New Year 2021 – The Invitation to Love

by Duncan Voice


Opening: by Sarah Yorke

We receive fragments of holiness,
Glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.
Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are,
And, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown

Chalice Lighting

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


Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love, Source of all Being,
We gather at the beginning of the new year,
looking forward with some uncertainty,
unsure of what lies ahead.
Help us to be unafraid,
to find reassurance in connection and community.

Aware of the passing of time, we are also aware of:
those who cannot be with us,
those whose passing comes to our mind,
those who are ill,
those who suffer.
We pause to hold them in our hearts.

Help us to step forward into life with good intention.
Though the door of our church is shut for now,
May the door of our hearts be ever open.
May we see the green shoots emerging from the cold earth,
and may we greet others in peace, as we journey into the coming year.

Reading: Jesus Is Presented in the Temple, Luke 2: 25-33

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”


Reading: New Year By Elizabeth Tarbox, from Life Tides, published by Skinner House Books

Quiet Prayer/Reflection

Reflection


Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.
Susan Coolidge (1835-1905)


If life is indeed a journey then we have to take time to rest, to look back and also to look forward. Despite all that has happened, all that may happen, to “take heart” and prepare to begin again. This time of year, around Christmas and New Year, provides us with such an opportunity. To face with an open-hearted attention the difficulties in our lives and the suffering we experience, but also to be aware of the beauty and the joy that exists. To try to plot a course that gives our life meaning and purpose when much seems to be uncertain and unsure.

Sometimes we talk of New Year’s resolutions. Have you made one? A resolution to do something or not do something, to keep you on track or to find a new direction maybe? Usually these resolutions concern our physical world. Eating more healthily perhaps, taking more exercise, making more effort to keep in touch with a friend, or on a grander scale to fulfil some ambition. What about a spiritual resolution though? What kind of words could we find to articulate that?

Spirituality is an intimate and personal thing, which is not really compatible with measurement and analysis. We are told in our first reading that Simeon was righteous and devout and that the holy spirit “rested” on him. What would be the outer manifestation of this? Would Simeon have thought of himself in those terms or have others made that judgement? Sometimes we know when we share a little time with another person that they have something about them, don’t we? Simeon, of course, saw this in the infant Jesus.

Simeon could see both the message of love that Jesus would bring into the world but also the conflict and inner turmoil that would occur as people heard this message, “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
People would be challenged to move away from old certainties and give up their old lives. To take a journey of less material wealth, success and achievement and more altruism, kindness and love. And Mary his mother would have to watch him suffer for bringing this message, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon, could see both the suffering and the joy.

In our second reading Elizabeth Tarbox says she is not going to make a resolution, or ask God to resolve anything, but talks in terms of a self-inventory. Aiming instead for the “continued willingness to keep the doors of [her] feelings open, to participate in life as well as to observe it, to contribute more to solutions and less to the problems….” She also uses that wonderful phrase, “I keep open the invitation to love.” The invitation to love is what all great spiritual leaders offer us.

The invitation to love as expressed in religions is often referred to as the golden rule. Shared by Jesus through the well-known aphorism, “love your neighbour as yourself.” The Buddha puts it like this, “When you see yourself in others, it is impossible to hurt anyone else.” According to Lao Tzu, “The world is transformed by those who love all people, just as you love yourself.” And Hillel the elder, who is believed by some to be the father of Simeon in our reading, said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

These are difficult times that we live in to be sure. Learning to live in love, to accept the invitation, is a great challenge. In our isolation we may feel we have lost many of the things that made our life meaningful. We may feel we fall far short of these ideals of loving others and ourselves most of the time. Occasionally people say to me, “oh I couldn’t come to church” hinting that they feel they don’t measure up to some perceived ideal of a pious church goer, when in fact none of us do; and perhaps we wouldn’t want to! We’re not clones. We each bring our own unique personality, skills and, well, rough edges, doubts and fears; and of course we change.

With spirituality it is not so much about the destination as the journey. Some people may be concerned about the afterlife, but we Unitarians have always been more interested in the present. Spirituality is part of our human journey which, of course, lasts a lifetime; and so we should have compassion for ourselves if we stumble and fall along the way. In fact its vital that we do. Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas says this,

“…having compassion for yourself means you honour and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, loss will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and your fellow humans in the experience of life.”

Rabbi Hillel said “go and learn”, this is what we are challenged to do. To learn how to find connection with love and compassion, and to find our way of expressing it; for our own well-being and for the well-being and care of others, people or animals. We don’t have to become the great spiritual leaders whose lives are now myth and legend, but to learn from them, to find a direction in which we can become ourselves. Fully ourselves, as best we can, even in the face of difficulty. Practising our compassion, helping one another, sharing what we can and looking for inspiration and joy in the world around us.

Even in these difficult times there is much to inspire and cheer us. For example wildlife has begun to thrive in many areas and more people have developed a greater appreciation for the natural world. More people have started growing vegetables, and flowers to encourage insects. Including me, and I also got a bee home for Christmas, which I shall put up in the garden soon. More people are shopping locally and considering the ethics and sustainability of their purchases. For example, according to the Co-Op, Fairtrade purchases are up by 14 percent. More people have talked to, and helped, their neighbours and there having been many stories of human caring and kindness. Communities have come together.

So let us set our direction for the new year with hope, and may love sustain and guide us we explore and learn and care together.

May it be so.

Poem: Caring by F.R. Scott

Caring is loving, motionless,
An interval of more or less
Between the stress and the distress.

After the present falls the past.
After the festival, the fast.
Always the deepest is the last.

This is the circle we must trace,
Not spiralled outward, but a space
Returning to its starting place.

Centre of all we mourn or bless,
Centre of calm beyond excess,
Who cares for caring, has caress.

Benediction

As we go from here
May we accept and keep open
the invitation to love.
May we journey with
humility, gentleness and an open-heart
into the coming year;
and may the God of our understanding
be with us now and always.

Let us go now in peace.

The Light of Christmas – Sunday 20th December 2020

by Rev. Duncan Voice


Opening Words by Ellen Fay


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

Chalice Lighting by Max Kapp (adapted)

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

Prayer

God of Our Hearts, Source of all Being,

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


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

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

Reading – John 1: 1-9

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


Music: The Holly and the Ivy


Reading: Why Not a Star by Margaret Gooding


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


Quiet reflection


This Christmas by Cliff Reed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

Reflection


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

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

Music: Ding Dong! Merrily on High, John Rutter


I Will Light Candles this Christmas – inspired by Howard Thurman


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

Benediction


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

Sunday 22nd November 2020

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

Warm wishes and blessings to you all.

Jennifer Sanders – Lay Pastor – Hastings Unitarian Church

Opening words

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

Chalice Lighting

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

Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is entitled Pandemic,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause for a few minutes

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

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

Pause for a few minutes

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

by Thomas Merton

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

Pause for a few minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance Sunday, 8th November 2020

Opening words and chalice lighting

On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, the guns finally fell silent on the western font.

We therefore gather to remember
on this Sunday closest to that time.
As we do so, we light our chalice,
symbol of hope.
We wear our poppies,
symbols of remembrance.
We remember in silence
and with words;
We remember in song
and poem.
Together we remember.

At 11 a.m we will observe a two-minute silence

Two-minute silence

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Prayer

Spirit of Life

Our gathering here
is our solemn and sacred
act of remembrance.

We take time to remember
the casualties of war.
Those who suffered
hardship, injury, loss
and ultimately death.
Those who we never knew
and those still in
our living memory.

Ours is an act of gratitude
for those who gave so much
so that we may live.
Ours is an act of commitment
to pursue the ways of peace
so that none should suffer
the horror of war.

Amen

Reading

Matthew 5: 1-9

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

This short film from the National Museums of Scotland reflects on why wear the poppy on this day.

Music

Finlandia (Live) by Jean Sibelius, Cantus

Reflection

“If I should die think only this of me: That there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
The opening line to the poem “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke.

As we reflect on Remembrance Day, as we do each year, I wonder if sometimes we do this in too distant a way. That maybe we think of war as a thing that happened in a distant time, or happens today in distant places, in some “foreign field”? Past conflicts can sometimes be glorified, or romanticised or viewed as entertainment in movies. Current conflicts maybe reported all too briefly or sanitised for our viewing on the evening news. Do we really understand what is happening, are we fully aware?

Only those who have experienced conflict know the true horror of war of course. A horror too difficult or painful to express, which is why, I suppose, so many veterans never talk about their experiences to their families. Doing so may bring to the surface emotions that can’t easily be contained, or they may feel some things are best forgotten. Perhaps some here have witnessed this in their own families? Some veterans are unable to even involve themselves in acts of remembrance.
Those who kept diaries or wrote memoires quite often doing so in a detached way, as if they were a spectator to events happening around them. Or using casual or dehumanising language, so and so “bought it”, or we “took out” the enemy. One veteran put it like this,

‘It is virtually impossible to convey the atmosphere of battle to anyone who had not had the experience. Even the most lurid film cannot do this as the spectator – comfortably seated with perhaps an ice-cream in hand – knows he is safe and that the ‘good guys’ will win in the end.’
(Evans, D. (1991) The Private Papers of D. Evans. IWM Documents.2028.)

War is a human activity, and although young soldiers maybe trained to obey commands and do their duty, they are human. All are scarred in some way by the experience. Physical scars we can see, but there are psychological scars too. Better understood today than perhaps they once were, they can go deep. Fear may linger, hatred or anger may smoulder just below the surface; veterans may have difficulty fitting back into civilian life or may struggle with their personal relationships. So, unlike physical scars, these may also in some way be passed on to others through the behaviour of an individual. The consequences of conflict and violence can be far reaching indeed.

Many civilians become direct casualties of war too. Homes and lives destroyed in violent ways that we, who have never experienced such things, cannot imagine. Children killed, deliberately or accidently; families displaced, becoming refugees, sometimes never to return. War time activities and priorities have led to deprivation, starvation and exploitation for millions. For example, researchers now believe that Churchill’s policies in India, using resources for the war effort, may have made a significant contribution to a famine in Bengal in 1943 that killed around 3 million people.
In desperate times, as always, the poor and the vulnerable suffer most.

The consequences of war seem to ripple out like an explosion. Affecting people, animals, the environment and even economies. Britain for example only finished paying back its massive loans incurred to cover the cost of the second world war in 2006! And there is estimated to still be 100,000 tonnes of explosives left in the seas around Britain, with some old bombs weighing up to half a tonne. That’s from a war that ended 75 years ago! In other countries that have experienced more recent conflict things are even worse. UNICEF, for example, estimates that 15 to 20,000 people a year are killed, or maimed, by landmines; one in five of those victims being children.

So, if we feel we’ve lived in peaceful circumstances during our lives we can probably count ourselves very fortunate. But in truth conflict will have affected our family in some way and so we are touched whether we realised or not. And those people caught up in conflicts in other parts of the world are human too, just like us. We are all connected.

I imagine that people were living peaceful and normal lives, with everyday hopes and fears, before world war one and two erupted. Then suddenly they were engulfed in events over which they had largely no control. The author J.R.R. Tolkein, was a lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers during the First World War. Although, it seems he was a reluctant leader, as he wrote, “The most improper job of any man…is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” Nevertheless, a leader he had to be, and he participated in battles at the Somme in 1916. He was eventually invalided back to England after contracting trench fever. Shortly afterwards his battalion was almost entirely wiped out, along with many of his close friends. Events that probably left him with that sense of guilt that many who survived experienced.

He never went back to the front, and after the war ended, he entered into his academic and writing careers. There is no doubt that his wartime experiences shaped his writing, most notably perhaps in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The books have a sense of dark days and events taking place beyond the control of individuals. In this quote from the “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the reluctant hobbit “hero” Frodo realises the forces of darkness are gathering around him and he becomes afraid. So, his friend the wise wizard Gandalf advises him,

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo, “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live in such times. But that is not for them to decide. All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
(J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring)

I’m sure many a young soldier has found themselves with such thoughts on a battlefield. Perhaps Tolkien felt this too. Why did this have to happen in my time? But Tolkien’s (or Gandalf’s) advice is sound, “All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Good advice to reflect on at any time really.

We have our own difficulties at the moment of course with the current pandemic, but today we remember the casualties of war. How do we honour the sacrifices of those who have fallen, those who have suffered? The answer surely is to work to stop the darkness of war and conflict from gathering. That is what many of the soldiers of the world war one and two thought they were fighting for. Now it’s our time. To speak for peace, to work for peace, to become peacemakers in a hurting world.

May it be so.

Music

Wherever You Are by the Military Wives

Closing Words by John O’Donohue

As we reflect on conflicts past
May we find there a path to healing and peace.

We pray for all who suffered violence today,
May an unexpected serenity surprise them.

For those who risk their lives each day for peace,
May their hearts glimpse providence at the heart of history.

That those who make riches from violence and war
Might hear in their dreams the cries of the lost.

That we might see through our fear of each other
A new vision to heal our fatal attraction to aggression.

That those who enjoy the privilege of peace
Might not forget their tormented brothers and sisters.

That the wolf might lie down with the lamb,
That our swords be beaten into ploughshares.

And no hurt or harm be done
Anywhere along the holy mountain.

As we go from here today may love light our way, and may the God of our hearts be with us to guide us on the path of peace.

Amen.

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