Sunday 19th July 2020

To Come Home to Yourself

by Rev. Duncan Voice

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

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

Chalice Lightning

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

Gathering Prayer

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

Sprit of Love and Life,

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

May all find love and healing.

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

May all know peace.

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

May all know happiness and joy.

Amen

Reading

Excerpt from “Everything Belongs” by Richards Rohr

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

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

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

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

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

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

Hymn

To Seek and Find Our Natural Mind

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

A time of Reflection and Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Story

The Mustard Seed – a story from the Buddhist tradition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Music

Closing Words

by Maya Angelou (Adapted)

We are weaned from our timidity

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

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

Yet it is only love
Which sets us free.

Blessing

To Come Home to Yourself by John O’Donohue

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

May your fears yield
their deepest tranquillities.

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

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

Sunday 12 July 2020

by Stephen Crowther

Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
Man was made for joy and woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the world we safely go
.

(Auguries of Innocence by William Blake)
Submitted by Liz Button

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

11.00am light a candle.

As some of us begin to come out of hiding and some of us remain isolated, may we be reminded once more that we are always connected – with each other and with the wider world.
May the flame of this candle connect with the light in all our hearts bringing trust and hope to each of us in this continuing time of uncertainty.

(pause)

Good morning and welcome once more to our weekly communal Sunday service during this ongoing pandemic time.

Whatever the state of your heart or frame of mind you find yourself in this morning, may you find solace and connection here in this beloved community.
In case there is anyone joining us, who doesn’t normally worship with us on a Sunday, I would like to extend a special welcome. Unitarians have no fixed statement of beliefs or creed to which you have to agree in order to be accepted. Our attitude is that religion is wider than any church or faith-group, and deeper than any set of beliefs. Here we practice a free faith unfettered by dogma.
As such, when I speak of God, I invite you to bring your own unfolding, personal and intimate understanding to the name – for it is yours and yours alone and may just be your most intimate relationship of all….

(pause)

Opening Words


Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher.
All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Wait.
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
Expectancy.
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.

(Disclosure by Anne Lewin)

(pause)

Reading


There can be few of us who try to pray regularly who have not found our pattern of prayer disturbed by the lockdown. This is partly owing to other changes in our daily rhythms, and partly by the burden of distress and confusion which we are all carrying at the moment. Our lives have been suspended, and, in spite of the cautious changes that have been announced, there is no “normal” in sight. Meanwhile, we worry — for our­selves, for ageing friends and parents, for school-age children, for the furloughed and those unemployed, for the future.
We should not be too hard on ourselves if we find personal prayer difficult at this time. It is challenging enough to have our health threatened by a mindless micro­physical entity.
But the virus has also cast a shadow into our souls, creeping into our dreams and our daylight reveries, perhaps causing us to question the love of God. If prayer was once a safe stronghold, it may often now be a battleground. And yet, while my regular pattern sometimes seems meaningless, I find that the urge to pray comes suddenly in the dead of night, or in encountering the multiple, and often unknown, names on intercession lists, or when I watch the news.

Our lives may never be quite the same again, but all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.

(Angela Tilby in the Church Times, 15.5.20)

(pause)

Reflection


So, how is your prayer life going? How has it been during this abnormal time? Has your prayer practice (if you have one) changed at all in the 3 months of lockdown?
I know mine has. With this expansive sense of time that has been a gift of lockdown, I have found myself praying more regularly and consistently. I have felt God’s presence more closely. Particularly when spending time in my garden first thing each day and in the busyness and songs of the birds that visit. I suspect this is because I’m not travelling around much or stressfully clawing myself from one deadline to the next. I have the time to be alert. It seems I am not alone in this. In a recent Church Times survey exploring the impact of the lockdown on relating to God, it was shown that, while respondents felt more distant from other people, 41% felt closer to God, and 48% felt more prayerful.

So, how’s your prayer life going?

(pause)

Reading

Listening with the Heart by Gary Kowalski

https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/listening-heart

(pause)

As we enter a time of Prayer and Quiet Reflection, let us come together in prayerful stillness. We will we move through prayers of thanksgiving, reflection, loving and listening. (This format may be familiar to those of you who have been to a heart and soul service.)

You may want to begin by closing your eyes and directing the focus of your attention inwards, bringing it to your heart – penetrating its walls and spending a few moments breathing into it deeply.

With each out breath, let go:

• of tension in your body – let it soften

• of thoughts in your mind – let them go – don’t follow them – let them move off.

(pause)

Come, Holy Spirit of Love.
In the silence come to us and bring your peace;
Rest in us that we may be tranquil and still;
Speak to us as each heart needs to hear;
Reveal to us things longed for;
Rejoice in us that we may praise and be glad;
Pray in us that we may be at one with you and each other;
Refresh and renew us from your living springs of water;
Dwell in us now and always

• We begin with Naming Prayer.
This is a time to reflect on the things we feel grateful for and to acknowledge them. I invite you to think back over your day, week or month. Notice what or who you feel grateful for – however big or small. Take your time with this. Naming and holding whatever it is you are grateful for, in the confines of your heart.

(pause)

• And now, we come to Knowing Prayer.
Resting in God’s presence, allow yourself to be bathed in the healing light of unconditional love – breathe it in….. breathe it out, filling the space around you with it.

(pause)

Take a few moments to look back over your day so far. If your day has only just begun, then also include yesterday. Without judgement or criticism of any of it, gently recount events from the moment you awoke right up to this moment here, now.

  1. And as you do this, ask God to bring to your heart the moment for which you are most grateful.
    If you could relive one moment, which one would it be?
    When were you most able to give and receive love?
    When did you feel most alive? most connected? most fully yourself?

Ask yourself what was said and done in the moment that made it so special. Breathe in the gratitude you feel and receive life again from that moment….

(pause)

  1. Ask God to bring to your heart the moment for which you are least grateful. When were you least able to give and receive love?
    When did you feel most drained of life? least connected? least yourself?

Ask yourself what was said and done in the moment that made it so difficult. Be with whatever you feel without trying to change or fix it in any way. You may want to take deep breaths and let God’s love fill you just as you are….

(pause)

As this time of knowing prayer comes to a close, you might want to speak inwardly to God, that which you hold to be Divine, asking for comfort, compassion, or forgiveness… perhaps asking for guidance, or ways to live your own life more fully.

(pause)

• Now we move to Loving Prayer

At this time, let us bring to our hearts and minds all those who are in need of our prayers right now.

(pause)

Those who are confused and unclear with the lifting of restrictions; those living in fear of infection and those infected with the coronavirus. May they be granted courage and be restored to wholeness.

(pause)

Those who are alone, feeling the pain of isolation, starved of human contact. May they know they are not alone. May they feel God’s touch and be comforted by His presence.

(pause)

May those who are suffering be released from their pain.
May we all be released from our pain.

Amen

• Now we move into Listening Prayer.

  • time to sit in silence and stillness, with the intention of allowing ourselves to listen for the still, small, voice within that may speak….

Silence for aprox 5 minutes

Reading

Six Recognitions of the Lord by Mary Oliver

http://yearsrisingmaryoliver.blogspot.com/2010/09/six-recognitions-of-lord_25.html

(pause)

A closing story


This story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air – until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. “My God, this terrible”, the wave says. “Look what’s going to happen to me!”
Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him: “Why do you look so sad?” The first wave says: “You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?”
The second wave says: “No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.”
(from Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom)

(pause)

Blessing


Spirit of all blessing,
be with us in the ordinariness of our days.
May hope’s light guard us and keep cynicism from our hearts.
May the energy of laughter build endurance for the dark times of our lives.
May creativity’s vision grant the possibility of seeing old relationships with new eyes.
May the oil of healing keep us from anger’s hardness or despair.
May the mantle of humility give courage to admit when we are wrong.
May compassion’s loom weave in us the discipline to forgive.
May patience help us bear in mind that ours is not the only scale of time.
May the flame of justice be a beacon for the choices we must make.
May peace be ever in us and sustain our stressful days.
Spirit of all blessing,
be with us
in the ordinariness of our days. (Maureen Killoran)

And so, until such a time that we can meet in person, may the wind of the Spirit blow through our world, giving the answer of God’s everlasting love. That when you leave this place, you go with peace and joy in your heart.

Amen

Sunday 5th July

by Rev. Duncan Voice

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” – Albert Einstein

Welcome

Welcome to our Sunday Service, which should have been our Anniversary Service, before it had to be cancelled sadly. So, no scones and cream, and tea at the village hall this year; but we’ll enjoy it all the more next year. We face adversity in our ability to gather together, but let us gather instead in spirit and draw encouragement and strength from community.

You are invited to light a candle, or chalice, to begin our Service.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice as a symbol of our faith
in the enduring good that abides in the world.
May we discover it, and nurture it, in ourselves and others;
and may it give us purpose and meaning.

Prayer

Come and Experience by Roger Courtney

All of those whose lives feel empty or meaningless

  • Come and experience the possibility of meaning and the healing of the spirit.

All of those who have had their heart broken

  • Come and experience the possibility of the healing heart.

All of those who feel cynical or pessimistic

  • Come and experience the possibility of hope for the future.

All of those whose lives are filled with superficiality

  • Come and experience the possibility of stimulation for the mind and the soul.

All of those whose lives are filled with noise

  • Come and experience the possibility of silence and tranquillity to reconnect with who we are and the divine ground of all things.

Amen

Story

Starfish on the Beach from The Shortest Distance by Bill Darlison

While walking along the beach one day, a young man noticed that thousands of starfish had been washed up by the tide. The tide was going out, and the starfish were stranded. There was no way they could get back to the water, and within an hour or so they would all be dead.

In the distance, he noticed an elderly woman, who was picking up the starfish from the beach and throwing them back into the sea. He approached her and asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m throwing these starfish back into the sea.”
But why are you bothering? There are thousands of them, what you are doing won’t make any difference,” said the young man.
“It will make a difference to this one” said the woman, as she hurled another starfish into the receding tide.

Hymn: Grant Us God, A Mind to Know You (from Sing Your Faith)

Grant us God, a mind to know you,
let us feel you stir in our heart;
fill our lives with your abundance,
show us how to play our parts.
In this changing world, in which we make our way,
keep us in your love ever true.

Help us to be kind to each other,
value people’s thoughts and needs.
Human hearts can give so much loving,
Human flesh for mercy pleads.
In this warring world in which we would survive,
why should we not give peace a chance?

Keep our spirits young and lively,
teach our children how to flower.
When our limbs begin to weaken,
send your comfort, let us know your power.
In this jostling world in which we strain and strive,
let us hear your still small voice.

Reading

God Within by Stephanie Ramage

There is “something” in a man and a woman
Which inspires them to create things of great beauty…
To write poetry which moves the spirit,
To tend a garden full of sweet-smelling flowers,
To create music which can move us to tears of joy,
To design fine buildings,
To use threads of silk and wool and turn them into beautiful fabrics which please the eye.

There is “something” in a man and a woman
Which enables their hearts to be touched by things of great beauty…
The sound of music created by the human voice and musical instrument,
The music of nature – the roar of the sea – the howl of the wind – the sound of gentle rain,
The sight of a perfect seashell or a beautifully turned pot or a vast range of mountains viewed at dawn.

There is “something” in a man or a woman
Which inspires them to behave in a loving way…
To give themselves to the service of others,
To help a friend when help is needed,
To look after and care for their family even when the daily tasks seem too much for them,
To withstand torture and face death for their beliefs.

That “something” which
Touches
Every Life,
Every day,
Is God within.

(From Waiting to be Discovered, Edited by Johanna Boeke and Joy Croft, published by the Unitarian General Assembly Worship Committee)

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

Reflection

I expect many of us, from time to time, have asked ourselves the question, is what I am doing worthwhile? Or am I doing any good? Or why do I bother? Questions which may lead us into a depression or an apathy, if the answer appears to be negative or if, maybe, we don’t know. Perhaps we feel we have no direction in our life, or meaning. In such circumstances, tasks, even life itself, may appear mundane or pointless. Goals impossible to achieve. We might give up or walk away, and perhaps sometimes that is the right thing to do; but how do we know? It is good to question the meaning or the purpose of our lives, or aspects of our lives, I think, but where do we find some sort of answers?

It may be difficult in the first instance to find the right space and the time we need for reflection on such fundamental questions. Sometimes in meditation we reflect on important questions such as “what do I need to let go of to find peace in my life?” First, we calm ourselves and try to be present through gentle awareness of our breathing, then we place the question on the work bench of our mind, and see if an intuitive response emerges. It may do, or it may not for a while. But we can be patient if we understand the need to be so; and we do need to be so. Chasing an answer gives us no time to listen for that, perhaps, small quiet voice within. Sometimes it may be necessary to remove ourselves from the centre of things. The world really isn’t revolving around us as individuals after all! But we have something important to offer, a gift, or gifts; we all have a contribution to make.

I read an article recently, in the latest edition of “Faith and Freedom” magazine, an article called “The Sovereignty of Good and the Kingdom of God – a view from the hospital waiting room , written by retired minister Frank Walker .” He describes sitting in a hospital waiting room as his wife emerged from a consultation. He said,
“Something was obviously wrong. Her face was distorted; her walk agitated. The scan had revealed growths on her bladder, a serious case of cancer. I held her as she sobbed the news. I was shocked, stunned. The accustomed world dissolved. A new world appeared. It was a heavy burden to take up, and of course I shrank from it. It was the last thing I ever wanted.

Yet I realised immediately what I must do. I must do whatever I could to help and support her. I didn’t make a decision. I didn’t weigh up the pros and cons, and then decide. It was as though a light was switched on and immediately, I saw, I recognised, and I accepted. This light shone with authority. What else could I do? I knew at once I was necessary, absolutely necessary to my wife. A great work was entrusted to me, a more important work than anything I had ever done. It was most needful, and in the most special and intimate way possible it was mine. I knew all this at once without having to put it into words.”

The title of this piece is taken from a book by Iris Murdoch and Frank references this to examine the good that is within us, that in traditional religious language might be called a Divine spark. He discusses our use of more naturalistic language today, so someone might be inspired by nature rather that the glory of God, or have a love of life, rather than a love of God. But he suggests that in essence these are perhaps the same thing. He points out too our unique ability, in the animal kingdom, to care for the vulnerable and the sick, when this Divine spark might glow. He says,
“There emerges within people very powerfully and unmistakably the will, the determination to help. They could not do otherwise, or so many feel. It is so strong and universal, it has such depth of feeling, it is so unmistakable and assured, it is so supreme a value that in its service is perfect freedom. It is the love of the Good, the promise of the Kingdom of God. Normally we do not express it in such words. It seems all the same to be a universal experience, not captured in any one theological language. The impulse is so powerful it asserts itself without language…..the sovereignty of Good mysteriously lures us on, inviting, persuading us to attempt the impossible.” (Faith and Freedom, vol.73, part 1, published at Harris Manchester College, Oxford)

So adverse circumstance can make what is important clear to us, and we may feel this very deeply, giving us the courage to do what must be done, to love and to care. Perhaps this kind of revelation has helped some of our carers who have had to deal with the difficulties and dangers of coronavirus?

Revelation, in a traditional religious sense means disclosure of knowledge to humans by divine or supernatural agency. God partially revealed, a glimpse of ultimate truth. Perhaps not part of most peoples everyday thinking these days in our increasingly secular country? For some religious groups the source of this Truth can also be a narrow and exclusive one too, a historical figure, a scripture or maybe a church teaching. Not something that might evolve or change. As one inquisition Bishop put it “you can always tell a heresy, it is something new!”

This is not so for Unitarians however. When describing a classical Unitarian approach minister Stephen Lingwood says,

“Revelation for the Unitarian is not a once delivered truth that must now be preached and practiced, and defended, but a process of gradually imperfectly discovering a mysterious truth.”

So, while there might be dramatic moments of revelation in our lives during extraordinary times, it is more usually a process of discovery throughout our lives. Imperfect because we are, and maybe uncertain, but honest and open when followed truly. Stephen continues,

“All that we know is provisional (true for now, but might need to change in the future) and perspectival (not a “bird’s eye view of the world, but shaped by the particular place we are coming from). This means, as noted by American Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams. “Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”” (Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times by Stephen Lingwood published by The Lindsey Press)

Stephen points out later in his book that we should avoid the mistake of trying to discern revelation in a “primarily individualistic way.” We are a part of the world, and the world is part of us; we live in communities and societies that shape our views; we are interconnected; “we are part of a social and historical conversation.” We are discerning truth in community; a truth we intuit, that feels right at this time and place.

In our reading Stephanie Ramage speaks of how beauty in its many forms can stir that “something” within us. Another kind of revelation. Something special, something sacred, something inspirational. We can find different words, but there always seems to be that “something”. So, revelation may come to us in many ways. Through nature, literature, poetry, but also the pain and suffering we may encounter on our journey through life; and of course, the inspiration of others – their wisdom, courage and compassion. All these and more can change the direction of our lives or the view we have of life.

Sometimes all the problems in the world, in our lives, can seem overwhelming, hopeless maybe. Their scale and magnitude, and our limitations; but there is always something we can do for the good. It may be seem a small thing, like the old lady in our story throwing starfish back in to the sea; but it may be the most important thing we do in our lives. And perhaps someone will see us on that beach, going about our hopeless task, and perhaps they will join us and we’ll form a community whose task is hopeless, but who manage to do some good. Wouldn’t that would be a beautiful “something” indeed.

May it be so.

Closing

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Have patience with everything
unresolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions
themselves, as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a foreign
language.

Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able
to live them.

And the point is, to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way to the answer.

May we go on the ways of lives in love and peace, and may the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen.

Sunday June 28th

Opening words

Our Opening words, loosely translated, come from Matthew 16: 24-26

If any person would come after me, let them pick up their cross and follow me. For whoever would save their own life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit an individual, if they gain the whole world and forfeit their own spiritual life?

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

Chalice lighting

In every darkened corner there is a chance for the light of love to shine. Serving as a beacon of hope, reminding us of the spirit of love, truth and liberty.
.
Divine spirit, help us to come together and be present in this space for a short time of prayer and stillness

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

We bring our fears, anger, confusion and our brokenness to be healed.

May we seek to find the peace within our inner selves.

May we give ourselves the gift of our union in this gathering.

Amen

We invite you to listen to some, or all, of this piece of music.

There is no question over what we are being asked to do in out opening words, which is echoed by the words of St Charles of Sezze:

“The sacrifice the divine wants of us is to die to ourselves.”

We are being called to give everything, without holding back. Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the lengths to which we are being asked to extend ourselves. Whatever we chose to believe in, whether that is what we could call a religious faith or a spiritual sense of something good in the world, the answer will be the same. As we put ourselves aside and follow a path of love, compassion and righteousness then our gift in the spiritual sense will be so much bigger than anything material that we wish for or believe will bring us happiness.

Christ does not mess around with words here. We can scope and change the quote all we like but we are called to love with a special kind of devotion. Lose our own selfish desire and wants for the sake of others rather than forsake others for the desires of ourselves. Well that’s just a wee small ask isn’t it ?!

All those months ago, back in March when spring was beginning to be a real possibility, the early shoots were showing themselves, many of us were holding our breath as an unknown virus worked its way across our waters and began to make its devastating path across all areas of our lives. Lock-down began with an overnight change in the way we lived, I’m sure in times to come it will be one of those moments that we recall where we were when we heard, or saw, our prime minister giving us a clear instruction. It will become to be known as a defining moment in our history.

Stay at home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives

Pick up your cross – acknowledge the sacrifice you are being asked to make, put others first.

We did well, we made alternative plans we shared our Tesco slots, queued up at the local shop to pay our neighbours tv license, we got busy sewing scrubs or volunteering at the food banks, we wrote letters, watched old tv programs, cleaned out cupboards.

For some little changed – work was moved to the spare bedroom. For others the patience of saying for the umpteenth time “wear your mask wash your hands” began to wear thin.

For some of us it was the sacrifice of not seeing our family and friends and for others we had no choice but to stay in and rely on others to help. For yet others it has been a life changing time – the loss of a job, unable pay the mortgage, no money for food they find themselves queuing at the food bank or requesting a food parcel.

Even those that seem to be relatively unscathed have been touched by this time.

We have all been doing our bit and we celebrate this. For some it was getting out of bed in the morning, making a cup of tea keeping the inner demons at bay taking prescribed medication. Or risking a trip into the outside world, or getting to grips with zoom! We have all made sacrifices.

Reading

Our first reading comes from ‘The chad’ an online northern newspaper and was written by the journalist David Bell in April 2020:

“The Derbyshire village of Eyam has never been shy making capital from its famous plague heritage where a unique exercise in self- isolation was played out with such tragic consequences 355 years ago.
During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665, the population of Eyam agreed to be locked-down voluntarily to prevent the spread of an invisible killer disease. The story of the Eyam plague began with the arrival of a consignment of cloth and second-hand clothes from London, where the disease had already killed 30 per cent of the population. In the London consignment there were fleas from infected black rats carrying the deadly plague bacteria.
A tailor’s assistant called George Viccars was said to have opened the delivery unwittingly stirring the disease-ridden fleas. He became the first of the plague’s victims in the village some 10 days later.
The pestilence, as it was known, began its unrelenting surge through the community. Between September and December 1665, almost 50 villagers died
and by the following spring with more deaths – and increasing alarm – many were on the verge of fleeing their homes and their livelihoods to save themselves.
It was at this point that the newly appointed vicar, William Mompesson, intervened. Believing it his duty to prevent the plague spreading to other towns and cities he sought to quarantine Eyam.
However, as if persuading his flock to sacrifice their lives was not difficult enough, he had another problem – Mompesson was already deeply unpopular with the villagers.
Realising he would need help, the vicar decided to reach out to his popular predecessor Thomas Stanley in the hope that together they could persuade the villagers to make a huge sacrifice.
Mompesson persuaded his parishioners that the village must be enclosed, with no-one allowed in or out. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby at Chatsworth House, had offered to send supplies if the locals agreed to the plan.

By the end of the outbreak, 260 of the village’s population of 350 were dead. 79 out of 90 families recorded the death of an immediate family member. The plague outbreak however had been contained after a 14 month long grim struggle.
The Eyam Plague Story has endeared itself to the British public with its stirring accounts of personal sacrifice for the greater good. Two pandemics – one historical and another current – both strangely with powerful parallels of lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation.”

Eyam in 1666 showed the value of love, compassion, togetherness and leadership; all powerful traits the majority of us have taken on in the current pandemic.

Reflection

We take some time together in reflection So please take moment to get comfortable where you are.

We think back over the last few months and acknowledge to ourselves the impact that this pandemic has had upon us and the sacrifices that we have had to make as individuals. They may be large or small, significant or hidden. They may have been acutely painful and frightening, or life changing and as we sit in this stillness, we acknowledge all we have done.

Pause

We acknowledge the sacrifice our loved ones have made during this time, looking after us or other family members, working in difficult situations and/or long hours.

Pause

We acknowledge the sacrifice of people that we may have seen once or twice – the bus driver or the shop assistant, the post person. We take time to think about how their lives have been impacted by the pandemic and what has changed for them. What they have had to do without.

Pause

We think about those that perhaps we don’t get on with, we have fallen out with, or those who occupy positions of power with whom we have not seen eye to eye. We acknowledge some of the sacrifices they have made at risk to themselves – long hours of working distanced from their family. Difficult almost impossible decisions for the greater good.

Pause

We think about people across the world, carers, parents, cleaners, drivers, surgeons, neighbours, new borns and the elderly, and we acknowledge their sacrifice.

Pause

We acknowledge the global sacrifice that so many billions of people have made over these 6 months.

And we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.

Pause

Great spirit of life and love as our time of refection comes to a close we come together in prayer.

A prayer for all that walk this earth, as we are all teachers and students in this great universe, no greater no less.

Amen

Reading

In April 2020 Steve Ford wrote an article in the nursing times which like other articles in a similar vein has led to an enquiry about the sacrifices and impact on BAME members of our society.

Here is an extract:

“The country must not forget the sacrifices you make while the rest of us are in lockdown. The growing list of nurses and other health and social care workers who have died from Covid-19 is rightly in the media spotlight. Although not all the deaths can be conclusively attributed to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) we can say with a fair amount of confidence that a significant proportion can. The list also reinforced to me how disproportionately people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are losing their lives, including many originally from the Philippines.

Every death from Covid-19 is a tragedy, but people from BAME backgrounds in general seem to be overrepresented in the mortality figures, a trend now being recognised at national level. The government launched formal review into the impact of coronavirus on people from BAME backgrounds, including staff, comes too late to save lives…. people from BAME backgrounds were at a “greater risk” from coronavirus because these communities were more likely to have “a number of comorbidities”, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sickle cell, thalassemia and lupus and they were being chosen to work on coronavirus wards more so than their white colleagues.

The pandemic was “shining a light” on the inequities and among the names on the memorial list is Donald Suelto, whose body was found at his flat in London around 10 days after he was sent home to self-isolate and five days after he last contacted his family. Nurses were very much skilled professionals doing their job, but in challenging conditions and recognition of that sacrifice, and of the skill, professionalism and courage required to do your job in unprecedented circumstances, must be a key legacy of this pandemic.”

Sacrifice the ultimate death of ourselves to help another who we may not even know. In our reflection many of us may be feeling good about what we have done and how we have behaved during lockdown. Others of us may feel rather uncomfortable, the extra journey we made which wasn’t necessary but we justified it then pushed it aside. For some we may feel we made so much more of a sacrifice than others. It’s not a competition and yet there is an uncomfortable truth that some make more sacrifices than others just because of what colour of skin they are born into.

Michael Beckwith – a spiritual leader from the US talks about the two-fold apocalypse we are living through. That of Covid 19 and racial inequality. It may sound extreme but he goes on to explain that Covid 19 is bringing about the end of way of living we have been used to, the death of the old and thereby making the way for a new way. This pause has led to the lifting of the veil and a small window of opportunity for the world to wake up to a new consciousness.

We may have thought crikey I’ve done enough sacrificing for one year, for one lifetime, now let’s just get back to some sort of normal … Most of us will have the opportunity to do so especially after July 4th when the landscape of us lives will become a little more familiar – a pint in the local, perhaps a holiday, a BBQ with friends, a return to the office and there is nothing wrong with any of these desires. They are part of the fabric of our society and yet we are being asked to make more sacrifice – perhaps the hardest of all we have been through in recent months. Because the difference of this sacrifice is not about staying in, not seeing others, the 2 or now 1 meter’s rule. This is the inner sacrifice, the death of our old ways of thinking, of being, of operating. A chance to look deeper, to take inventory or stock of our beliefs and thought processes, and a deep willingness to behave in a more conscious way.

The apocalypse he says is here – now what? I was reminded by the lyrics of Gill Scot Heron in his song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (for some of you this will be what I was listening to in my late teens and early twenties!)

The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live.

Everything has been brought to our living room especially during the pandemic. We have no escape. Its 24 seven and there are images that sum up or can be defined as a moment in history when things changed. In 1945 there was image of Atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ as it is dropped on Hiroshima – the final death toll stood at more than 1400000. On Feb 4th 1968 the then live televised images of South Vietnam’s chief of National Police, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes a Viet Cong operative in Ho Chi Minh City – one of the most prominent images to fuel anti-war sentiment at home. In 1989 An unknown man blocks the path of tanks in Tiananmen Square, China. Which struck a chord for its David-and-Goliath-like image of defiance. In 1993 David Carters depiction of the famine-stricken South Sudan, showing a vulture stalking a starving black child. On 27th May 2020 footage of the death of George Floyd , a black man murdered on the streets by a white police officer goes viral igniting a world-wide protest of the inequalities of Black lives .

George Floyd is not the first black person to be murdered in cold blood on the streets. He’s not the only black person in a so-called democracy whose rights have been left wanting.

We cannot un-see what we have seen, we cannot un-hear what we have heard, we cannot un-read what we have read, we cannot erase the strings in our own spiritual consciousness of what is so un-holy, so un-sacred, but it takes great courage to stay in that uncomfortable place. We are a mix of seeing the possibility of change, fear of the decay of the old world and the changes that will bring, and a pull to distract ourselves. Covid came to our shores, although back in January is was happening to someone else. We had to wake up fast and acknowledge that we weren’t separate from recent events in America are occurring here.

Perhaps those that have died at the hands of police brutality, perhaps those that because of the colour of their skin have not been given the same opportunities as others, have been the sacrifice for us to open our eyes. Perhaps those black men on the estates of north London who have been arrested on suspicion due to the colour of their skin are the sacrifice for us to see our privilege. Perhaps those that march despite the risks of the pandemic are the sacrifice for a greater movement of change.

And we are left with the question of what we do – in lock-down we were given a set of instructions for living!

Our spiritual lives give us daily sets of instructions for living and in the words of Mandiba:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

We stand, we sit, we think, we reflect on our own lives and those that came before us.
We open our minds to transform our ancestral world, challenge what has gone before us and what now needs to come.
We stand and accept our own inadequacies our own privilege.
We do what is ours to do.

And in the words of Jesse Jackson:

“Never look down on anyone unless you are helping them up.”

Amen

May you go in love, in peace and in greater awareness and willingness to serve.

Sunday 21st June – Shades of Green

by Rev. Duncan Voice

“God lifts up those who are bowed down” – Psalm 146.8

Welcome

Welcome to our Service today. In nature, if Autumn is a time of harvest, Winter a time of stillness, Spring a time of awakening then Summer is a time of flowering. Yesterday we marked the summer Solstice and entered summer, so I hope you have been able to enjoy the warmer weather and the longer days. Connecting in some way with the beauty of the natural world as it reveals itself to us.

Today is also Father’s Day and we celebrate with any Fathers that may be joining us. We celebrate the contribution of Fathers, step-fathers, and those who have acted as a father, to the lives of their children and those they have supported. However, today may also be a reminder of those we have lost; and some may not have had a good relationship with their father for many reasons. So, may this be a time healing too.

We begin with our chalice or candle lighting. Please join in at home if you can.

Chalice Lighting

We light this chalice flame
as a symbol of our faith,
which brings warmth and light
into our lives;
and through us,
in to the lives of others,
who we meet and we welcome
in peace and love.

Prayer and reflection

Spirit of life and love,
We gather together, though we are apart.
Into this gathering we bring our worries and concerns,
our questions and uncertainties,
but also, our gratitude.
Gratitude for this moment, this peace, this sharing.

On this day we think of the joys and sadness’s
connected with fatherhood.
Our own relationships, those that we know.
The wise and the caring, the unwise and the uncaring.
May we celebrate all that is good
and find healing where there is pain and separation.

Help us to understand ourselves
so that we may better understand others.
At this time of summer help us to flourish and grow,
in gentle spirit and in loving community.
As we celebrate, and appreciate more than ever,
those that work as carers, help us to be carers too;
in our relationships with each other, and our world. Amen.

Story – The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello

“The disciples were full of questions about God.
Said the master, “God is unknown and unknowable.
Every statement about him, every answer to your questions,
is a distortion of the truth.”
The disciples were bewildered.
“Then why do you speak about him at all?”
“Why does the bird sing?” said the master.

Anthony de Mello comments,
“Not because it has a statement, but because it has a song.
The words of the scholar are to be understood. The words of the master are not to be understood. They are to be listened to as one listens to the wind in the trees, and the sound of a river, and the song of the bird. They will awaken something in the heart that is beyond all knowledge.”

[Pause for a little while to consider how this story speaks to you.]

Reading

The Casa del Sol Blessings of Jesus (Based on Matthew 5. 3-9) by John Philip Newell can be found by following this link : https://heartbeatjourney.org/casa-del-sol-blessing-of-jesus/

Please pause for a time of quiet reflection and meditation. You may like to listen to this piece of music called Una Mattina by Ludovico Einaudi.

Reflection

Walking recently in the countryside, near to where I live, I have been captivated and amazed at how many shades of green there are in the natural world. Different every day, even when viewed from the same perspective. The crops in the fields, grasses and trees create an astonishing green patchwork. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe it really. Dark and bright, emerald and olive and lime, so many; and so many beyond naming. All these plants bursting with energy as they soak in the summer sun. Home and food to many creatures, and a delight to a casual wanderer like me.

Yet how casual is my relationship? I feel deeply moved at times when my senses connect with the natural world; on a midsummers day when I hear the birds, smell the scent of flowers and see the different shades of green. I feel the sun on my skin as humans have done for thousands of years and I know that I am alive. I feel thankful and grateful.

I am aware though that some people when they look over fields and trees would see nothing except a landscape devoid of anything that interests them. Some might feel fear of wildlife or discomfort at being out of their urban environment. Some, for one reason or another, will never have the opportunity to look upon shades of green, and decide how it makes them feel. Our lives take different paths, each of us having to find our own way, each with a different point of view. Maybe that is the way of it. I can only speak of what makes my heart sing. The ways and the places that I find connection with. Something simple and yet infinitely complex; a wholeness, greater than myself and yet it is me and I am it. I hope that such places exist for everyone somewhere at some time.

The easing of lockdown in our country has begun and shops are re-opening gradually once again with the appropriate restrictions in place. Good news for those that enjoy a trip to the shops and for the businesses themselves of course. Although the experience will not be quite the same for some time to come. The slogan “shop for Britain” has emanated from somewhere inside our government to encourage us to spend money and support businesses. On one level seemingly a good idea to get the economy going, but a hollow message for the increasing number of people who are struggling financially.

Nevertheless, I notice that some people queued from 3am in Brighton, this week, to get back to their favourite shop. They had clearly missed the experience of shopping greatly, and I don’t criticise or judge them for that, although it does seem alien to me! It is good to support our high streets if we can, especially local traders and those that encourage a more ethical dimension to our shopping habits; selling healthier and more sustainable products. But I don’t think the queues were for these kinds of shops, but more likely connected with clothing and fashion. Clothing is important but fashions are fickle, leading us into to environmentally harmful habits.

According to James Dyke, senior lecturer in global systems at Exeter University, writing in the I newspaper,
“It can take 2,700 litres of water to make a single T-shirt. That begins to explain how the textile industry has become the second largest polluter of freshwater in the world. The industrial scale of cotton production accounts for 16 percent of the world’s pesticide use. Every time you wash synthetic fabrics, thousands of fibres are released which pollute the air, water and ecosystems…. Perhaps most important of all, clothes change the climate. As an industry, fashion produces 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s five times more than aviation.” His article was called “Throwaway fashion is literally costing us the Earth.” (I newspaper, 18th June 2020)

So advertisers will soon be after us again, if they are not already. Telling us how unsatisfactory our lives are, that we need a new look, a new car, a holiday, an indispensable new something or other; leading us to a place of anxiety because we think we need to have these things to be happy, to keep up, to look the part. This kind is kind of social pressure, which I have discovered has a name, it is referred to by some as “affluenza.”

In their book “Active Hope” Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone explain,
“Affluenza is a term used to describe the emotional distress that arises from a preoccupation with possessions and appearance. Psychologist Oliver James views it as a form of psychological virus that affects our thinking and is transmitted by television, glossy magazines and advertisements. The toxic belief at the core of this condition is that happiness is based on how we look and what we have. If we compare our appearance or wealth to that of models and millionaires on prime-time television, it is easy to feel we don’t measure up so well. James comments, “Since programmes are saturated with exceptionally attractive people living abnormally opulent lives, expectations of what is “normal” are raised.” (from Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone)

Of course, during lockdown some of these images have been reduced or removed from our lives. Even celebrities haven’t been able to get a haircut! So, what will happen as lockdown restrictions lift? Will we go back to the old normal, or will there be an even more manic, anxiety inducing, new normal? Or will we use any spending power we may have for less frivolous reasons; for something healthier and more wholesome for ourselves, others and our planet. There is a chance for new beginning, I think. Less consuming and more gratitude for what we already have, less polluting and more caring for the earth, less selfishness and more generosity, less materialism and a more spiritual way of being.

We can learn much from those whose culture has traditionally had a more respectful attitude towards the natural world; such as Native American people like the Haudenoshaunee.

“[They]…see humans as interconnected parts of a larger web of life, where each being is uniquely valuable. Crops, trees, rivers and the sun are respected and thanked as fellow beings in a community of mutual aid. If you have this view you don’t tear down forests and pollute rivers. Instead…you accept other life forms as part of your extended family. [They say] “We are shown that our life exists within the tree of life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of vegetable life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings.” (from Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone)

To begin their meetings and gatherings they use words like these:

“Today we have gathered and we see the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now we bring our minds together as one and we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.”(from Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone)

A gentle but strong reminder of what is important. Not making as much money as possible, not exploiting others or the earth, not living as anxiety driven individuals thinking only of ourselves, but living in “balance and harmony”. And seeing this as a sacred duty, rather than some sort of optional extra. Something for all us to think about as the human world begins to re-open.

Unless you are restricted in the activities you can currently do for health reasons, there has never been a better opportunity than this summer to re-connect with the natural world. The hills, the rivers, the sea wherever your spirit takes you. The skies are clearer, the air is cleaner, saviour it and connect if you can. Walk among the many shades of green.

(Pause)

Prayer – Earth Teach Me – A prayer from the Ute people of North America

Earth teach me stillness
As the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering
As old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility
As blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring
As the mother who succours her young.
Earth teach me courage
As the tree which stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation
As the ant which crawls upon the ground.
Earth teach me freedom
as the eagle soars in the sky.
Earth teach me regeneration
As the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself
As melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness
As dry fields weep in the rain.

Closing

I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life.
I can do no other than to have compassion for all that is called life.
That is the beginning and foundation of all ethics.
Albert Sweitzer (1875-1965)

Blessing

May we grow in reverence for our Earth;
May we grow in respect for all life;
May we grow in loving;
May we grow in wisdom;
May we grow in gentle spirit;
May we grow in gratitude;
May we grow, together.

As we go on the ways of our lives may the God of our understanding be with us. Amen.

This week we lost Ditchling resident and national treasure Dame Vera Lynne so it seems appropriate to finish with one of her songs. She is remembered for the iconic “White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll Meet Again”, but I’m rather fond of this one, released in 1940, “A Nightingale Sings in Berkeley Square.”

Sunday 14 June 2020

by Stephen Crowther

God is a river, not just a stone.
God is a wild, raging rapids and a slow, meandering flow.
God is a deep and narrow passage and a peaceful, sandy shoal.
God is the river, swimmer, so let go.

So I’m going with the flow now, these relentless twists and bends;
adjusting to the motion and a sense of being led.
This river is like my body, carrying me along past ever-changing scenes
and the rocks that sing the song –
God is the river, swimmer, so let go.

(from God is a River by Peter Mayer)

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

11.00am light a candle.

As we gather ourselves in and join with others in our community isolated in our homes, separated by the pandemic, may we be reminded that we are never alone, that we are always connected with each other and with the wider world.
May the flame of this candle connect with the light in all our hearts bringing trust and hope to each of us at this unprecedented time in our lives.

(pause)
Good morning and welcome once more to our weekly communal service on this Sunday morning during a continuing time of upheaval and uncertainty in our world. May we hold ourselves gently in the uncertainty and fear.

Whatever the state of your heart or frame of mind you find yourself in this morning, may you find solace and connection here in this beloved community.
In case there is anyone joining us, who doesn’t normally worship with us, I would like to extend a special welcome. Unitarians have no fixed statement of beliefs or creed to which you have to agree in order to be accepted. Our attitude is that religion is wider than any church or faith-group, and deeper than any set of beliefs. Here we practice a free faith unfettered by dogma.
As such, when I speak of God, I invite you to bring your own unfolding, personal and intimate understanding to the name – for it is yours and yours alone and may just be your most intimate relationship of all….

(pause)

A story:


There is a Buddhist story that tells of an ancient spiritual teacher who meditated each day by the side of a river. He was approached one day by a student who asked him how meditating on the bank of a river could lead to enlightenment. The master smiled and told the student that sitting on the bank of a river is the same as paying attention to one’s life. Like a river, life simply flows. It can bring us pleasure but if we try to grasp or hang on to the pleasure too hard we will cause ourselves suffering, because, like the river, life will eventually take the pleasure away.

The teacher explained how in entering the River of Life we enter into opportunity and risk. There are times when that river will cause us suffering and pain. Holding on, we travel further, but in letting go we enter a new hope and, in time, the scenery changes, all we can do, said the teacher, is sit with what the River of Life brings us, and learn the lessons that we are meant to learn.

After a while, the student bowed to the teacher and continued on his journey.

(pause)

Reading: Don’t Push the River by Richard Rohr

All of us are much larger than the good or bad stories we tell about ourselves. Don’t get caught in “my” story, my hurts, my agenda. It’s too small. It’s not the whole you, not the Great You. It’s not the great river. It’s not where life is really going to happen. No wonder the Spirit is described as ‘flowing water’ and as ‘a spring inside you’ or, as it states at the end of the Bible, as a ‘river of life’. Your life is not really about “you.” It is part of a much larger stream called God. The separate self is finally an illusion for those who stay on the journey of prayer.

I believe that faith might be precisely that ability to trust the river, to trust the flow and the Lover. It is a process that we don’t have to create, coerce, or improve. We simply need to allow it to flow. That takes immense confidence in God, especially when we’re hurting. Usually, I can feel myself get panicky. I want to make things right, and right now! I lose my ability to be present, and I go up into my head and start obsessing. I try to push or even create the river—the river that is already flowing through me.

The river is God’s providential love—so do not be afraid. We have been given the Spirit. Without this awareness of the always flowing river, without a sense that we are supported, we will all succumb to fear and control mechanisms. Why wouldn’t we? To stay in God’s holding means that I have to stop taking full hold of myself. I have to be able to hold a certain degree of uncertainty, ambiguity, and tension. Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing; we are in it.

(pause)

Reflection

As we begin to emerge from lockdown I’m wondering how we might hold on to any resolutions we may have made to live our lives differently in the future.
Do you remember feeling grateful at hearing birdsong in the absence of traffic noise? Do you still remember the excitement when news spread of the lockdown’s effects on the environment? Fish could be seen in the canals of Venice. Skies were blue over parts of China for the first time in decades. People in Northern India could see the Himalayas for the first time in their lives and New Yorkers could see the Catskills. Goats took over Llandudno. Deer roamed a Japanese city. The post office tower in London reported measuring a 52% drop in air pollution. No wonder the virus became known as Gaia’s Revenge! For in the Great Pausing, we were being shown the truth of the environmentalists calls for change and the immediacy of its effect. Surveys reported that as many as 91% of people in this country didn’t want things to return to how they were before Coronavirus (BC). We heard repeatedly of an approaching ‘new normal’.

And so it was for a little while.

Then a partial lifting of restrictions was announced, and, like others, I found myself going ‘No. Not yet – it’s too soon!’. Much like the last night of a great summer holiday when it’s time to go home the next day – ‘No. Not yet – it’s too soon. I’m not ready!’. And, of course, within a few days of getting home, we feel like the holiday never happened – the relaxation and any intention to live life differently, get forgotten in the return to busyness.

So now, it seems we inhabit an in-between place of not knowing. If you like, we have begun the journey home from the great holiday. How do we hold to our determination to do things differently? In the face of economic pressures and powerful market forces, how do we create a ‘new normal’ and not return to how things were? How do I reconcile the sadness of rising noise and traffic levels with the understanding that people need to return to work?
And then, into this place of wondering how, crashed a different image of the world – George Floyd’s unlawful killing. And I found myself responding with the familiar – it’s happening over there – it’s not my problem. But God burst my heart open one day, by way of a photograph taken by a friend of a peaceful protest in New York. It shows a young woman holding a placard that simply says –

KNEEL WITH ME
NOT
ON ME

And just as the effects of the lockdown affirm the damage we’ve been causing the earth, so George Floyd’s death is affirming the damage that racism and white privilege cause in the world.

And so, I offer the following words for gentle self-reflection. They come from an essay by Peggy McIntosh titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Reading

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

  1. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  2. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  3. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.
  4. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  5. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  6. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  7. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  8. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  9. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  10. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  11. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  12. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of colour will have.
  13. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odour will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  14. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  15. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  16. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  17. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  18. If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  19. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” colour and have them more or less match my skin.
  20. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

There are no easy answers to how we might bring about change. But I believe it is our individual responsibility to hold firm to our convictions, honour our intentions and do what we can within our own limited capacity. We can begin by extending empathic understanding to the other. We can kneel with them, not on them. For we are all children of God, made of the same stardust……

(pause)

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

(pause)

In a moment of pausing, let us hold in our hearts, the family and friends of George Floyd. May they and all of us affected by his murder, feel the touch of God’s Love and that by its Light be shown ways in which we can play our part in bringing about change to the world.

(pause)

Let my life give witness to You, God,
to those filled with fear.
Create in me a clean heart,
that Your light might be seen!
My soul sighs awaiting your
living Presence; for
I sense your Love and Light.
My heart wells up with gratitude
and praise, as
I recall the innumerable blessings
You continually bestow.

When I ponder the plight of the world,
my heart weeps for all the
oppressed.
How long, O Merciful One, must we
endure the greed,
the arrogance of those who are
in power –
Those whose hearts have turned
from You,
who follow not the way
of Love,
Who have become blind to the Truth,
and deaf to your Voice
whispering in their hearts?

Awaken the people of earth, O You,
who are the Great Awakener!

(from Psalm 119 by Nan C Merrill)

(pause)

In this time of lockdown, we give thanks for the new and creative ways we have found to stay connected with each other and with You, God of our hearts.
May we not take our lives for granted. May we take our learning from this experience of Covid19 forward in our lives.
We have learned how much we value human connection and physical closeness; may we not lose sight of the resolve we hold in this moment to prioritise those connections.

(pause)

Let us bring to our minds and hearts all those who are infected with coronavirus. May they be restored to good health.

Let us bring to our hearts and minds, those living alone, still feeling the pain of isolation, starved of human contact. May they know they are not alone. May they be comforted by God’s presence.

(pause)

While some have begun the limited return to work, we bring to our hearts and minds the NHS front-line workers and key staff who never stopped working to bring healing and an end to this pandemic. Let us silently offer them our continued respect and gratitude.

(pause)

May we hold those who we brought to mind in the loving and healing light of our hearts.
May those who are suffering be released from their pain.
May we all be released from our pain.

Silence for aprox 5 minutes

Poem: At the River Clarion, by Mary Oliver, please click on the link below:


(pause)

Some closing words from Tielhard de Chardin which I find myself returning to again and again:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability –
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

(pause)


Blessing:

Until such a time that we can be together again in person –
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.

May the Lord bless us and keep us.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon us,
and be gracious to us.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon us,
and give us peace.

Amen

Sunday 7th June

Welcome you to our Sunday Service with words contributed this week by our District Minister Rev.Martin Whitell.

Welcome and Greetings.

You may like to quieten your mind by sitting comfortably and lighting a candle to remind you of the many times you have met before with your many friends in The Old Meeting House.

These words are from Cliff Reed’s book: Sprit of Time and Place:

“Divinity is present everywhere.
Heaven and earth are filled with God.
But in some places at certain times
we feel a special presence.
May this be such a place and such a time.”

Please listen, or sing a long, to our hymn, “The Fellowship of the Church”

Lyrics by John Andrew Storey, music by Clement William Poole, published in Hymns for Living by The Lindsey Press, used by permission

The Church is not where altar stands
Within the hallowed walls,
But where the strong reach out their hands
To raise the one who falls;
Not stately building, standing fair,
Where people sing their creeds,
But fellowship of loving care
Which serves all human needs.

The Church is not where ancient rite
Is seen on Sabbath days,
But wisdom’s constant beam of light
To guide our common ways;
The Church is me, the Church is you,
Not mortar, brick and stone;
It is with all who love the true,
And where true love is shown.

by John Andrew Storey

Prayer

Sacred source of life, Spirit divine and faithful companion of our souls; what a joy it is to revel in this our vibrant world of colour, texture, sound and sense.

We revel in the gift of our wonderful tapestry of fellowship where different gifts and graces, ideas and beliefs all work together to produce a living flame of light and warmth. But today we face afresh the problems of our time. Unexpectedly, a virus has paralysed our world and our communities, and we are forced to be apart, which can make us fearful and lonely. Help us to be strong and patient, to play our part in reducing the risks and hastening the days which will return when we can be together again.

Maker of our days enable us to imbibe all the beauty and affection of those who work for our best purposes and make each of us generous in spirit and in kindness. Especially we think of those who are alone and those who are sick and those who are grieving.

As we worship this day, let us be glad for the hand of goodness that rests gently upon us

Amen

Here are two quotes for you to think about as we listen to a piece of music.

“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom,
others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.”
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873 – 1954) French author.

“Be around people that make you want to be a better person,
who make you feel good, make you laugh, and remind you what’s important in life.”
Germany Kent (b. 1975) American broadcaster and journalist


SOLITUDE OR FELLOWSHIP

There are many things which have happened since I was last with you, like winter and Christmas. But, although many of us have seen epidemic and pandemic somewhere on risk assessments during our working lives, I don’t suppose many of us imagined anything quite like we are experiencing. Global pandemic (Covid 19) whether by neglect or misjudgment certainly took us by stealth, and before we knew it our lives and lifestyles were changed on March 23rd. Some say that things will never be the same again; some want things never to be the same again; but if you are not one of them, be assured that you are not alone! Among the several tragedies of the last months have been the lives snatched from us, too soon and too privately. To be denied the natural process of grieving is neither progress nor regression but a cruel consequence of a natural disaster. There is much of value that I for one want to regain and make even better.

But this short ‘sermon’ is about the age old question of whether we can live out our spiritual pilgrimage alone, maybe in a virtual world or whether we need to relate to others in physical community to do it effectively. You’ll be relieved to know that I think I’m preaching to the converted, because you are weighing the risks and benefits, so that you make responsible decisions as time moves along. Although the circumstances are different, the underlying questions are in fact not new. I would like to share some stories with you.

Fifteen years ago, I received an illustration in an e-mail from a friend in Manchester who was also training for the Unitarian ministry.
Ask people about God nowadays and they usually reply,
“I’m not religious, but deep down, I’m a very spiritual person.” What this phrase really means is:
“I’m afraid of dying, and I want to live well, but I can’t be bothered with going to church.”

Now I don’t want to criticise those who lead a life of spiritual solitude, those who want to work at their spiritual journey on their own. This of course was the craving of Cuthbert the marvelous and perhaps a little strange Northern saint. He like many other monks longed to be a hermit. He spent nights standing alone in the sea and eventually ended his days on Inner Farne, off the Northumberland coast, with eider ducks and seals for company! But he was formerly and essentially part of a community. Monks read, studied and admired the lives of the Desert Fathers of the C3rd, C4th and C5th. Monasticism of course had started with the Buddhists and Zen Buddhists centuries before probably in the mountains of Tibet, but western or Christian monasticism began in the deserts of Egypt. Once Christianity became accepted by Rome the emphasis for spiritual excellence changed from martyrdom in the cities, to monasticism in the desert. There were two types of monastics: Hermits (or eremites: desert monks) and Communal Monks (or Cenobites). Spirituality was never the exclusive property of those who live in solitude.


Let me tell you a story about two of these Hermits. They lived in 4th century Egypt. They are the inspiration for the title of former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book “Silence and Honeycakes”. One was called Arsenius he had been the tutor of the children of the emperor Theodosius. He enjoyed luxury and wealth and gave it all up to go to the desert. The other was called Moses the Black (not PC but true). Moses was a converted runaway slave, murderer and robber. He too became a hermit.
A story is told of Moses being summoned to adjudicate in the case of a mon
who had been guilty of some serious crime.
He walked from his desert cell carrying a leaking pitcher of water.
The monks ran to him as he arrived asking what he was doing, he said
“My sins leave a trail behind me and you call me to judge a brother”
The monks forgave the offending monk!
The story goes that a person went to one of the desert monasteries asking to have an interview with the holy Arsenius. A monk took him to Arsenius who greeted the man gave him a seat but returned to his silent prayer and said nothing. After hours of waiting the visitor slipped away. The monk asked the visitor if everything was alright and he said he was disappointed to be ignored. So, the next day the monk took him to Moses the Black. Moses greeted him offered him food and drink and talked for hours. That night the visitor had a dream. He saw Arsenius in a boat on the river of life sailing steadily, praying in silence with the Holy Ghost On the same river he saw Moses the Black in a similar boat talking with an angel and they were eating honey cakes and sailing along just as well. He concluded that God is present both in solitude and in company.
You see in point of fact we need both solitude and company.

Many of us are currently leading a life of solitude, circumstances constrain us. But we recognise the need for the stimulation and insight into the spiritual world that comes from companionship. Being with other people, friends and neighbours, and worshiping with the people who meet in our Churches, Chapels and Meeting Houses provided us with that.

One more story.
In the Church of St Mary’s on Holy Island there is on display one of Fenwick Lawson’s powerful sculptures.
It is magnificent. It is a larger than life carving in wood of the monks, six of them,
carrying the coffin of Cuthbert away from the Island because of the frequent Viking raids at the end of the C9th.
Six serene yet determined, cowled faces, none can see the other, each with his personal thoughts
and bearing their precious burden.
If you stand on the backs of the church pews, which you shouldn’t do – but I did –
you can look into the open coffin on their shoulders.
Here is the carving of the body of Cuthbert, facing heavenwards at peace,
seemingly incorruptible, all with fantastic presence and power.
In one way it oozes the solitude of spirituality. But if you walk behind the sculpture,
you don’t see, so much as experience the most powerful thing of all.
Very little detail, the folding fabric the habits of two monks.
BUT, most powerfully, two arms each clasping the back of the other brother.
That says it all – no matter how singular, precious and important the work, or how holy the task.
It is done together!

What does all this say to us as Unitarians at a time of pandemic? Well, there is something good about being contemplative in our faith – just as you are reading this service, or even watching lots of other people in a zoom meeting even with your microphone muted! But also there is the God and Spirit who comes to us uniquely and mysteriously in the presence of others; catching us between the ribs, welling up the tear in the eye, bringing the lump to the back of the throat when we see something or someone, beautiful (maybe), needful (maybe), damaged (maybe), questioning (maybe), recovering from Covid (maybe), but each in their own way lovely and loveable, real and physical, and yes, even Divine.

Finally, A blessing

From wilderness to community, from
solitude to company, we return. These
are the poles of existence. May we
fear neither ourselves, nor each other,
and may what we learn in our aloneness
deepen our sense of being at one with
our neighbour, with our own true selves
and so with the divine root of being
which we share.

Wilderness by Cliff Reed

Sunday 31st May – Pentecost (Whitsun)

by Rev. Duncan Voice

Welcome to our Sunday Service. We invite you to read through slowly and reflectively pausing where you feel necessary. We start with a chalice or candle lighting so please do join in at home if you wish to.

“Whom God enlightened by His spirit must not be silent and must not hide the truth.”
Francis David (1510 – 1579) considered to be the founder of Unitarianism in Transylvania.

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice flame
symbol of our faith and commitment
to living in compassionate and peaceful community.
May it be a beacon of hope.

Prayer

Spirit of Love and Life,

We are grateful for this time of peace.
Though we cannot meet in our beloved Meeting House,
we reach out to greet and welcome all in spirit.

We bring to our hearts and minds
those in our friendship groups and our community,
who are unwell and who suffer some hardship,
through the effects of the current virus pandemic.
May they find healing.
Help us to widen our circle of compassion still further.

We think also of those whose passing
comes to our mind at this time.
May they be at peace
and continue to live long in our memories.

Help us to find inspiration and hope
in times of difficulty and despair.
The kind words of a friend;
Seeing beauty in the everyday;
The warm sun on our skin.
May we understand that we are never alone,
and that we are held and loved.
Amen.

Reading: Acts: 1-4 The Coming of the Holy Spirit

The day of Pentecost had come, and they were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from the sky what sounded like a strong, driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them flames like tongues of fire distributed among them and coming to rest on each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the spirit gave them power of utterance.

Hymn

The Fire of Commitment (Hymn number 42 “From the Light of Days Remembered” from Sing Your Faith).

“When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze;
when our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way;
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within:
then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.” lyrics by Jason Shelton

Reading: An excerpt from Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times by Rev. Stephen Lingwood.

Stephen is a minister serving the Unitarian congregation in Cardiff and doing what is described as “grass-roots pioneering work in inner-city Cardiff.”

“Why do we need “faith”? For the simple reason that we must live. We must get up in the morning and go about our business with some sense that there is meaning and purpose to life. I am calling this sense of meaning and purpose “faith”, and such faith is inescapable for human living. In some broad sense we must all have faith, otherwise we would be spiritually paralysed in life, unable to see any purpose of getting out of bed and getting on with life. All people must have faith, whether that faith is in money, themselves, religion, ambition, hedonism, patriotism, or survival. Nineteenth-century American Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our heart – but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behoves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

We may try to remain agnostic about “truth” (and perhaps we must), but we cannot remain agnostic about “faith”, because to live is to live because of some kind of faith. It is impossible not to choose an option.”

Reflection

The book of Acts, from where our first reading is taken is anonymous, but from its opening dedication, style, language and theological interests, scholars are confident that its author was the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Thereby contributing around a quarter of the writing in the New Testament. It is unique in the New Testament canon in that its narrative describes events following the death of Jesus, up to the time of the apostle Paul’s arrival in Rome. It is sometimes described as a history of the early church, and does provide fascinating insights into the world of first century Christianity. However, calling it simply history is too narrow a definition as it has theological intentions too, and the author is keen to create a kind of bridge from the Gospels, and the Hebrew Bible, to demonstrate the continuity of the Christian message into the new community.

“The day of Pentecost” is placed within a Jewish liturgical timeframe by Luke, subsequently shaping the Christian year. The Jewish Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) is celebrated on fiftieth day after the Passover, and the English word Pentecost comes from the Greek word Pentekoste, meaning fiftieth. So, Pentecost is celebrated by Christian churches on the seventh Sunday after Easter. And just to confuse you a bit more, in this country it is also known as Whitsun or Whitsunday or Whit Sunday!

Back to the story. At the beginning of Acts 2 we find the disciples gathered in a house in Jerusalem. Although “gathered together in one place” may also have a deeper meaning, perhaps symbolic of spiritual unity. As they wait, we are told there is a sudden strong wind and tongues of flame appear. This colourful imagery is strongly symbolic. Loveday Alexander writing in the Oxford Bible Commentary says,
“Both wind and fire are associated with God’s self-revelation in the Hebrew Bible. But the choice of these two images is particularly apt for the coming of the spirit.
“Wind”, both in Hebrew and in Greek, is closely associated with “spirit”. The image of fire links with the spirit’s work of judgement (Lk 3:16-17). And the metaphor of “tongues” links with the fact that the result of this manifestation of divine power is inspired speech.”

We are told in the subsequent paragraphs of Acts 2 that “Jews drawn from every nation”, presumably in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, were able to hear their own language being spoken by the disciples. Some people thought they (the disciples) must be drunk! But Peter stands before the crowd and in a speech quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days, says God, I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind.”

Recently I attended an online Unitarian Bible discussion group where we considered whether the story of Pentecost has meaning for us. I brought no strong opinion to the discussion, to be honest I can’t say I’d given it a lot of consideration. It seemed, I thought, something that may be more appealing to those of a more evangelical persuasion. Pentecostalism, after all, is an experiential and energetic type of faith, whose adherents practice healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues; and who understand the Bible as being the word of God, and therefore without error. It’s very popular, some Pentecostal churches are huge, especially in South Korea. But Unitarianism it isn’t! And I like the Unitarian way, so is there anything for me, for us?

I didn’t come away from the discussion group with any answers, but over the days and weeks since then I have had a persistent question develop in my mind. What is it that fundamentally inspires us in our faith? I’m specifically thinking of Unitarians, but if you don’t identify as such, the question can still apply to your faith or spirituality.
It’s an important question, I think. So, I invite you to spend a few minutes considering it. Don’t necessarily try to formulate an answer. Just hold the question, or your own version of it in your mind.

The English word “inspire” is derived from the Latin word “inspirare”, which means to breathe or blow into. The Oxford English Dictionary’s oldest source is the Wycliffe bible which translated the Latin bible into English in the late 14th century. Interestingly “inspiration” also has the same Latin root, as the word “spirit”, spirare (meaning to breathe). It is perhaps not surprising to learn then that one of the earliest uses of “inspiration” meant, “to influence, move, or guide (as to speech or action) through divine or supernatural agency or power.”

So, the disciples were inspired, and to paraphrase our earlier hymn, the fire of commitment had set their minds and souls ablaze. Their mission was to go and talk to people. To tell them about the “good news”. At the end of Acts 2, after Peter and the other Apostles have spoken to them, we are told that three thousand people joined the new community. It could hardly have been otherwise! Some people might say that this happen through preaching and miraculous deeds, but in truth the community grew through dialogue. People talking with one another, engaging with ideas and having needs met; giving them a sense of belonging. “They met constantly to hear the apostles teach and to share the common life, to break bread, and to pray” (Acts 2: 42)

Having the commitment and courage to engage other people in conversation about faith matters is not easy. Especially for religious liberals who don’t try to provide simple answers. But if we think we have discovered something worthwhile it is surely worth sharing it. The risk is that the other person will change us, but surely that’s ok if what they say makes sense to us. Faith for me, and many other Unitarians too I think, is not a set of beliefs to be defended at all cost, but a journey of discovery. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I’ve got any! But someone else might be able to provide fresh insight. To inspire me.

In his book “Seeking Paradise” Stephen Lingwood suggests dialogue as a “practice of paradise.” He distinguishes between an old type of evangelism which emphasises the authority of the Bible, seeks to covert people and claims some kind of “exclusive” truth, with a more liberal version, which he equates with dialogue. Talking about faith in its many forms in an open and non-coercive way. Talking about faith and spirituality because its important! And if we don’t think its important then why do we bother with it at all?

Traditional religious language does not appeal to everyone, in fact it makes some people run a mile. A word like evangelism still makes me feel uncomfortable! So maybe part of our mission is to find new ways to have those conversations with people. Is anyone else interested though? Well we won’t know until we try! However, recently I took part in a series of online events that ran for three weeks, introducing people to different wellbeing activities such as yoga and Tai Chi on a daily basis. I led a Sunday Reflection each week. I thought it might be the least popular event, but this proved not to be the case. The format was brief, just 30 minutes. I shared some readings around the themes of awareness, contemplation and compassion. We shared moments of quietness, prayer and meditation, and shared conversation afterwards. The feedback I received was very positive.

So, I can only conclude that the interest is there. Meeting in the right place, in the right way, at the right time, where people feel safe they will engage. People looking for something, although they may not be sure what. Spiritual seekers or the those who are simply curious, or feel there maybe something more to life, and others! Maybe a church or meeting house isn’t always the best place for this to happen?

I am a Unitarian, which means I have freedom but also responsibility. I love that we don’t try to convert people or tell them what to believe, and support diverse spiritual explorations. But at the same time it is not enough to say the church door (literal or metaphorical) is open, come in if you want to. That is not welcoming or engaging enough I feel. We have to do what we can to move out of our comfort zones to meet with people in such ways as we can. To reach out to our neighbour. To share their joys and concerns, to find a common language for sharing love and understanding. We may help them, they may help us; but together we can face the future with hope.

May it be so.

Closing Words: Never a Moment by Penny Quest

from “Waiting to be Discovered”, edited by Johanna Boeke and Joy Croft, published by the Unitarian General Assembly Worship Committee.

What is it within us which wells up when we need it most?
That God-sense which is always there;
That inspiration which appears out of nowhere;
The faith in ourselves which takes us by surprise;
That moment of understanding which enables us to call upon our reserves to try again.

We all have within us those fundamental resources of love and joy;
A sense of humour which can turn the most dire happening into reason for laughter;
Inner strength that can be called upon
When we come to the aid of others or when we need help ourselves;
Inner wisdom which provides the answers to our unspoken questions.

There is never a moment when we are alone;
Never a moment when our cries for help will not be answered;
Never a moment when we are left unsupported;
Never a moment when insight is not available to us;
Never a moment when we are not connected to God, the Universe, All-That-Is.

Benediction

May the spirit of peace and love and forgiveness abide in our hearts as we go on the ways of our lives. Amen

Sunday 24th May

A VIRTUAL SERVICE BROUGHT TO YOU
BY MICHAEL ALLURED, MINISTRY STUDENT


WELCOME DITCHLING UNITARIANS; A TIME TO REFLECT ON THE THINGS THAT MATTER

We invite you to visualise entering the gate and walking up the path; opening the door and through the door into a still quiet space. Imagine you’re the first to arrive to enjoy the stillness.

Choose your favourite seat and prepare to listen to the piano as you settle down.

MUSIC TO SETTLE INTO STILLNESS by Elizabeth Hornby, another Unitarian ministry student and talented musician.
[Some guidelines for listening: You are invited to settle and to be virtually with our community of Ditchling Unitarians. We begin by listening to soothing piano music by Elizabeth Hornby
Please click on the youtube link below.

OPENING WORDS


Welcome to another virtual service sent to you from the community of Ditchling Unitarians.
From wherever you are joining us you are warmly welcome.
In this time of sharing – whether you are reading this service at 11 am or at another time – may we find comfort in the words offered, the music played and the insights shared.
May you be nurtured by courage and a sense of being together, and by kindness and hope: in the virtual spaces, through telephone and newsletter: through the spirit behind our doors that remain open I our hearts.
May our open minds, loving hearts and helping hands keep us on that path of wholeness for which our spirits yearn.

An invocation of welcome: Come, come whoever you are

CHALICE LIGHTING


As is the custom of Unitarians and Universalists worldwide we light our chalice candle.
Let us spend a few moments looking at the picture of the chalice flame. May we be drawn together by its light.
May we be encouraged by its helping us to see a way through.
If you look through the chalice flame may you find a peace, rest, orientation.

Imagine us gathered around linking the hands we cannot link in solidarity with the interdependent web of existence of which we are part.


A PRAYER FOR GATHERING US TOGETHER
As we gather here this morning, or afternoon or evening:
let us pause to remember the faces of those who have helped shape and continue to shape our lives and co-create its meaning.
• The teachers or mentors who gave us unstintingly from their vast store of experience of wisdom.

• The friends and colleagues who allowed us to acknowledge our imperfections by telling us of their own.

• The one whose quiet wisdom and good humour gently showed us a more fulfilling way to be in the world.

• The opponent who fought us fairly and forgave us when we won.

• The beloved other whose touch has made us whole, not once but again and again.

Our lives are made holy by the unearned generosity of the countless fellow travellers who share the road with us.
Let us respond by passing on to others the joy, kindliness and consideration with which they have graced our lives and taught us, through their actions, what love really means.
We ask this in the name of all that we deem holy and sustaining, that great unknowable Power that keeps us together on the pathway of love.
We value times of quietness as we sit in this nurturing space.
We open our hearts and minds to fresh possibilities and seek a calm for our troubled spirits.
We gather in reverence to reflect on the wonder of life, the wonder of this moment.
The wonder of being together, so close yet so apart.
Each listening, each trying to speak, yet none fully understanding, none fully understood.
We gather in reverence before all intangible things, that eyes cannot see and ears detect;
that hands can never touch, that space cannot hold and time cannot measure.
Let us share a few moments of silent reflection and hold in our thoughts all who need our healing prayers.
May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations.
May we be inspired to bring our gifts of love and service to the altar of humanity.
May we know once again that we are not isolated beings but connected, in mystery and miracle, to the whole Universe, to this community and to each other. Amen

Reading 1

Anger in the service of compassion and justice is a prophetic spiritual trait that must be nurtured in our schools and in our homes. From the earliest ages the child’s insight into fairness must be heard, held up and honoured, especially since so many of us have lost the way….Anger depends on the light of possibility. If you take a bone away from a dog, the dog’s temper remains. If you take food away from a child the child’s temper remains. But only, in either case, if the dog or the child has expectations of the bone or food not going away. The child trained to hunger no longer complains. Anger remains only when there is the possibility of something better. The important subtraction is the subtraction of hope…. Many angry people working together are called a movement. With humour, compromise, spiritual centeredness, and hard work, these groups [we] can change the world.
(From ‘In Which Anger Is’ in Humility, Anger and Grace by Nancy Jay Crumbine.)


Reading 2.

Our second reading for today is by retired Unitarian minister, Cliff Reed.

Colours of the Rainbow by Cliff Reed

“My bow I set in the clouds to be a sign of the
covenant between myself and the earth.”
Genesis 9: 13

Rainbows have become symbols of hope,
our defiance of a pestilence that spreads fear,
ruin and death around our reeling world.

What can be the meanings of those seven colours?
The meanings we could give them as a prayer,
as an affirmation of the life we cherish?

Let red be for the courage and devotion of those
who risk their lives to protect and heal us.

Let orange be for the warmth of their compassion,
for the inner flame that fires their resolution.

Let yellow be for the exultant spirit in all loving hearts,
shining undefeated like the golden sun.

Let green be for the earth, for resurgent nature,
for the springtime beauty that refreshes our weariness.

Let blue be for transcendence, for the over-arching
sky that lifts us up when we are weighed down.

Let indigo be for quietness and reflection,
for the soul’s rest and restoration.

Let violet be for our mourning and our grief,
the beauty that is loving sorrow.

The rainbow can encompass all our moods,
all our colours, all shades of our glorious diversity.
And may it stand for the assurance that all will be well.


LET’S SING (or listen to): Spirit of Life by Carolyn McDade
This has been called by Sarah Tinker, the minister at Kensington Unitarians ‘a bit of a Unitarian anthem’. Here it is sung by All Souls Choir Langham Place.

A TIME FOR MEDITATION, REFLECTION, PRAYER


• Let us be still and with each other through the warmth of spirit. In that way, we draw near to that which we recognise as the ultimate source of being, a God of many names, Spirit of Life and of Love.

• We make our prayers to the source of Life and Love for those whose lives we have met and not met and who have died.

• We make our prayers for those known and unknown to us who made our lives richer with joy and beauty, kindness and laughter, thoughtfulness and understanding.

• We make our prayers for ourselves and trust that we shall find comfort through those who travel with us. Amen.


CANDLES OF CONCERNS, JOYS AND HOPES


Some Unitarian communities light candles. I invite you now to light your candles. They can be real or virtual candles. It matters not.
They are candles of and from the heart. They are expressions of our fears, our hopes, our sorrows and our joys. In the dark hour there will somewhere and in the most unexpected places remain small parcels of joy. Let us light our candles. Let us embrace the light in these times of life’s darkness. Amen.

We light this candle for each other: ourselves, members, friends and all those connected to the community of Ditchling Unitarians and your families and friends.
We light this candle to honour all those who have died of the coronavirus across the world.

We light this candle in solidarity with all in physical and emotional pain, who suddenly have had their usual lifelines and sources of connection ripped away
We light a candle for the medical services and all those who are working, particularly on the front line, wherever they are in the world, to support the struggle to combat the coronavirus.

We light a candle for our London District, Minister, Rev. Martin Whitell, in gratitude for all he is doing for Unitarian congregations throughout the district.
We light this candle in gratitude for large and small joys: all significant for what they are: for good, loving, generous people the world over who help to lessen the darkness.

I light this candle for all our unspoken sorrows, fears, hopes and joys. May we be blessed this day, this hour, this moment.

Let us take a few moments to pause. Let’s imagine that we are gathered in our usual space where we have gathered over the generations.

Our candles are lit. They are our collective hopes: for ourselves, for each other and for the world.

Let us gaze into the candles for a few moments
in quiet stillness with our hearts and our thoughts
of appreciation and goodwill for the world.

May our candles burn brightly. May their light sustain us through the darkness, giving each one of us the courage to endure.

REFLECTIONS: Reflections on Humility, Anger and Grace


I’ve been reading a lot of theology over the last six weeks in lockdown as I write my dissertation. Some of this theology is incomprehensible. For some light relief I’ve revisited Nancy Crumbine’s wonderful little treasure house: Humility, Anger and Grace: Meditations Towards a Life that Matters.
The theology sparked all those feelings in me. And the film I’ve re-watched during lockdown, the true story of Philomena Lee’s search for her lost child did the same. I’ve wept over both. The tears over Philomena, played in the film by Judy Dench, whose mother, like mine, was a Dubliner, were more ones of anger: though they were for her humility and grace too.
Let’s remind ourselves of her story. Philomena Lee a teenage girl in Ireland and innocent of the facts of life, gets pregnant in the 1950s and is disowned by her family.
She is sent to work in a convent alongside other unmarried mothers where she gives birth to her son. She is denied pain relief by the nuns because she must suffer, and then her son, Anthony, is sold by the convent at the age of three and a half because she could not pay the £100 to get out. They never had a chance to say goodbye.
She saw him looking out of the window of the car taking him to America with his new parents who were told he was an orphan.
In the film 50 years on, Philomena tells her daughter about Anthony and the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith becomes her ally in searching for the son she has asked the nuns to help her find over all those years.
Anthony – now Michael Hess and a top lawyer working for the Republican National Committee – goes in search of his mother too and is told by the nuns she abandoned him.
He never knew Philomena had returned to the convent over the years and left them her latest address. Mother and son never meet because Hess has died of AIDS in 1995. His ashes had been buried at the convent at his own request—he hoped that his mother would return and find him.
I shed tears for their longing and pain, for Philomena’s humility and grace: and tears of anger too.
There’s a scene in the film where Martin visits one of the now old nuns, who refused to help a dying man find his mum and she is castigating Philomena for her sin and proud of how she herself was free from sin and had kept her vow of chastity. We feel and understand Martin’s anger when echoing the story in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 21, verse 12) he confronts the Rev. Mother:
If Jesus were here he would tip you out of that …chair.
The convent said this scene of high drama in the film is made up. It may have been and maybe it doesn’t matter. It made its point. Biblical stories suggest that Jesus would not have approved of the church selling babies for money, denying pain relief and inflicting self-righteous punishments.
Philomena is a film made to make us feel anger at the Church, and at orthodox organised religion. We see that anger in the writings of the so-called New Atheists I’ve been reading for my dissertation. They spend pages telling us that religion is not only a delusion but positively dangerous. Philomena’s story of what happens when religion goes wrong – her guilt and fear and loss and pain – is testament to that.
That’s why I reject creeds and revealed religion for its rigidity, outward conformity and self-righteous punishments inflicted on so-called ‘sinners’.
Now we come to Nancy’s book that shows us a technicolour way of walking alongside our God. She too is a mother and sometimes when she writes it feels like she’s seeing through the eyes of her children, especially because of her fondness for quoting from Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Nancy’s book opens with the words: I told my children I was going to the ocean…for a couple of days [to have a talk with God] and, she writes, a few days later her four-year-old asked her if she’d had the talk yet. The rest of the book is about how the talk went.
We’ve heard in our reading earlier what Nancy has to say about anger: that it’s about the lost possibilities and what might have been. Here, in these times we are living through, families and friends who have been robbed needlessly of life, feel anger.
We’re left with what we do with such a destructive but understandable and sometimes necessary emotion.
Nancy I think is suggesting that by channelling the anger with others we can help change the world: a world with
• more humility and compassion,
• more grace,
• more LOVE.
On humility and grace Nancy offers us these reflections:
We do all die in the end. With or without a hierarchy of angels, many of us will have tubes…and pumps prolonging and postponing what we fear and too often forgot to anticipate. We realise too late that we did not pay attention. Some life plan swept us up…before we had a chance to wake up.
Thankfully, Nancy says, we have moments, moments in which we stand in some light, catch a slant of it for ourselves or burn with it to light another’s way. Thankfully, most of us come to know, come to remember, somewhere along the way, part of the whole and ourselves in relationship with it. We intermittently kick and drift, letting that little flotsam of comprehension buoy us up.
We bear witness, we share what we see, we are grateful, until, when it is time to let go….We need to be forever present to the grace available to us when we slow down and turn to what matters most.
For the last six weeks WE have borne witness and there are those who belong to us who have been in the thick of the action: living MINUTE BY MINUTE with life and death.
If all we can do is reach out in thought with humility and grace, and even a little anger at what they are going through, that is the start of creating a better world.
As Nancy writes:
Humility, anger and grace help us in this dance…. Humility, anger, and grace are states of being by which a life can be structured and lived, by which a life can help the world be a slightly better place.
… we [should] try to help each other appreciate inherent contradictions, help us hold dear the paradoxes of every situation, of every living being. They are our faith. Although we fail as often as all humans fail in the stumbling towards humility, we believe in the redemption in a certain openness.
In questions, beginnings happen, paradoxes are revealed. After inevitable failure, in forgiving ourselves we regain our hope….Rather than eliminating life’s paradoxes, Nancy continues, it is possible to embrace them for what they are: something beyond us.

Embracing complexity, holding the paradox, is like living with a child. Living with a lively creative growing child gives us a continuum of choices.
What, then, do we ultimately know?
We know that the institutionalized version of religion can, as the New Atheists tell us, cause unspeakable harm and suffering. We also know from experience that what really matters is our capacity for human warmth, for caring and love and our connection to each other. The impulse to nurture and not punish, to heal and not harm: that is what religion is to me.
Nancy puts it this way:
Love particularlised into action constitutes the moments when the holy is present, when the eternal is held in time, when the spirit becomes matter and matter becomes spirit. Every living being knows part of the whole. You can call the whole God, Goddess, Universe, Energy, Substance, Chaos, Cosmos, it is still “the whole”.
We do all die in the end, she tells us. This much we know. Between our birth and death we live a life alongside the lives of millions of other souls whom we shall never meet.
We may appear to have no common meeting ground but we do: we are all more human than otherwise. We just don’t always choose to acknowledge it.
As individuals living our own lives we know so little of the rest of the world. We often don’t even fully know ourselves. Maybe this time of lockdown is that time: for finding time to remember what really matters.
Ultimately, we have only our experience of life and the events and the known and unknown people that have shaped it and us.
We have holy books and creeds. But we know so much more about what is really true from the living of our own lives and from Philomena’s story. It’s her story that teaches humility, righteous anger and grace.
Nancy’s book and the film of Philomena, who is not bitter towards the nuns who mentally tortured her, help us to understand more and know more.
They teach us, like today’s reading from Cliff Reed that life, like the rainbow, can encompass all moods, all colours, all shades. To humility, anger and grace let us say, Amen.


LET’S SING (OR LISTEN) to Jerusalem
210 (from the green book, Hymns for Living)

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

(William Blake)


CLOSING WORDS


Our virtual service is drawing to a close. In my home congregation of Golders Green Unitarians we gather in a circle and hold hands. And we say these words together. We say them to and for each other and to and for the world.
They were written by Keith Gilley and have been said at the close of every service at Golders Green Unitarians since the 1970s.
We reach out to the world and each other as we link hands in our hearts and heads in a virtual circle of love for ourselves and for the world of which we are part.

I invite you to speak the words aloud:
In the name of us all, let there be peace and love among us.
May the skies be clear and may the streets be safe.
In the name of us all, let there be peace and love.
Amen.

May these candles bring you light and hope in the coming week.


CLOSING MUSIC


More gentle piano music by Elizabeth Hornby. This piece is called ‘Roots and Wings’.

Thank you for coming to our virtual service.
Go well into the day and the coming week
with the blessing of your God and of each other.

Here is a picture of me with your minister Duncan on my first day of ministry training at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

Sunday 17th May – To Wrestle and Rest in the Questions

by Stuart Coupe

Today we welcome Stuart Coupe, Lay Leader at The Chapel, Billingshurst, to lead our Service. We invite you to read through these words of worship slowly and reflectively, pausing whenever it seems appropriate to you. We begin with our customary chalice lighting, which you may like to say at home as you light a candle or chalice.

Chalice Lighting

We light this Chalice in the spirit of hope and love.

Together we celebrate life.

Together we face the struggles of life.

Together we love.

Preamble

This service was written after reading the book ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell. For many years Rob Bell was an evangelical Christian who built up a church in America from scratch, to having a weekly attendance of over 11,000. The church started out renting a school gym in Michigan before being in a position to purchase a shopping mall. But over time,  Rob Bell changed his views and walked away from his enterprise. He remains a Christian but is much more liberal in his outlook. He recently co-wrote a book with liberal theologian Richard Rohr whose work is often cited in Unitarian worship.

Prayer

As we gather in prayer, may we remember that prayer alone means little without inspiring action.

May we always remember that true religion is not in rites or hymns or even prayers – the holiest worship of all is in a loving, peaceful, generous life.

Feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and the bereaved, sheltering the homeless – loving others as we love ourselves.

May we do all these things whenever called upon to do so, and may we thus make everywhere we go a temple to that which we worship, and every day a holy day.

So let us honour you, Spirit of love, in the highest way of all.
So may it be.

Spirit if life – open our hearts to the suffering of others. May we see with eyes of compassion; may we hear with ears of love. May we not neglect the needs of our own hearts and be forgiving of ourselves, gentle in spirit. May those who lead us do so with respect and justice, thinking and acting for those in the world who are downtrodden and neglected. Spirit of life, in these challenging times help us to fully experience moments of joy and gratitude, no matter how small or insignificant they may appear.

Amen. 

Hymn – We’ll Build a Land 

Reading   

Rob Bell, ‘Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.’

“As we experience love, there is a temptation at times to become hostile to our earlier understandings; we may feel embarrassed that we were so “simple” or “naive,” or “brainwashed” or whatever terms arise when we haven’t come to terms with our own story.

These past understandings aren’t to be denied or dismissed; they’re to be embraced. Those experiences belong. Love demands that they belong. That’s where we were at that point in our life and God met us there. Those moments were necessary for us to arrive here, at this place at this time, as we are. Love frees us to embrace all of our history, the history in which all things are being made new.”

Address

When I left school at eighteen I worked in a bank. I can’t imagine how much money NatWest lost as a result of my financial incompetence but if nothing else it did sharpen my mind as to thinking about how I might better spend my working life. This said, I’m now the treasurer at Billingshurst.  God help us all.

For a while back then, I worked with a girl who I’m going to call Julie. Julie lived for the excitement and thrill of the weekend and on a Monday morning, she’d launch into the office telling us all about her weekend; which night clubs she’d been to, what fella’s she’d met, which Sylvester Stallone or Arnie Schwarzenegger film she’d just seen.

All year, she’d save and save for her summer holiday and spend a couple weeks somewhere warm blowing her hard-earned cash on clubbing and drinking and doing all the things that many teenagers do with a bit of money and bags of energy. 

The only thing that slowed Julie down was her asthma.

I also worked with another young girl who I’ll call Sally. She was an evangelical Christian. At that time, I was taking some tentative steps into the world of Christianity through attendance at a pretty conservative Methodist Church and Sally knew this.

I think that Sally assumed that I was a Christian in the ‘same way’ that she was, although at the time, I had very little idea about the different ways in which Christianity has been, and still is, represented.

I kind of got the impression that because she went to lots of Christian rallies and seemed to talk confidently and competently about God, Jesus and the Bible that she was in some way a ‘proper’ Christian and I was scrambling around in the dark.

It was dark because I harboured, mostly secretively, many, many doubts and questions about Christianity.

A few months after I had left the bank (I wasn’t fired by the way, but came close a few times) I ran into Sally at a Christian Arts Festival.

“Shame about Julie.” Sally said.

“How do you mean?” I replied.

“Don’t you know? She was on holiday and had an asthma attack. She died.”

I remember feeling shocked and stunned – not only by the news that fun-loving, life-abundant Julie was dead, but by the comment that followed it up.

“Isn’t it terrible to die at such a young age,” Sally continued, “without ever knowing the Lord and then having to live the rest of your existence in hell.”

I had no response to this other than disbelief and an inner feeling that it did not have much to do with Jesus. At least, that’s what I hoped. I certainly did not have enough intellectual or theological understanding to challenge what she had said. What I do know is that her comments felt to me to be completely the opposite of what my understanding of Christianity was. I couldn’t argue a theological case for my sense of distaste -I’m still not good at this –  but I felt that if this viewpoint was what Christianity represented, then I was better off out. So out I went.

I was recently reminded of the episode when recently reading a book by Rob Bell called ‘Love Wins.’ Rob Bell, once a pretty much died-in-the-wool conservative Christian went through quite a significant repositioning of his faith position and whilst he still operates within mainstream Christian orthodoxy, his theological vision is much broader than it was.

Rob’s book opens up with an incident that he experienced which was similar to mine. Somebody in his congregation had commented to him that Mahatma Ghandi was obviously now living in hell because he was a Hindu. Bell uses this comment as a spring point for questions directed at the brand of Christianity that he has since distanced himself from.

Are you sure that Ghandi is in Hell? How do you know?  Why have you taken on the responsibility of informing the rest of us? Is this the act of a loving God?  What exactly is the criteria for the avoiding hell?  Why them and you and me? Why not you and me?

Throughout the book, Bell, I think, is very effective in his questioning of the views that he now find abhorrent because they are first and foremost, common sense questions that anybody, whether connected to religion or not, might ask. There’s nothing ‘high-brow’ or even theological about them at all.

Also, because he operates within an orthodox setting he doesn’t get caught up in the “well what do you mean by God” – thing that we Unitarians often find ourselves negotiating because there is more of a shared understanding within his orthodox circles about what/who God is. Still his legitimate questions are incisive and make the challenge well from within and outside of his own religious community.

Another reason why these expressed doubts are incisive might be because they are asked from a position of humility.

The way that any question can be asked can be aggressive and threatening and many of us will have experienced this at some point, either in the giving of or the receiving of. But questions that are asked in the spirit of genuine enquiry and answers that are listened to with a genuine sense of a seeking to understand can foster genuine dialogue and a whole lot more love.

If we want to genuinely understand another’s religious position and we want to use the answers to help us to test our own positions, then we have to ask the right questions in the right way. This can take a lot of thought and putting questions into a book as Rob Bell does through a process of clear deliberation is a lot easier than thinking of them in a face-to-face dialogue whilst also trying to digest the exchange of responses.

My friend was recently telling me about a late-night radio show where a presenter was interviewing a Benedictine monk. He was telling me that between every question from the presenter there might be up to 10 seconds of silence before the monk responded. This was a little disconcerting at first – radio silence can seem an eerie thing – but overall, my friend found it really refreshing especially compared to the usual, hurried, cut-and-thrust, cat-and-mouse kind of dialogue that is the usual radio-fare.

Rob Bell continues to ask lots of pertinent questions of his own religious community. For example, he talks about the notion of a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus might actually mean.

He writes: “Do you know individuals who grew up in a Christian Church and then walked away when they got older? They were probably resisting behaviours, interpretations and attitudes that should be rejected. Perhaps they simply came to a point where they refused to accept the very sorts of things that Jesus would refuse to accept. Some Jesuses should be rejected.”

Bell argues that ‘which Jesus we are talking about’ may well be dependent on who and how the Jesus message is delivered and he wonders if God really leaves the condition of our religious futures resting in the hands of the competence and views of another single another human being.

Throughout the opening Chapter to “Love Wins” Bell challenges his own religious community with questions that he has struggled to reconcile with the answers that he has been traditionally given. This expression of doubt and enquiry is nothing new to Unitarians whose very existence was founded in the asking of such questions.

We all wrestle with the questions that religion throw up. Whether the frame of reference is Christianity, Humanism, Buddhism or whatever – the questions are there to be lived. Those of us who operate within Unitarianism are fortunate that this can be done openly, with freedom, integrity and honesty. We can wrestle with the questions and also rest in the questions without fear of being ostracised.  For that, I often remain confused about what I believe but joyful that I have the luxury of this confusion.

I wonder if Sally is still espousing the views of her youth or if she is out there somewhere asking the questions. Perhaps she would be horrified that I even remember what she said.  But I also hope that the possibility of transformation of those who are fiendish and cruel in their views is what lies at the very heart of the message of Jesus and indeed at the heart of all religions because in this, there is hope for us all, no matter what our starting points may be.  

May we both wrestle and rest in the questions and be changed for the better in their asking.

Amen.

Closing Words

May we live our lives with peace.

May we live our lives with love.

May we wrestle and rest in the questions of our lives.

May we go out into the world with the confidence to live our truths.

Amen.

Postlude: (Aside) I know that Country and Western music isn’t used that often in Unitarian circles and may not be everybody’s cup of tea – but here’s a C&W song to lift your spirits!

‘I Hope You Dance’  Lee Ann Womack.