Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Martin Gienke (adapted)
We come together in this sacred space from many directions
Following a myriad of routes and roads of life
To get to this point
From here we will go our different ways
In different directions
May our time together for this hour
Strengthen us and our resolve
To travel the right road
On the trail of Truth
As we speed on let us not forget our fellow travellers
To stop and help if they’re fallen
To guide them wisely if they’re lost
to encourage them in their own journey
May our onward journey
Be as challenging and exciting as that so far
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed
We light this chalice
to bring light to our minds,
wisdom to our souls, and
warmth to our hearts:
light to show us the Way,
wisdom to walk it truly,
warmth to enfold our fellow
pilgrims with compassion.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this not quite yet post-Covid world,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way.
Reading The wrong motives for the right reasons, from The Godseeker’s Guide by Lionel Blue
There are so many reasons for starting out on such a search. A broken love affair maybe, or the desolation of being stood up, or seeing the good and recognising that it is alive and personal as well as beautiful. Perhaps to cure your own loneliness or emptiness, or trying to believe that you matter. Perhaps you want to mix with the right people, or at least be buried among them. Or maybe you want to manipulate the universe and this is as good a juju as any. Or you’ve suddenly fallen in love with a God that died on you as a kid, or you want a divine daddy and support in life…. You might need extra strength as a carer who can’t cope, or extra courage… to get through a heavy analysis, or perhaps your business has gone bust in a recession and you interpret this as a divine sign to invest in another dimension. … Maybe you want to thank some Being somewhere for a joy you’ve experienced. Maybe you’ve discovered your soul. Perhaps you need a Big Brother or a friend you can really trust, a lover who won’t walk out on you (and you won’t walk out on her or him, which might be more to the point).
You can also catch God as you catch measles and get ‘born again’, to the consternation of your bewildered friends and family….
It doesn’t matter much why you go into the God business – much more important is what happens to you while you’re in it. Just accept your spiritual call and thank God for it.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading The Journey by Mary Wellemeyer
It’s a pilgrimage,
like a trek around Mount Kailash,
or perhaps Bodh Gaya,
but it’s life itself,
the whole thing, every moment.
On the high passes of Mount Kailash,
pilgrims hope for a kind of death,
a rebirth of spirit,
and it’s not a bad thing to go there, do that,
if time and money allow.
But what of this journey of every day,
and what can we learn from the pilgrims there?
They, light-headed in the altitude,
gasping in amazement
at the alternation of clear, bright sunlight
and windblown snows
amid the vast, craggy highlands
and steep, worn paths.
It seems to me a wind blows here
from Mount Kailash or somewhere,
and so we pilgrims of sidewalk and parking lot
are sometimes taken unawares —
not so much by windblown snows
as by apples in the supermarket,
or sunshine through the trees
next to the school.
We gasp in amazement,
lifted from our everyday selves,
for no reason at all.
Let it be a pilgrimage each day,
and may our journeys all be blessed.
Prayer Each Day by Andy Pakula
With each new day, we are offered another step in life’s sacred journey
an invitation to join in the flow of life that streams around us
Today, we may face a barren desert landscape to cross
Parched as our reserves of hope dwindle
Some days, a lush oasis appears
Offering its succulent gifts of joy to delight our hearts
Each day, we arrive, but not to stay
We travel on…
Pilgrims in search of the holy land that glistens in our dreams
Journeying toward a destination that we must seek
And that none ever reach
Spirit of the journey, God of many names
May we step out boldly
Venturing eagerly forward
Accepting all that each mile has to offer
May we know that within the journey itself lies our destination
And that the holy city waits to be discovered in every heart.
Reading Patient Trust by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We would 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 in 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.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Pilgrim’s Prayer by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Guiding Spirit, show us an open road, a pilgrim track.
The blind alleys of our folly wear a dreary look, we must break out and find a better way.
Show us the path of deliverance from the byways and cul-de-sacs in which we wander, trapped in a maze of old ideas, old hatreds, old fears; condemned to tread the same old ground we have trodden before.
We seek the bright highway to wholeness, which cuts through the walls and spans the chasms keeping us apart; which unites those who have been sundered, binds up our shadowed, fractured world like a ribbon of light.
We would join the pilgrims of the human race, search out the healing, holy shrine where souls, people and planets are made whole.
Show us your highway, O God, open our eyes to see that it runs just outside our door. Help us to make the first step along it. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
The German writer and poet, Marion Gitzel, once wrote, “Every path that you take is also a footbridge on which you stand.”
It took me a while to work out what she was getting at, but I think she meant that each choice we make on our journeys through life leads to consequences, that our choices lead us into situations where we have to make other choices.
Which reminded me of a service I wrote a while ago, about living in the moment, inspired by a reading from Wayne Muller, who wrote, “What is the next right thing for us to do? Where in this moment, shall we choose to place our time and attention? Do we stay or move, speak or keep silent, attend to this person, that task, move in this or that direction?
I don’t know about you, but to me this seems to be such a simple approach to life, much less stressful than being worried about a thousand possible alternatives. You just concentrate on the Next Right Thing – give that your time and attention, then go on to the next one.
But I was, and am, very conscious that “simple” does not mean the same as “easy”. This moment by approach to our lives is elegantly beautiful in its simplicity, but it is by no means easy to do. Because it means that we have to be conscious, awake, moment by moment, so that we make our many small choices with awareness, rather than blindly depending on how we are feeling at the time. Actively considering each choice, moment by moment, actually sounds like quite hard work.
But it is the most important work in the world.
If we look at our lives, really examine them, we can see that they are the result of all the choices we have made, in the past days and months and years (and, I guess, the choices the powers that be have made on our behalf). It is a gradual, moment by moment, process. Muller likens it to a mountain stream and, like the stream, we “know nothing of what is ahead, [are] not conscious of planning for the future. [We] simply follow the path of least resistance, motivated by gravity. … The only choice we make – what is the next right thing to do – responds to a similarly vital inner gravity, an invisible thread that shapes our life, as our life meets the world.”
This is the footbridge on which each one of us, moment by moment, stands. The results of this process have shaped our lives. All of us are where we are now, today, because of our past choices. And where we end up, tomorrow and the next day, will depend on the choices we make today.
This applies not only to our ordinary, mundane lives, but also to our spiritual journeys. For many of us, the spiritual journey is full of twists and turns, full of moments of joy and unexpected reverses. As Lionel Blue explained in our first reading, it does not matter why we started on this journey, what matters is that we have begun. He calls it “God-seeking” and that may be the meaning of the spiritual journey for some of us. Others of us may be seeking truth and meaning in our lives. Which may come to the same thing…
One thing is certain: the spiritual journey is not a smooth, uninterrupted one. We have to take it gradually as we are affected by experiences and people we come across. It is very often two steps forward, one step back. But I believe that doesn’t matter as long as we don’t lose sight of our goal, whether that is to find God, to find purpose and meaning in our lives, or simply to be the best people we can be.
The 16th century German theologian, Martin Luther, who famously nailed his Ninety Five Theses (about all his issues with the Catholic church) to the doors of All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517, thereby starting the Protestant Reformation, has some good advice for the journey: “For we must ascend gradually, on a flight of stairs to other stages, no-one becomes the first (or perhaps, reaches their goal) in one fell swoop.”
As I say, this is good advice for the spiritual journey. At least, for Unitarians. I understand that some Christians can have a profound conversion experience and make the huge step from non-belief to accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour in “one fell swoop” as Luther said. Even if, as Lionel Blue remarked, such an event may cause “consternation [to] your bewildered friends and family.”
But on the whole, we Unitarians tend to be more cautious. Our faith is based on what our reason and conscience tell us is right and true. So our spiritual journeys tend to be a process of gradual unfolding, rather than bold leaps. Our beliefs may change over time – mine certainly have. What I believe now, in my early sixties, is very different to what I believed in my twenties. As the 19th century Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.” And this becoming is rarely a straight road, with no diversions, no backsliding. Which is why most of us only manage to move two steps forward, one step back at a time. We need trust somehow “in the slow work of God” that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin talked about in our final reading, to keep going.
Teilhard de Chardin also tells us, “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.” We have to learn patience, learn to take one step at a time.
There are many lovely quotations about the spiritual journey in Stephen Lingwood’s anthology, The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present. For example, Michaela von Britzke wrote, “A spiritually growing person – like a spiritually growing congregation – is developing awareness and a capacity to pay attention to what is at hand in daily tasks and encounters, as a template for understanding and filling a place in the wider scheme of things.” This is not a million miles away from Wayne Muller’s advice to concentrate only on the Next Right Thing, which I mentioned earlier. The spiritual journey is, in most cases, a gradual one, which will take all our lives.
And yet, as Unitarian Universalist Sarah York wrote in Singing the Living Tradition, sometimes we can receive a nudge from the Divine, which moves us along. “We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”
These “fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity” can help us on our journeys, enabling us to move onto the next step and “into the unknown.” But we often need the help of others to be aware enough, attentive enough, to see them for what they are.
The “fragments” and “glimpses” we receive will be unique to each person. The same event or words may burn through one person’s heart like a flash of lightning, giving them new insight about their journey, while they may not speak at all to the condition of another (to use the Quaker phrase).
Which is why being part of a Unitarian religious and spiritual community is so important. Good, open-hearted, open-minded company on the road can help us to interpret the signs we perceive. Being able to talk to other people about our own spiritual journeys and listening with full attention to those of other people can be a precious, life-changing experience. As Andy Pakula wrote, “With each new day, we are offered another step in life’s sacred journey, an invitation to join in the flow of life that streams around us.” And it is much easier to make this sacred journey in the company of others. Otherwise, as Cliff Reed warns, “The blind alleys of our folly wear a dreary look, we must break out and find a better way.” We need help to be shown “the path of deliverance from the byways and cul-de-sacs in which we wander, trapped in a maze of old ideas, old hatreds, old fears; condemned to tread the same old ground we have trodden before.”
I would like to finish by repeating the end of Andy Pakula’s prayer:
“Spirit of the journey, God of many names
May we step out boldly
Venturing eagerly forward
Accepting all that each mile has to offer.
May we know that within the journey itself lies our destination
And that the holy city waits to be discovered in every heart.”
May it be so, Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we be aware of You as we make our journeys through life,
Guide our steps, that we may grow straight,
Governed by compassion, integrity and simplicity.
Help us to recognise that this journey
Will take the rest of our lives, that
Our steps will falter, doubts will come.
Help us to have faith that anything is possible with You.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley