story: The Mice Who Taught the Monk to Smile

Our story this morning was taken from the book “Kindness” by Sarah Conover

Reading

by Albert Sweitzer (1875 –1965)

Albert Sweitzer was born in Germany, later becoming a French citizen. He was a theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher and physician.

“I do not believe that we can put into anyone ideas which are not in them already. As a rule, there are in everyone all sorts of good ideas, ready like tinder. But much of this tinder catches fire, or catches it successfully, only when it meets some flame or spark from outside, i.e., from some other person. Often, too, our own light goes out, and is rekindled by some experience we go through with a fellow-human. Thus, we have each of us, cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted flames within us. If we had before us those who have thus been a blessing to us, and could tell them how it came about, they would be amazed to learn what had passed over from their life into ours.”

Albert Schweitzer, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth

Music: Simple Gifts, Aaron Copeland

Reading:

Our second reading this morning was taken from Parker J. Palmer’s book “A Hidden Wholeness, and was called the “Blizzard of the World.”

Quiet reflection

Hymn/music – Finlandia (Live) by Jean Sibelius, Cantus

Address

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way let your light shine before others…” Matthew 5: 14-16

I have always found those words from the Gospel of Matthew to be uplifting and inspiring. As someone who is inclined to be a little introvert and quiet, it reminds me not to use this as an excuse to hide away like the monk in our earlier story; returning to the cave of myself and becoming gloomy and cynical about the world and all its problems. I am encouraged to let my light, whatever that may be, shine. To have the courage to follow the call within, to try to do some good in the world. How does it speak to you?

I was interested to read an article in the latest edition of The Inquirer magazine by Jenny Miller, an Interfaith Minister and friend of Godalming Unitarians, which was called “Nursing your calling”. It talks about Florence Nightingale’s path into nursing, something that she felt she was called to do. At the age of just 16, she wrote in her diary, “God spoke to me and called me into his service”. However, it would take many more years before she was able to pursue the nursing work that she so yearned to do, as her family did not support it to begin with. Probably not the sort of thing that a well-to-do young lady of the times was supposed to do. But her mind, and her heart, was set on this ambition and she refused two offers of marriage as she waited, with increasing frustration, to do what she felt she was meant to be doing. As we know she did eventually make it; and when she did, she faced many more struggles and challenges.

We would call pursuing such a path a vocation. A word which has its origin in the Latin word vocare, which means to call. How do you feel about the idea of a “calling”? Have you ever experienced such a thing?
I suppose Florence Nightingale’s conviction that God spoke to her would not resonate with everyone these days, but whatever it was that she felt she experienced, it clearly went very deep. The path she chose was unconventional for the times, difficult and potentially dangerous. She could have had a comfortable life, but she felt she had to do it; there was no other life for her. Jenny Miller goes on to say in her article;

“It is said that to “be who you are” is the great secret of spiritual work and so I wonder how many of us have had tender feelings of the soul urging us to go into unconventional directions in life and how difficult it is to discern a sense of calling in our own lives. As Julia Mourant writes, “It is quite possible to be deeply rooted in your faith, be a person of prayer, belong to a worshipping community, faithfully serve and give of yourself and yet, and yet…..still be wondering: “What on earth am I here for?” You may…..feel sure that there is something that you should be doing, if only you could discover what it is.” This reminds me of a saying by Rumi which encourages us all to find the “one thing” which is ours to do.

David Spangler, spiritual writer and teacher says, “A true spiritual calling is not task-oriented (though there may be many tasks involved); it is being oriented. It is something we must do because if we don’t, we won’t be ourselves. We won’t find wholeness and fulfilment ….We all have a spiritual call”, he says.”

Florence Nightingale’s spiritual calling, to nurse the sick, seems to have been clear to her from an early age and although she had to fight to pursue it, she had a fairly clear outlet for her desire to help others. For many of us it may not be so clear or indeed we may not be sure that such a thing exists or could happen for us. However, David Spangler suggests it is not so much about the tasks that need to be done, but about how about we chose to be. In other words, perhaps, if we can be a certain way, this will guide us. Giving us the love, the insight, the courage or whatever it is we need, to do that which ours to do.

One of the most remarkable examples of this that I know is that of Etty Hillesum. Etty was a Dutch Jewish student living in Amsterdam during the second world war. She kept diaries and wrote letters which revealed her spiritual journey during the time of Nazi occupation and how she came to terms with the suffering she encountered. During this terrible period of time, she underwent a transformation, a spiritual awakening, although up until then she had not been involved in organised religion. She helped and inspired those with whom she suffered, and later generations too, when her diaries were published and her story started to become known.

Here is an excerpt from her diaries where, as the situation worsens in occupied Holland, and Jewish people are being transported to the East and never heard from again, she reflects on being urged by others to go into hiding. However, her growing understanding of herself and her spirituality is guiding her on a different path:

“People often get worked up when I say it doesn’t matter whether I go or someone else does, the main thing is that so many thousand have to go. It is not as if I want to fall into the arms of destruction with a resigned smile – far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable, and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately, they cannot rob us of anything that matters. I certainly do not want to go out of some kind of masochism, to be torn away from what has been the basis of my existence these last few years. But I don’t think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding because I have so to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there in the concentration camp. And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses. And if God himself should feel that I still have a great deal to do, well then, I shall do it after I have suffered what all the others have to suffer. And whether or not I am a valuable human being will become clear only from my behaviour in more arduous circumstances. And if I should not survive, how I die will show me who I really am.”
Extract from “Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed” by Patrick Woodhouse.

I find her words to be very moving and powerful. Her understanding of her “being” has moved beyond self-preservation, to one of true concern for others, to be one with others. Her great achievement was to maintain her humanity, and compassion, in the worst of circumstances. A terrifying calling to us the reader, or listener, even separated as we are by time. Some people might question her choices, and I guess that’s understandable; how many of us feel we could show such courage and faith? However, I personally find her awareness of herself, the depths of her being, and what we might call the “bigger picture”, and her compassion for all, inspiring. She could have hidden away and lived in fear, but she decided to follow her calling to care for others and accept their fate as her own. In doing so felt she was being true to herself and being truly alive. Eye witnesses who survived and knew Etty in those times, said she was a luminous presence amid the horror and the suffering.

There is an expression used in psalm 42, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7). It’s probably about the Psalmist lamenting not being able to return to Jerusalem, but somehow the poetry of this expression “Deep calls to deep” describes what is going on here when the spiritual awareness, the aliveness and the courage of someone speaks to us. Going beyond our analysing and calculating minds, beyond our more superficial cares to somewhere beyond knowing and words.

The final words in Etty Hillesum’s diaries, written on 13th October 1942, were “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” She arrived in Auschwitz on 10th September 1943, and died there on 30th November that same year. In a time of pandemic, we may feel that we are living in difficult times, and there are many other problems too in the world such as poverty, war and the climate emergency. We may feel there is little that we can do which can give us a sense of hopelessness or anxiety; but our potential for healing and helping is always there if we can discover it through our inner listening and our being. We don’t need to compare ourselves to others, but discover our own way through growing awareness of our own selves.

We can reflect on what this might mean to us as individuals, but also perhaps as a community. We can see our present circumstances not as limping along, trying to get by, but as an opportunity to discover our purpose. Not to dwell on self-preservation and keeping going, but to consider how we might be a blessing to the world. Even if it is not to our personal advantage. This may be a time to keep our physical distance from one another, but it may also be a time for us to spiritually unite for the benefit of all? Times of difficulty and suffering present us with an opportunity to share the love we have, and give hope. May we do it gladly, and let our light shine. Amen.

Music: 219 You are the song of my heart

Which contains the words:
“You are the deep to the deep in me calling,
you are the lamp where my feet shall tread;
your way is steep, past the peril of falling,
you are my daily bread.
by Kendyl Gibbons

Closing

Let us go forth into the world
through a door of hope for the future,
remembering these words by Martin Luther:
Even if I knew that tomorrow
the world would go to pieces,
I would still plant my apple tree.

May we go now in peace.

Sunday 30th August – The Promise of Spiritual Freedom

by Rev. Duncan Voice

“When freedom is not an inner idea which imparts strength to our activities and breadth to our creations, when it is merely a thing of external circumstance, it is like an open space to one who is blindfolded.”
Rabindranath Tagore

Welcome

A very warm welcome to our Service on this the last Sunday in August and bank holiday weekend, although it doesn’t really feel like it does it! Probably if we were meeting at The Old Meeting House it would be a quiet time. I know some churches don’t open because so few people turn up; on holiday or meeting family and friends perhaps? Nevertheless, I am glad to welcome you and I hope this finds you well.

Please feel free to join in by lighting a chalice, or candle, if it safe to so. If not, you might like to imagine you are doing so at The Old Meeting House among friends, and saying these words:

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice
as a symbol of commitment to our faith,
and to light up our lives
in times of darkness.
May it burn bright
as we welcome all in love.
Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Prayer/meditation

Let us be quiet and still for a few moments, to find connection to that which we consider to be of greatest worth, and with each other to feel a sense of community.

May we be fully present,
and fully open to this
time of worship;
this time of togetherness,
though we are apart.

We each bring with us
our personal difficulties and anxieties.
May we see them
for what they are;
accepting what we cannot change,
and changing the things we can.

May we have the desire,
and the commitment,
to think of others who may need help;
those close to us, and those we don’t know,
treating them all with kindness and generosity.

At this time of late summer
may there be warmth in our hearts
and words of peace on our lips;
and may the love that is forever in the world
guide us and give us hope.

Amen

Story

“Diluting the Wine” from The Shortest Distance by Bill Darlison

Many years ago, the mayor of a village in China wanted to prepare a big feast for the whole village. He called together his chief advisors and told them of his plan. “I shall be happy to provide all the food,” he said, “but I want you to supply the wine. Each of you must bring a wineskin filled with your finest wine. We will pour them into a common pot so that the people can help themselves.”

The advisors told their leader that this was a very good idea: a party makes the people happy, and happy people work hard commit fewer crimes. “It will bring our people closer together,” said one.

However, not everyone was pleased. One of the advisors, a young man called Chang, thought to himself: “A wineskin full of wine will cost me a pretty penny. I’m not prepared to sacrifice my best wine so that the village rabble can get drunk. In fact, I’m not even prepared to give them my poorest wine. I’ll take water instead. No one will notice if the common pot of wine is slightly diluted.” He felt very pleased with his money saving plan, and when he told his wife she congratulated him on his cleverness.

When the big day arrived, Chang went to the well, filled a wineskin with fresh water, and gave it to a servant to carry to the feast. As they approached, they could hear the merrymaking and the the music, and smell the delicious aromas of the spices the cooks had used in preparing the huge vats of food. It looked like being a day to remember!

In the middle of the square stood a gigantic pot, into which each of the mayor’s advisors was invited to pour the contents of his wineskin. As they did so, the crowd cheered wildly, impressed by the great generosity of their leading citizens. Chang poured his into the pot.

Everyone sat down and listened impatiently as the mayor gave his speech; they were eager to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking! After the speech, the people began to fill their plates with food from long tables, and their goblets with wine from the big pot. But as each of them took a drink, the look of expectation on each face changed to one of puzzlement. “This is not wine” they said, “this is water!” Sure enough, every one of the advisors had brought water, thinking as Chang did that, “no one will notice if the common pot of wine is slightly diluted.”

The mayor was disgusted with his miserly and hypocritical advisors. He stripped them of the positions, and ordered them all to pay a big fine.

First Reading

by A. Powell Davies (1902 -1957)

Arthur Powell Davies was a British born minister, who started his career as a Methodist serving in Ilford, before moving to America and becoming a Unitarian in 1933. He was a prolific author of theological books and a civil rights activist. His final ministry, from 1944 until his death in 1957, was at All Souls Church, Unitarian, Washington, D.C.

“The religion that says freedom! – freedom from ignorance and false belief; freedom from spurious claims and bitter prejudice;
freedom to seek truth, both old and new, and freedom to follow it; freedom from the hate and the greed that divides humankind and spills the blood of every generation; freedom for honest thought, freedom for equal justice, freedom to seek the true, the good and the beautiful with minds unimpaired by cramping dogmas and unhindered by dependence. The religion that says humankind is not divided – except by ignorance and prejudice and hate; the religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united; the religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions – and declares brother and sisterhood unbounded! The religion that knows we shall never find the fullness of the wonder and the glory of life until we are ready to share it, that we shall never have hearts big enough for the love of God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another.

As you have listened to me, have you thought perchance that this is your religion? If you have, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world you live in: the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need of such a world for such a faith. And if you can still can say this of which I have spoken is your religion, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?”
(Extract taken from “The Unitarian Life Past and Present” edited by Stephen Lingwood)

[I invite you to pause for quite reflection and to consider this question]

Second Reading

by William Sykes (1939 – 2015)

William “Bill” Sykes was an Anglican priest who served as chaplain at University College, Oxford between 1978 and 2005.

“Martin Luther King put his finger on a crucial point when he wrote we must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. He went on to add one of the great problems of humanity is that we suffer from a poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The scientific and technological revolutions have been truly impressive, and we have witnessed awe-inspiring progress in both these spheres in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This form of progress can be seen in every technical area of life, but for some reason progress has not been forthcoming in the spiritual and moral spheres of life. What I think is now needed is spiritual and moral revolution, similar to the one we had in science and technology, coming to us through meditation and contemplation.”

(Extract from “The Canterbury Book of Spiritual Quotations” compiled by William Sykes.)

Prayer

Let’s pause once again for a time of quiet reflection.

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.

words by Carolyn McDade

Reflection

The other day I enjoyed a blackberry and apple crumble made by my wife Dawn, and using blackberries picked from the hedge outside our house. It tasted delicious and it was satisfying to be able enjoy the annual bounty provided by the humble blackberry. The ripening of the blackberries is, for me, a visible and tasty symbol of the passing of the seasons. Summer has not ended yet, the Autumn equinox is not until later in September, but it feels, somehow, like it is in its 11th hour. For me not a sad thing, but something perfectly natural and awakening, as I particularly enjoy the Autumn that is to come, with its colours and freshness.

In some ways this time of year feels to me like a pause before a time of new beginning, perhaps more so than as we approach New Year. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it is because of the school year starting or the anticipation of the season change. The weather is usually warm, the fruit and vegetables are ready for harvesting, and the holiday season (although it hasn’t really been the same this year!) is coming to an end. Where are we now, where are we going to? What will the winds of change bring us? What new choices do we need to make?

One of the things that brought me to Unitarianism was the freedom that it gave me to make choices in my spiritual life. It gave me a spiritual home and sense of belonging, but at the same time freedom to choose what I believed in and how I practiced. Talking to others over the years I know this has been a significant factor for many other people too. But as someone pointed out to me early on in my Unitarian life, it is not the easy path that it may at first appear to be. Because with freedom comes responsibility. When there are no religious rules to which one must adhere or no religious hierarchy whom one must obey, then choices must be made by each individual. But paradoxically it is often very hard for us to make these choices alone, we usually need the support and interaction that comes from being in community.

One of the misconceptions about having spiritual freedom is that it means we can simply just believe, and do, what we want. But what do we want, and is it just all about what we want anyway? I don’t think so. If we are interested in living a spiritual life then doesn’t it come with challenges and a certain amount of self-discipline too? In other words, if we exercise our choice to not attend some kind of communal worship, to not practice some kind of prayer or meditation or reflection, to not engage with the problems of the world, to not care for others or our earth; are we making the choice to become a spiritual couch potato? The choices are ours, but the easy or self-indulgent ones probably aren’t the right ones.

I really understand if people are turned off religion by the experiences they have had, or if they been confronted by hateful views dressed as religion; or sickened by the cruelty of some religious people or the institutions they belong too. But I do think most people, deep down, have some need of reflection and contemplation; which can be suppressed or ignored, but often shows itself most acutely at times of loss, anxiety or difficulty. Not necessarily a need to believe in the supernatural, but a desire to seek meaning and truth in some way, or perhaps to find peace. So, we need to find ways to develop and grow spiritually.

I wonder how you reflected on the question posed by Arthur Powell Davies in our first reading? Did you just skip over it? Or did it not seem relevant to you. Maybe you thought, well I’m not sure I really am religious. OK, perhaps then the question is a little different. If you think some of those things seem important, how are you engaging with them if not in a religious or spiritual way, or how could you?

[You might like to pause to reflect on this]

How we set our moral compass to find a way through life is important, I think. What we do matters. Our story this morning spoke to that part of that us that thinks: I know this is wrong, but no one will notice and it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a small thing. I’m sure we have all been there to some extent. The story suggests that if we all think like that then it will not be very good for society or our community. Meanness can become a habit if we don’t think it matters, and this may become our normal way of thinking and behaving. Not good for those we cheat or harm, not good for our spiritual wellbeing either. Somehow, we need to turn away from this place toward a more generous way of being; to cultivate better habits.

Unitarianism is not a proselytising faith; in other words, we don’t try to convert people. Which can be misinterpreted as being half-hearted, lacking religious fervour or zeal, even by some Unitarians! But I know the time that I have spent in sharing worship, prayer, meditation, conversation, silence, even coffee and biscuits with others has been very valuable. I am challenged and changed, inspired and supported, to reflect on the difficult questions of life and to try to walk the humble path of peace. To be open to and be respectful of other faiths and other perspectives, to learn from them, and to recognise my own limited understanding and perspective. To work to promote compassion in community, and value our Earth, as best I can; to try be honest in my own faith. For all this I have needed our Unitarian community.

Next month, on September 20th, we will re-open up our beloved Old Meeting House in Ditchling once again, albeit in a limited way. We can each help to shape our community’s future and take it though these difficult times. Not to be a club for a few, but somewhere that offers a warm welcome to all, and reaches out far beyond its boundaries in friendship and peace.

Our spiritual freedom is a hard won and precious thing that gives us great creative potential, and which, when we work together, can inspire us to do great things. So, let us use it wisely to seek the truth in our hearts and reach out to others. It matters how we are in our being and our doing. It matters that we share generously and care passionately. It matters. It all matters.

May it be so.

Music

May It Be by Enya

Blessing

Extract from “For Freedom” by John O’Donohue

“As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of ground,
Opening the imagination of wings
Into the grace of emptiness
To fulfill new voyagings,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.”

As we go from here this morning, may we follow the path of peace and love through the challenges of life, and may the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen.

Sunday 23rd August – Not Beyond Belief

by Stuart Coupe

In this contribution, I want to explore the responsibilities and difficulties concerning the principle of Unitarian religious freedom and its relationship to personal belief.

To begin this Service you are invited to light a candle, or chalice, if it is safe for you do so.

Chalice Lighting by Joy Croft

As is our custom, we light the chalice – and see!
The flame of truth burns bright,
fed by the visions of each if us,
rising from the heart of us all.
Let its light shine out as our lives shine out,
brightening the dark places of the world,
bringing wholeness and peace.

Opening Prayer by Nancy Wood

Hold on to what is good
even if it is
a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is
a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is
a long way from here.
Hold on to life even when
it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand even when
I have gone away from you.

Reading 1

In this reading, Bruce Davis talks about the value of living by vows; those which are traditional to a monastery and those which we might use on a personal level in our everyday lives or our ‘monastery without walls.’

‘In addition to traditional vows such as poverty, chastity, obedience, charity and marriage, people can take personal vows. Such vows give us direction in everyday life so that we can affirm our desire to love in a ‘monastery without walls.’  Anyone can take personal vows. In normal life, there is no one to judge or hold us accountable for the promises we make, nothing other than the truth, the mirror in the simple quiet. People live by their own vows during weekend retreats, for months and even years at a time. Vows of simplicity, forgiveness and gratitude have a clear way of guiding everyday life. Each day is planned, spent and reflected upon in simplicity, forgiveness and gratitude no matter how the day passes. Vows concerning peace, love, innocence or purity remind us that we can find a truer relationship in all things. Personal commitment to grace and joy help to set the tone for each day so that we can be open to grace and joy in all situations. Vows of acceptance or surrender can remind us that all our experiences are interwoven into the fabric of silence. …each vow affirms our commitment to live life as a gift, as a sacrament.’

Reflective Music

Awake – by Peter Mayer

Reading Two

These are extracts from the Unitarian booklet ‘A Faith Worth Believing In.’ Sometimes I find it useful to return to the core aspects of our Unitarian position, aspects that it is all easy to take for granted. How about you?

‘Unitarians believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves and that the fundamental tools for doing this are your own life-experience, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understanding and the promptings of your own conscience. Unitarians suggest that the best setting for this is a community that welcomes you for what you are – beliefs, doubts, questions and all.

Unitarians affirm that people should enjoy individual liberty and private judgment in spiritual matters and that respect for integrity is preferable to the pressure to conform. Unitarians suggest that we are all engaged on a life-quest and in the development of the personal value system by which each of us lives. Unitarians affirm that our beliefs may change in the light of new understanding and insight but that the final authority for your faith lies within your own conscience.’

Commentary

What is it that brought you to and keeps you associated with Unitarianism?

Perhaps it is an association which you have always held? If that’s the case, you are in the minority. Unlike, for example, the Catholic tradition, very few congregants are ‘born into’ a Unitarian faith network and even fewer are –‘life-long’ Unitarians. At Billingshurst we are fortunate to have three ‘life-long’ Unitarians in our congregation but two of these are below the age of ten – so perhaps they don’t count as such quite yet!

On the whole, evidence suggests that these days, Unitarianism is ‘found:’ that is, people look for a place to enact a need for religious expression (in ways in which they haven’t perhaps found in more orthodox settings) and somewhere along the line, they find a home with us. Some stick around, some leave, much as is the case with most churches I suspect.

Assuming that you are part of a Unitarian congregation (and by the way, if you are not, welcome – and thanks for reading) what is it that keeps you here?

In my teens I joined a Methodist church. I didn’t join because of any strong theological standpoint held by the Methodists and to be honest, it wasn’t really Christianity that attracted me either. It was, in fact, a girl in the sixth form who I was dating at the time and she invited me along. Thinking it a wise idea to stay in her good books, I went along. There it is. It was teenage love got me into religion. 

And Unitarianism? How did I get into that? Well, when I moved to Horsham I thought it would be a chance to have a change of theological scene. I quite fancied giving the Quakers a try so I rocked up to their meeting house only to find it closed. I decided to step into the next church I came across and it was the Unitarian Chapel. I stayed.

How did you get here? And if you have been associated with us for a while, what keeps you coming back?

Be honest now. If your motivation rests more in the social aspects of belonging to a chapel, then that’s fine; really it is. A good natter, a coffee and a piece of cake is all part and parcel of chapel life and, after all, your lusting after a good chunk of cake is little different to me lusting after the charms of my sixth-form sweetheart.

In the past times, it was perhaps a little easier for Unitarian/General Baptists to pin-point their reasons for congregating. Whilst I’m sure that in days gone by, the familial and social aspects of worship played their part in attendance, I also suspect that the expression of a robust theological standpoint, i.e. a non-trinitarian Christian faith, played a strong part. Unitarianism wasn’t just ‘rooted’ in the Christian tradition as we talk about it now, it was an express and important denominational aspect of it.

Things have changed radically now. Even over the course of my relatively brief foray into the Unitarian tradition, the Christian element of our worship has receded almost, it seems at times, to the point of extinction. I imagine that a look of perplexation would have fallen across the face of any Unitarian/General Baptists many years ago if they were told that in 2020 there would be a Unitarian Christian Association whose aim was to promote and celebrate Christianity within the movement. It would have been an anathema. Unitarianism was an expression of Christianity.

Despite have a nominal Christian background (the attraction of Jesus soon equalled that of attraction to my sweetheart) I’m fairly comfortable with Unitarianism moving away from these roots. It is this movement which, I suspect, many folk find attractive about the Unitarian offer and if we were still an exclusively ‘non-trinitarian expression’ of Christianity, I doubt that many of the chapels would be in existence today.

So why are you here? Two reasons (three if you include the cake) could be that you are sympathetic to the beliefs stated in the earlier reading i.e. ‘that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves and that we are all engaged on a ‘life-quest,’ and the development of the personal value system by which each of us lives.’    

Sometimes however, I wonder if we take this aspect of our Unitarianism seriously enough.

Does Unitarianism make enough of putting ‘the development of a personal value system’ at the very heart of what we do?

Now here’s a thought: If I were to ask what your personal value/belief system is, would you be able to articulate it both succinctly and then perhaps in more detail? Could you describe how it has changed in the light of ‘new understanding and insight?’ Could you describe how your everyday life is, and has been informed by, your personal beliefs and then go on to suggest ways in which it has, and is, transforming you and your relationships with others?  

If you are finding the above a bit of challenge then let’s not worry too much. This is a very, very demanding exercise. Yet not to at least try to do it runs the risk of leaving Unitarianism as a very undemanding enterprise. Being impish for a moment, we show up, sit quietly and listen, say a little prayer, meditate, have a natter and eat a bit of cake.

Although developing our own personal value or belief system may be demanding, the semi-formal requirement to do so, is perhaps something that might act as a distinctive part of our Unitarian religious practice. Whilst we have our ‘values’ which bind us together, I sometimes wonder if we are in need of a common physical practice/ritual that we can all participate in outside of our hour at chapel. The formal, written articulation of our own beliefs (albeit that they will always be provisional and open to development, change or abandonment) could be a practice which is common to our faith but one which maintains our need for individual thought and expression. It’s just an idea.

Although potentially demanding in nature, it is easiest start somewhere easy, to start simply. A personal creedal statement such as ‘I will love my neighbour as I love myself’ or ‘I will put compassion at the heart of all of my relationships’ are sound starting points from which the possibility springs of building an ever wider framework.   

If we don’t challenge ourselves with developing some kind of personal creeds from which to step out into the world with, there is a danger that much of the understanding, wisdom and insight that we find ourselves nourished by during our hour of worship stands the danger of being lost. The risk is run that we simply drift from one nice sounding quote and pleasant spiritual undertaking to the next without ourselves ever being really changed and without, possibly, ever fulfilling our potential of changing the world in ways in which we might hope.

Why are you here? At this moment in time, what is that you believe? What is it that you live by? How is this affecting you and others for the better? 

Goodness me. I think I’m ready now for a nice piece of cake….

Closing Words

If, here, you have found freedom, take it with you into the world.

If you have found comfort, go and share it with others.

If you have dreamed dreams, help one another that they might come true.

If you have known love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world.

Go in peace.   (Lauralyn Bellamy).

Closing Music

Church of Life – Peter Mayer

Sunday 16 August 2020

by Stephen Crowther

“If it’s not within your grasp to change a situation that’s causing you pain, you can always choose the attitude with which to face this suffering.”
(Viktor Frankl)

“Whether someone is happy or not depends on how spacious their mind is – not what is happening externally”

(From “The Path of Resilience” by a Tibetan Buddhist monk,
submitted by Shelagh Salmon)

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

Good morning and welcome to our service during this time of continuing uncertainty in the world. May we hold ourselves gently in our uncertainty.

Let us begin, as is our custom, by lighting a chalice.

As we join with others in our community and beyond, some of us are still isolated in our homes, may we be reminded yet again, that we are never alone, that we are always connected with each other and with the wider world.
May the flame of this candle connect with the light in all our hearts bringing trust and hope to each of us on this Summer’s day.

(pause)

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. Some of us are here on zoom some of us will be reading a transcript. Some of us will be here with sorrow in our hearts, some with joy. Whatever the state of your heart or frame of mind you find yourself in this morning, may you find solace and connection here in this beloved community.
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….

(pause)

Some Opening Words:

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning,
stop chasing after so many things.
(poem by Ryokan)

My hut lies in the middle of the city but my usual sources of novelty and distraction have gone. My reduced capacity to plan feels like the behaviour of a nihilist and it is easy to become despondent. It is in these times I feel so grateful for those that have taught me ways to source an inner life. Sometimes I crave Ryokan’s dense forest but I know that there is one within. I just need to be quiet enough to remember the path that leads there.
(Reflection by Dharmakara from Brighton Buddhist Centre)
Both submitted by Jen Barton

(pause)

So, how are you doing? How are you managing in this continuing COVID time? For myself, I feel sad that the expansiveness of time I experienced at the start of lockdown has now become constricted in the face of heightened levels of activity. And I feel confused – there’s a lot to try and work out – there’s lockdown in some places and it’s lifted in others. It seems new rules and regulations come in daily. I don’t know about you but I’ve been struggling a bit with it all. And the heat doesn’t help! And through it all, we’re supposed to carry on ‘keeping a distance’ and wearing a mask. And yet, I still feel unsafe when I’m out and about on the street.
This week, I was sent the following face-book post which helped make sense of my experience:

Aspects of our COVID exhaustion are due to the reality that many of us are carrying the weight of other’s irresponsibility.
Many go about their lives, unencumbered with any feeling of social responsibility, then feel justified in their carelessness, at least partially protected by the herculean efforts of others.
Not only are we navigating a context foreign to us, sacrificially bearing a collective burden, we have to watch those efforts devalued by those who then pretend their carelessness is justified.
We’re holding a societal umbrella in a downpour; they’re laughing and pretending it’s not raining because they’re not wet. It’s exhausting.

Whether were aware of it or not, we will be changed by this experience of COVID19. How we are being changed is yet to be revealed but changed we will be. And there will be gifts arising from this common experience some of which we know of already and some have yet to show themselves.

But for now, a story from the Zen tradition:

There was once a stone cutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.
One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house. Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. “How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stone cutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant.
To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself. Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. “How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a high official!”
Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around. It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. “How powerful the sun is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the sun!”
Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud!”
Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force and realized that it was the wind. “How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind!”
Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock. “How powerful that rock is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a rock!”
Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface and felt himself being changed. “What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he thought.
He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stone cutter.

(The Stone Cutter, unconfirmed origins)

(pause)

Reading: The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

http://www.oriahmountaindreamer.com/

(pause)

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

(pause)

When we are overwhelmed with the world
And cannot see our way clear,
When life seems a struggle between tedium and apathy
Or frenzy and exhaustion;
When today seems a punishment and tomorrow a torment,
May we find the courage of patience.

May we recognize courage in ourselves and our companions;
That is not dramatic, that elicits no fanfare;
That commands little notice by the world,
That is forgotten and taken for granted.

May we learn how to cope
Like those who live one day of pain at a time,
Who see the long path of suffering and do not despair,
Who inspire us by their patient courage,
When we are impatient and afraid.

May we know such courage
And quietly celebrate its presence among us.

(The Courage of Patience by Richard S. Gilbert)

(pause)

In this continuing time of separation and uncertainty, we give thanks for the creative ways we have found to stay connected with each other and with You, God of our hearts.
May we not take our lives for granted. We have learned how much we value human connection and physical closeness; may we not lose sight of the resolve we have held to prioritise those connections in the future.

(pause)

Let us hold in our minds and hearts the people of Lebanon.

We lift up all those who have lost loved ones; those who have lost their homes – may they be comforted in their grief.

We lift up the emergency workers and rescuers – may they be aided in their work and know they are in our thoughts and hearts.

(pause)

May those who are infected with Covid19, and those suffering with fear and anxiety, be released from their pain.

May we all be released from our pain.

(pause)

God, heart of the world: revealed through every aspect of creation: understood through our awareness. May we honour the holiness of creation and act accordingly so that your love is reflected in the way we live. May we always be thankful for the food we eat and the friends we have. May we forgive those who transgress against us and be forgiven for our own. In the freedom of love may we live as your heartbeat and not be compromised by hesitation. Through our freedom, may your justice be seen and heard and experienced forever and ever.

Amen
(Sherri J. Weinberg)

(pause)

We will now enter a period of silence. You may wish to use this time to offer up what is on your heart in this moment – whatever or whoever is in need of prayer right now.

Reflection:
If you are like me, then two of the spiritual disciplines you’ve probably found yourself practicing most frequently, over the last 4 months, have been Acceptance and Patience.
These two qualities have been the key to unlock the mystery of ‘how do I do lockdown?’, ‘how do I survive a pandemic?’.

I have a friend who says that for him, it’s not just about accepting what is, but also of accepting what isn’t. And quite often, that becomes my prayer – ‘God, help me accept what isn’t….’

Consistently practicing acceptance and patience have enabled many of us to discover that we are resilient; perhaps more resilient than we thought we were – had we ever stopped to consider how we might fare in a pandemic…
Being resilient means that despite pain and adverse circumstances, we are able to go on with our lives without losing control or feeling overwhelmed. We can even start over again when everything goes wrong.
It is said that resilience can be learned; that it’s not a personality trait that is present in some people and not in others.

And so, while reflecting on my experience and on the nature of resilience, I’ve discovered a series of attitudes and practices that I believe can help us in developing our resilience:

• Staying connected with others. Keeping in touch with loved ones and members of our communities.
• Practicing acceptance of what is (and isn’t!). Learning to carefully accept what can’t be changed about a situation and then asking what can actually be changed. The serenity prayer is a great tool for this –
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
(Reinhold Niebuhr)

• ‘This too shall pass’. Reminding ourselves of past crisis we’ve survived and that all things are in a constant state of flux.
• Doing the next right thing – taking small steps, keeping it simple.
• Practicing gratitude. You may want to start writing a gratitude list at the end of each day. ‘Gratitude can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.’
(Melody Beattie)

• Doing estimable things helps build self-esteem.
• ‘Me too’. Getting vulnerable – sharing our hopes and fears with others whatever is going on for us. Vent!
• Living one day at a time.
• Asking for help.
• Being of service to others.
• Having a faith that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.
• And praying – maintaining an intimate relationship with the God of our understanding.
• Always prayer…..

“O Beloved, how numerous are my fears!
They rise up within me whispering
there is no help for you.

Yet, You, O my Beloved, radiate Love
around me, my glory;
gratitude becomes my song,
When I cry out to You,
You answer within my heart.

I lie down and sleep; if I should
Awaken, my Beloved is there
holding me with strength
and tenderness.
I feel secure.

Now, I shall forgive all illusions
that my ego tries to build.
For my courage is in You, O Love,
You who are the Lover hidden
in every heart.

rise up, Love! Set me free!
For through your guidance,
my fears will fade into love.
Free from fear, I will know
the Oneness of Being that
encompasses Everything!
I shall be free to serve Love
with a glad and open heart.”

(Psalm 3 from Psalms for Praying by Nan C. Merrill)

(pause)

Some closing words by Elizabeth Tarbox:

“When the day is too bright or the night too dark, and your feelings are like an avalanche barrelling down the mountain of events outside your control, when you look down and you are falling and you cannot see the bottom, or when your pain has eaten you and you are nothing but an empty hungry hole, then there is an opportunity for giving.

Don’t stay home and cover your head with a pillow. Go outside and plant a tulip bulb in the ground; that is an act of rebirth. Sprinkle breadcrumbs for the squirrels or sunflower seeds for the birds; that is a claiming of life. And when you have done that, or if you cannot do that, go stare at a tree whose leaves are letting go for its very survival. Pick up a leaf, stare at it; it is life; it has something to teach you.

You are as precious as the birds or the tulips or the tree whose crenelated bark protects the insects who seek its shelter. You are an amazing, complex being with poetry in your arteries and charity layered beneath your skin. You have before you a day full of opportunities for living and giving. Do not think you know all there is to know about yourself, for you have not given enough away yet to be able to claim self-knowledge. Do you have work to do today? Then do it as if your life were hanging in the balance, do it as fiercely as if it mattered, for it does. Do you think the world doesn’t need you? Think again! You cleanse the world with your breathing, you beautify the world with your thinking and acting and caring.

Don’t stay home and suffocate on your sorrow; go outside and give yourself to the world’s asking.”

(Rebirth by Elizabeth Tarbox)

(pause)

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.

And so, until such a time that we can be together in person – may the wind of the Spirit blow through our world, giving the answer of God’s everlasting love. That as you re-enter your day, you do so with peace and joy in your heart.

Amen

Sunday 2nd August 2020

Chasing Rainbows

by Rev. Duncan Voice

“For one swallow does not a summer make, neither does one fine day; similarly, one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.” Aristotle (350 BCE)

Welcome

Welcome to this morning’s service, wherever you are, and whenever you are reading this. On this first Sunday in August we gather in a spirit of friendship, which we extend to all who would join us.

You are invited to light a candle, or chalice, where you are, if it is safe to do so. You might like to say the following words.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice as a symbol
of our faith and hope.
In lighting it and seeing it,
we know that we are gathered
at a special time;
in a spirit of oneness and love.

Prayer

Spirit of Love and Life,
We gather together
to be in gentle and loving community.
We sit at home with awareness,
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

Reading: Matthew 12:1-7

Parallel verses can be found in Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5

Near to where I live the fields of crops have become golden and look as though they are ready to harvest soon. So, for our first reading I turn to piece from the New Testament which places Jesus and his disciples walking through cornfields on the day of the sabbath. As they do so they are accused of breaking the sabbath fast by representatives of the religious authorities, the Pharisees.

“At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless.””

Jesus answers them concluding with a quote from the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6.6) “I desire mercy not sacrifice”, placing one Divine imperative over another in order to deal with the pressing issue of the moment, that of hunger. For mercy we might today say compassion. Jesus is therefore offering a fresh spiritual perspective as well as dealing with human suffering, in the form of hunger this time.

This reminds me of the Buddhist story of “The Monk and the Woman” as re-told by Bill Darlison,

“Two Buddhist monks were journeying from one monastery to another when they came across a beautiful, but timid, young woman standing by a river bank, rather frightened to cross the swift flowing river. The elder of the two monks offered to carry her across and she readily agreed. She climbed onto his shoulders and he waded across, leaving the woman, dry and thankful, on the other side.

The two monks then continued on their way, but the younger of the two was very disappointed with the older monk’s behaviour and he berated him. Had he forgotten that he was a monk, and that he shouldn’t touch any woman? What would people say?
Did he not know the rules of the order to which they both belonged? And so on. The young monks lecture lasted for a good few miles.

Finally, the older monk interrupted the flow of criticism and said to his companion, “Brother, I left the girl by the river bank. Are you still carrying her?”

There are probably lot of interpretations of these stories, but there is one important spiritual message that seems to be the same, in both, to me. Namely that when faced with a choice in life, we choose the compassionate or kind option, rather than turn to scripture or rules. How do these stories speak to you?

Music – Morning has Broken

Reading

Extract from “Daily Meditations for Calming Your Mind” by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine, published by New Harbinger Publications

“Everything in this life depends on conditions and elements in order to exist. For example, a rainbow forms in front of you while you water your garden. For this to happen, the necessary elements – light, water, you holding the hose, and other factors – assemble in the present moment. If any of these elements (each of which is formed by other elements) is missing, the rainbow does not appear. For the rainbow to come into existence, different elements that are not rainbows must come together in a particular combination to create it. The rainbow only exists when all of these elements are present and join together. The rainbow is dependent on and connected to each of the elements, which are necessary for the rainbow to come in to being. In this view, you can see that the rainbow is made of non-rainbow elements and deeply interconnected with them.”

You may wish to pause for time of quite reflection or prayer.

“Find a place of stillness within yourself” – The Gospel of
Thomas

“With a quiet mind seek harmony within yourself” – The Bhagavad Gita

Reflection

I love the idea, expressed in our second reading, that the elements that come together to create a rainbow are non-rainbow elements. You cannot see a rainbow in any of them, but in coming together they have the potential to create something new and, in this case, beautiful and of the moment. The rainbow potential is there waiting to be discovered, experienced and enjoyed in the non-rainbow elements.

Think for a moment about all the elements that have brought you to the place where you are, and look at all the objects around you, or the trees or clouds outside your window. Somehow you are here at this time and place. In part due to choices you made, in part due to circumstances. The wretched virus, for example, has played its part in where we are today. And as we share this time, listen to words and music, new thoughts and feelings emerge. Unique to us all and yet shared in some way.

This emergence of new of new thoughts, things, objects even life itself is happening all the time, in ways beyond our plans and calculations and often beyond our understanding. To give you another perhaps obscure example, I read recently about scientists at Warwick University who were researching medieval remedies. Acientbiotics they call it! One mixture known as “Bald’s eyesalve” and containing onion, garlic, wine and bile salts (yuk!) showed promising antibacterial qualities, and low levels of damage to human cells.
Of the ingredients, only garlic is known to have properties against single-cell bacteria, but none against multi-cell bacteria. The effectiveness of the mixture is not attributable to any single ingredient, but requires that unique combination. Something new and unpredictable emerging from, at first glance, unpromising elements.

The passage quoted in our reading is an extract from a piece introducing the reader to the idea of mutual interdependence and connectedness. Which I think is another important idea for us to consider. The rainbow in the garden is simply a small but beautiful illustration of the idea that “everything in this life depends on other conditions and elements in order to exist.” Nothing exists in isolation. The meditation practice, in this case, is a way to help us see this, to have a new perspective and understanding. A new understanding that may have profound effects on the choices we make, and the way we act in the world.

Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn, explores this idea from a different perspective, he says,

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you
don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not
doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or
less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have
problems with our friends or family, we blame the other
person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will
grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive
effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason
and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no
reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you
understand, and you show that you understand, you can
love, and the situation will change”

Understanding is the key says Thich Nhat Hahn, but it can be hard for us to develop this when we are in the middle of an emotional tangle.
It may be difficult for us to appreciate all the elements that have come together to create a difficulty or an issue, especially in our personal relationships. Anger, blame, retribution are some of the thoughts can dominate our minds and lead us into a tunnel of conflict with others and ourselves if we are not careful. When these elements come together something dark, discordant and hateful maybe created. Suffering may be perpetuated.

Whilst none of us controls all the elements of our lives, some of us can exercise some kind of choice. Indeed, we must as different circumstances present themselves. It seems to me that there is great hidden potential within each human being which can be expressed through our choices. A potential to do good. But perhaps it is in our coming together that the greatest hidden potential can be realised. A potential to realise a world where love and compassion and beauty can flourish.

This I think is what we work towards in our Unitarian communities, although we may not always explicitly say so. In fact, as traditional religious language becomes less acceptable, we struggle to find the right words. In the Bible it is referred to as the Kingdom of God, some call it the kindom of God, some beloved community, my colleague Stephen Lingwood suggests it is paradise that we seek. A more loving and peaceful world. How would you express such an ideal in your own words?

It is perhaps worth recalling the words in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 17:20-21),
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Although we struggle in our expression, I think many of us agree that the human world is broken in many ways. Are we in a position to fix it? What would a “fix” even look like? Of course, we don’t know because none of us as individuals is the complete rainbow, to refer back to our earlier reading. But the fact that love and compassion exist, and that new life, new joy, new beauty can emerge from unpromising circumstances gives us new hope. Maybe new faith, and energy to keep walking towards that far off promised land.

We struggle, as previous generations have done, but take comfort in our friendship and our togetherness. So together, let’s take another step. Let’s create beauty and laughter wherever we can. Let’s live in peace. Let’s use our imaginations. Let’s share the wisdom of the past, have awareness of the present and have a dream of better future for all. Let’s be guided by love.

Let’s go chasing rainbows!

May it be so.

Music: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (It had to be really!)

Closing words

All human beings are members of one frame,
Since all, at first, from the same essence came.
When time afflicts a limb with pain
The other limbs at rest cannot remain.
If thou feel not for other’s misery
A human being is no name for thee.

Saadi of Shiraz (1210 – 1292)
Persian poet and prose writer.

Let us go now in faith and hope and peace, and may the God of our hearts be with us now and always. Amen

26th July 2020

by Rev Jennifer Sanders

Opening words

From the beginning, we emerge into awareness within a web of human connections that
unceasingly engage us until death. James Hillman

Good morning and welcome to the read along service. My thoughts and heartfelt wishes to you. May this time that we spend together bring a closer connection to the sacred.
I begin our service today in the usual way by lighting the chalice and you may like to light a candle where you are too.

Chalice lighting

In every darkened corner there is a chance for the light of love to shine. Serving as a beacon of hope, reminding us of the spirit of love, truth and liberty.

We come together in this moment to give thanks for all that we are and all that we have and we are reminded of the love, compassion and generosity of our own hearts and those of others.

We bring our fears, anger, confusion and our brokenness to be healed.
May we seek to find the peace within our inner selves.
May we give ourselves the gift of our union in this gathering.

Divine spirit, help us to come together and be present in this space for a short time of Silent prayer and stillness which will be followed by some music
Amen

On this day in 1956 – June Eileen Beatrice Wiseman married Roy Oliver Sanders in the parish church of Wivelsfield. They went on to have two daughters and were blessed with a grandchild.
Their marriage lasted 46 years until Roy’s death in 2004.

These people were not famous, one born into great poverty in the tenements of the Edgeware Rd and the other into a middle-class family in Harrow.
They had very different upbringings.
June, was a working-class daughter with memories of the Yarrow marches and the chants and roars of Queens Park Rangers Football club on a Saturday afternoon. She remembered the Lon-don bombings often scurrying down to the underground as the sirens roared.

Roy one of 3 sons was raised in a large house in Harrow. At seven he sent off to Cornwall as an evacuee enjoying the space and adventures that a rural coastal farm life brought only to be brought back for finishing school In London after the war.

One had a strong belief one an agnostic.

Their experiences could not have been more different – class, education, siblings and yet some kind of love brought them together and through they had many difficulties and challenges they remained married – Through times of abundance and debt and in sickness and in health until death parted them. Today would have been their 64th wedding anniversary.

These two people were my parents and each year and every year I take some time on this day to remember their relationship, the eclectic mix of culture, class and experience and the legacy it brought me.

In the fifties when women were supposed to give up their careers and be stay at home mums, and fathers were the bread winners, it was far removed from today’s mix match of part time work con-tracts, home working, shared parenting, same sex and trans relationships, civil partnerships, mar-riages, single parents, co parents, mix religions and no faith relationships.

They had to work at their marriage – it wasn’t an easy match; adapting to new jobs, homes, friends, several redundancies and financial insecurity, raising two fiercely independent daughters and long periods of illness and eventually loss and grief. A lot was asked of them and they adapted as best they could with a commitment to work through challenges.

Marriage has not been part of my journey to date and yet when I made my vows as an Interfaith ordinand I was asked to compose a personal vow that would grow with me as I developed in my ministry. It has and continues to serve me and although that commitment to the sacred and my spiritual practice falters on what seems a daily basis there is a commitment to build that relationship despite the trials and tribulations that face me.

We have all faced huge challenges and changes to all of our relationships in recent times
In the words of Mark Oden and Stefano Mariotti of the Christian mission,

“What a fascinating social experiment. 60 million people in lockdown for an indefinite number of days or weeks, maybe even months – just like the big brother house – and even without the camer-as, has felt intense and surreal.
It has affected us differently. For some it has been a chance to take stock, for others it has been a time dominated by anxiety, for others there may be tension as they have shared space and time with others.
We got used to a new way of doing things and to some degree have been forced to live in the pre-sent. Some of us have found the lack of hustle and bustle unsettling. We’re so accustomed to background white noise that when it ceases, we may feel uneasy.
Quietness and solitude can also expose us to discord in our minds, which starts to chatter away, creating a sense of disturbance. Negative thoughts and feelings emerge — especially during un-certain times, when there are urgent and real concerns about job security, family members, and financial stability.

Not unlike a marriage these times have been troubling, upsetting, rewarding and challenging. Huge life shifting events have an impact and they illustrate and highlight what is and isn’t working.
We have not been able to worship together in the flesh. The doors to our churches have been firmly closed for some months now and we have lost some of that intimacy and soul food that we receive by being together and yet we have experienced growth in other ways. The willingness to worship online or through the written word has sustained many of us and our relationship with the sacred may look different now.
For some of you your relationship with spirit may have deepened and for others you may be left questioning if there is any such thing as the sacred?
Like a marriage our spiritual lives sometimes need a spring clean, an injection of commitment, look-ing at things in another way.

We are not bound to be married to the God of our understanding but like any relationship we get out of it what we put in.
As Unitarians or seekers, we have the wonderful freedom of choice. Our connection and commit-ment to the sacred is based on our own set of beliefs and this is something that develops over time. Its unique like a marriage or long-term relationship. Externally it may bare similarities but within the soul it has a unique imprint to each of us and this is the beauty.

We may crave the time when we can go to church and sing and pray and worship together, nourish our souls and re build our relationships with each other and God. These times will come again but they will be different shaped by our individual experiences and external influences – sitting further apart maybe, no tea, strange entrances and exits, maybe face masks
We don’t even worship the same God or in some cases any God and yet we have a commitment to come to worship together, to be together differences and all, to feel and share in a sacred experi-ence
And as we have found out recently our relationship with God is not just about sitting in the pew or saying our prayers – it’s so much more that. Like a marriage it is so much more than the fancy suit and cake.

Reading

Linda and Charlie bloom have been Married since 1972 and are counsellors and spiritual guides.
In a recent article in Psychology today they talk about relationships as spiritual practice.

“Most people think of spiritual practice as going to church or temple, prayer, singing of hymns, chanting, ritual, and meditation rather than daily interactions with other human beings all day long. In fact, they have their spiritual rituals in a very separate category from the way they relate to those in their lives. But the process of spiritual development and conscious relationship are not separate or mutually exclusive. The chanting and meditation are optional, as is the wearing of orange robes, but what is as essential as any of the spiritual rituals we do, is how respectful we are and how we hon-our and support those with whom we interact.

A spiritual practice is any process which promotes the experience of openheartedness, speaking the truth as a means of uncovering and discovering who we are, and connecting us to our true na-ture. It’s not necessary to go to India or to meditate hours a day. The experience of the sacred is available through relationship with our spouse, lover, parents, children, and closest friends. They are all our holy teachers providing us with opportunities to practice.

It is the joy of using our relationship as our spiritual practice that can transport us to the sublime. But it is the breakdowns of relationship that can also propel us to a divine energy source. In fact, it is those places where our edges rub most abrasively against each other that can provide the greatest amount of growth.

Quiet Reflection and Meditation

So, we take the next few moments to reflect on those important relationships we have with our selves our spiritual community and the sacred.

I invite you wherever you are to take a moment to breathe and bring yourself into the presence of what you choose to call spirit. Read each paragraph and then take some time to reflect before morning on. You may like to play a piece of music at the end of the quiet reflection.

Without judgement or criticism and with compassion and gentleness we think about the relationship that we have with ourselves.
How we live our daily lives, how we talk to ourselves how we feed and nurture our bodies and minds, how we give and receive.
We are reminded we are a child of God.

Pause

Without judgement or criticism and with compassion and gentleness we think about the relation-ships we have with our partners or close friends, colleagues and those in our church communities – you may be new to Unitarianism so you may want to think about what friendships you would like to grow. You may have been coming to church for a while yet the relationships that you have with others may be somewhat fleeting. There may be someone that you would like to get know a little more, but have not had the courage to do so or there may be a relationship that requires some at-tention, some of your time and patience.

We are reminded we are a child of God.

Pause

Without judgement or criticism and with compassion and gentleness we take a moment to reflect on our relationship with the sacred, the Divine, the God of our understanding. It may be the best it has ever been; it may be a new relationship in its infancy delicate and fragile or we may be strug-gling and we may have no idea of what this could be

We are reminded we are a child of God.

In this moment, in this virtual sacred space we look, we see, we accept where we are in all of these relationships and in prayer we ask for guidance, Divine wisdom and unconditional love granting us the courage to remain on the path of connection.

We give thanks for all these relationships we have in our lives. We honour each and every one of them
Amen

Angela Wilson a faculty member at Kripalu – A centre for yoga and health was once asked by a student what is the most healing experience of her yoga practice – going straight to the postures of yoga she wracked her brain as to which one had brought long standing change.
A host of memories flooded in: moments of insights and emotional release, a nurturing sense of be-ing a part of something greater than herself but she was left feeling there was still something more.

She wrote,

“As images of yoga mats and meditation cushions began to fade, other images emerged—of people who had supported, challenged, moved, and consoled me. Moments with friends, teachers, part-ners, and parents. A time crying on a friend’s shoulder. A time when conflict merged into greater understanding. Some of these faces were directly connected to my formal practice; others were, surprisingly, not. But they all had one thing in common—they had changed my life.
I was surprised that so many of my most transformational moments came with another person at-tached. It got me thinking: When it comes to healing, how important are relationships on the spiritual path?

From birth, we require connection to survive. Babies who don’t receive enough physical contact and emotional responsiveness are at higher risk for behavioural, emotional, and social problems. They cry more and sleep less. At its extreme, babies who are neglected and not touched often don’t survive. Human contact and engagement is as fundamental to our survival as food and water.
Relationships become transformative when we stick our necks out, when we’re honest and vulner-able. The more we allow ourselves to be truly seen and known, the more we open the door to heal-ing. When we do this, there’s no guarantee that things will go the way we want them to.
The transformation arises not from the outcome but from being honest, open, and willing to receive and be impacted by what comes from that authenticity.”

As we come to the close of our time together this morning my wish as a Unitarian is that we contin-ue to grow together whether that be online, in person, or a combination; in spirit and in friendship.

And in the words of Swami Kripalu,

“The key to your heart lies hidden in the heart of another.”

May you go in peace and with an open heart accepting that the relationships that you have in your lives today our exactly as they need to be

Amen

Sunday 19th July 2020

To Come Home to Yourself

by Rev. Duncan Voice

““Holy”, “Healthy”, “Whole” – they all come from the same root and carry different overtones of the same meaning.”
Aldous Huxley, Island

Welcome to our Sunday Service. I trust this finds you well.
You are invited to light a candle or a chalice to begin this Service.

Chalice Lightning

May our chalice flame
be a symbol of welcome,
to all who join us in a spirit
of freedom.
May this time together
bring us peaceful reflection
and spiritual refreshment.

Gathering Prayer

Let us pause and sit quietly for a while to gather ourselves in this moment.

Sprit of Love and Life,

We hold in our hearts those we know who suffer,
and whose passing comes to our mind at this time.
(Pause)
Help us to extend our circle of caring still further;
Broadening our perspectives,
and deepening our compassion.

May all find love and healing.

We turn to face the dark and difficult places in our own lives,
with openness and honesty.
(Pause)
Help us to turn away from angry thoughts and bitterness,
and instead seek reconciliation and forgiveness.

May all know peace.

In this season of sunshine and warmth,
may we be grateful for all that we have.
(Pause)
Help us to turn away from selfishness,
and instead share generously where we can.

May all know happiness and joy.

Amen

Reading

Excerpt from “Everything Belongs” by Richards Rohr

Turning and turning in widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“We are a circumference people, with little access to the centre. We live on the boundaries of our own lives “in the widening gyre,” confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as substance. As Yeats predicted, things have fallen apart and the centre does not seem to be holding.

If the circumferences of our lives were evil, it would be easier to moralise about them. But boundaries and edges are not bad as much as they are passing, accidental, sometimes illusory, and too often in need of defence or decoration. Our “skin” is not bad; its just not our soul or spirit. But skin might also be the only available beginning point for many contemporary people. Earlier peoples, who didn’t have as many escapes and means to avoid reality, had to find Essence earlier – just to survive. By contrast, we can remain on the circumferences of our lives for quite a long time. So long, that it starts feeling like the only life available…….

Yet the great teachers tell us not to stay on the circumference too long or we will never know ourselves or God. The two knowings, in fact, seem to move forward together. The movement might also be understood as conversion, transformation, or growth in holiness. You cannot make this journey in your head, alone….

We do not think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking. In other words, our journeys around and through our realities, or “circumferences,” lead us to the core reality, where we meet both our truest self and our truest God.”

Hymn

To Seek and Find Our Natural Mind

Words by Rev.Richard Boeke, Music by David Dawson, published in “Sing Your Faith” by The Lindsey Press

A time of Reflection and Prayer

Perhaps spend a few minutes in silence before reading the following prayer by Thich N’hat Hahn.

Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.
Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.

Let us be aware of the source of being,
common to us all and to all living things.

Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,
let us fill our hearts with our own compassion –
towards ourselves and towards all living beings.

Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause
of suffering to each other.

With humility, and awareness of the existence of life,
and of the sufferings that are going on around us,
let us practice the establishment of peace
in our hearts and on earth.

Amen

Story

The Mustard Seed – a story from the Buddhist tradition.

A story is told of a woman named Kisa Gotami who came from a poor background and was often hungry and weak. Kisa means frail.

Despite her difficult circumstances she grew up and eventually married. Soon she gave birth to a baby boy whom she loved very much. Suddenly though the baby became ill and very tragically died. Kisa Gotami was grief stricken and went around her town asking if anyone had medicine that could bring the boy back to life.

Most people turned her away saying that nothing could be done. Eventually however a kindly neighbour suggested that she visited the Buddha who, he had heard, was teaching nearby.

So, she went to the Buddha and begged him for help. The Buddha looked at the baby and said comfortingly to her, “You did well in coming here for medicine Gotami. Here you will find the help you need. But first, before I can help, you must do something for me. You must return to the town, find me a single mustard seed and bring it back here.”

Kisa Gotami’s face lit up for she thought this would be a simple enough task. The Buddha continued however, “The mustard seed must come from a family in which no one has died.”

So Kisa Gotami hurried back to the town. At the first house she came to she knocked at the door and asked if she could have a mustard seed. Mustard seeds were commonly used for cooking in that area and the woman who answered quickly found one for her. As she was handing it over, however, Gotami remembered the second part of the Buddha’s instruction and she asked, “Before I take this I must ask has anyone died recently in this family?” Tears filled the other woman’s eyes as she replied that her husband had died just six months ago. “I am so sorry”, said Kisa Gotami. “Thank you for your kindness, but I cannot take this seed.”

She knocked at the door of another house, and another, and then another but every time they had lost someone – a brother, a sister, a grandparent, an aunt, a mother, a father, a child. The list grew longer and longer.

It began to grow dark and Kisa Gotami sat down to rest against a tree. Not a single household she had visited that day was untouched by death. Many had suffered as she did. And somehow, with these thoughts, her grief lessened just a little. She decided to return home.

The next day she readied her son for his funeral in the traditional way. Her tears flowed freely as she wrapped him in clean cloth and said farewell.

After the funeral, Kisa Gotami went back to see the Buddha. As she approached, he could see that she had changed, but he asked her, “Gotami, did you bring me the mustard seed?”
No, teacher. I am no longer looking for the mustard seed. I know that in the whole town, in the whole world, there is not one family, not one person, free from the certainty of death. It is the way of all living things – we must at some time leave one another.”

“And where is your child?” said the Buddha.

“At last I have said goodbye to him. I felt terribly alone in my grief, but now I know there are many others who have lost what they cherished most. We must help each other, as you have helped me.”

Kisa Gotami’s search had brought her understanding and compassion. It is said that she never left the Buddha, and was able to comfort many others in her lifetime.

Reflection

This week I watched on television a father bury his infant son in Yemen. The father had been a fisherman until his boat and his home had been destroyed in the ongoing conflict there. He had no money; the family were hungry. The mother could no longer provide milk and they could not afford to buy milk supplements. The father got a lift on the back of a motorbike to an emergency feeding station, with the boy wrapped in a blanket. They did what they could, but recognising that he needed further medical attention they tried to get him to another location. Sadly, he never made it, and he died on the back of that motorbike, wrapped in that blanket. I watched the father praying by the graveside. A baby let down by the world into which he was born.

I have a feeling of helplessness when I watch such scenes, which don’t seem to be uncommon in the many poor and war-torn areas of the world. As the world tries to deal with coronavirus, the poor and the vulnerable suffer even more. After the news there was an appeal by the Disasters and Emergency Committee (DEC) and the following day we made a donation. But it didn’t feel like enough and perhaps that’s a good thing. If I felt that by making a single donation, I had done all I could to alleviate hunger and suffering in the world I would be deluded. Or perhaps living on the circumference of my life as Richard Rohr put it in our earlier reading.

It seems wrong to be sitting in my comfortable home watching the life and death struggles of other people. Like watching the emergency services at road traffic incident – rubber necking. But the difference is, that at the road traffic incident, if the emergency services are in attendance, there is nothing for me to do; other that move on and let them do their job. To turn away from the pain of the world is not a good option however, there is always something to be done.

It is important to know what is going on in the world, no matter how upsetting and disturbing it is. I know we all have different levels of tolerance to this for many different reasons, but we need to face reality so that we don’t live in wilful ignorance. It helps us to put the problems in our lives, and the world, in to some kind of perspective and provides us with an opportunity to cultivate greater compassion in our hearts for all those who suffer; no matter their nationality, religion or location.

Death is a reality for humans; for all living things. Some might say that it is gloomy to think about this, but it seems to me very important. Joan Chittister, spiritual writer and Benedictine nun, says, in an article called “Life Fulfilled”,
“Death, the awareness of its coming, the sounds of it around us, is what calls us to life beyond apathy, beyond indifference, beyond unconcern. Death reminds us to live.”
We need awareness of death therefore to be aware of our lives and how we live them.

Christina Feldman, in her book Heart of Wisdom, Mind of Calm suggest that we gain awareness by using our wise attention. She says,
“Without attention we live only on the surface of our lives. The song of a bird, the beauty of a sunset, the cries of someone who needs help are lost on us. It is only when we are attentive that we are able to explore our inner landscape and learn the lessons we are asked to learn if we are to live with authenticity and freedom. To be touched by anything in the world, to love and to live fully, we need to be present and awake.”

Although talking about an inner landscape might sound like navel gazing, there is undoubtedly a relationship between our inner spiritual self and how we live in the world. A balance to be struck between contemplation and action. If we can approach the place of greatest value and meaning within ourselves, it maybe that what we actually do in the world will be more worthwhile. It probably is not going to mean greater leisure and comfort in our lives however, and it may also require courage and commitment. But it may mean greater simplicity and peace, and perhaps fulfilment.

To talk about fulfilment in our lives could seem self-indulgent when set against the death of a child from malnutrition; but if the death of that child becomes a part of us then the fulfilment of our lives may have more meaning. And perhaps also the short life of that child has more meaning too if we, as a result, lead a life of greater awareness and do more to give others a better chance at life. The child then lives on in us as well as in all who knew him.

The journey to the centre of ourselves is a journey of faith. We don’t know how it will work out or what we will find, but if we set out on that journey anyway, carrying with us our doubts and questions, we have a faith. It is a journey that we can only make in openness and honesty, and Richard Rohr describes it also as a journey to know God. A God that is within us and others. A journey to a place where we might find connection with something, where words and concepts cannot go.

Our faith journeys may be personal but we make them together. I am inspired by others and have been supported by our Unitarian community too. There is very little certainty on the journey, but it feels worthwhile. Do my prayers work? Do my donations do any good? I don’t know, but it is how I prefer to live. I could be cynical and uncaring, but I don’t want to be, that’s not my journey. So, I pray for the Yemeni family and their child, and I pray for our community. May we all find faith, hope and love.

Amen

Music

Closing Words

by Maya Angelou (Adapted)

We are weaned from our timidity

In the flush of love’s light
we dare to be brave

And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and ever will be.

Yet it is only love
Which sets us free.

Blessing

To Come Home to Yourself by John O’Donohue

“May all that is unforgiven in you,
be released.

May your fears yield
their deepest tranquillities.

May all that is unlived in you,
blossom into a future,
graced with love.”

May the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen.