Online Service on Appearance and Being


Musical Prelude I will play some quiet, reflective music… Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Hornby

Opening Words

In this time of insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
For this short time.

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)

We light our chalice today
Remembering with gratitude all the front-line staff
Of our hospitals, shops and public services,
Who are selflessly carrying on,
To meet the needs of the people they serve.
We light our chalice in the hope
That our loved ones may be safe,
That all people may be safe,
And in faith that normality will return,
And that we will return to normality
As kinder, more compassionate people.

Opening Prayer

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 difficult time,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
We hold in our hearts all those
Whose lives have been touched,
In whatever way,
By the coronavirus and the fall-out from it.

Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

And the weaver said, Speak to us of Clothes. And he answered:
Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy, you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment.
For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.

Some of you say, “It is the north wind who has woven the clothes we wear.”
And I say, Ay, it was the north wind,
But shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread.
And when his work was done, he laughed in the forest.
Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean….
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

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.

Reading from Faith in Black and White by Winnie Gordon, The Inquirer, 4th April 2020

Mimi Thi Nguyen, scholar in women’s and ethnic studies at Berkeley (2015) says clothing ‘can transform and render a body into being-as or being-like some other thing.’ A clergy collar transforms a person into a perceived messenger of God; a dog-collar with spikes represents punk of alternative lifestyles. In that same way, a hat on a woman’s head in a black church signals respect.

Dress transfigures, points up the interplay of individual agency, religious transubstantiation and society interpretation. But even individual agency is constrained by the construct of race, and the imposition of racial narratives. Women who choose to wear the hijab are subject to the society interpretation of that choice – both positively and negatively. Hoodies or headwraps are also freighted with an array of stereotypes and myths.

Dressing the body narrates a story imposed by others. My dress marks my everyday practice of joy in being – the joy of embracing my freedom, the qualities of who I am, through my body. When I dress my hair in braids, locks, curly hair, black, blond or red, or with the tattoos I have, I embody individual agency but also cultural significance that goes back to Africa, India and Native America….

I wear green to connect with our planet earth, red for joy and sensuality – although it is a symbol of death for some tribes and fertility in others. Gold is for the sun, the giver of life energy. Colours help me to connect to my divine and imbue me in an energy of purpose. Colouring my hair makes me visible in a world where many people of colour have felt invisible. It reminds me I am not a cog in the machinery. I am not so dark that I am invisible in the dark.


God, our Father and Mother,
Great Spirit of Life and Love,
All of us need love and connection,
In order to thrive as human beings.
In this time of social isolation,
Help us to show our love in other ways.
May those of us who are well,
Give generously of our time and effort,
To help those around us who are in need,
And to make them feel less alone,
By keeping in regular touch.
May those of us who are vulnerable, or ill,
Receive the help we need, and accept it with grace.
Although e-mails and phone calls
Are no substitute for the warmth
Of closer human contact,
May we all share whatever love we can,
And grow together in virtual community.

Reading from Faith in Black and White by Winnie Gordon, The Inquirer, 4th April 2020

Embodying my theology happens more in the quiet of listening for the spirit; listening to others and their struggles and joys as they navigate the world. I embody my theology by trying to understand the impact of race on the behaviour of others and my own. My world view – shaped by factors of race – means I embody protests such as Black Lives Matter and music that speaks of resistance. And in my work life, I practice being intentional in embodying diversity and encouraging multi-ethnic bodily responses in worship.

I strive to create a place I would wish to walk into and feel my skin tone and ethnicity represented in the style or structure of worship – even if I am the only person of colour. I want inclusivity to be at the heart of all our congregations, where the mask can be safely removed, and diversity celebrated. I do not want to hear that we are not happy-clap or praise-be congregations. Because each time we tell others what we are not, we are saying we are an exclusive community with limited welcome. I want us to say, ‘clap if you want’, say ‘amen’, dance, pray, sing, hold hands, wave arms, kiss. For who you are, whoever you are, no mask is needed here, for the whole of you is accepted and welcome here.

Time of Stillness and Reflection We are not in the same boat, author unknown (adapted)

These words were shared on Facebook last week by Rev Anna Jarvis…

I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Your ship could be shipwrecked and mine might not be. Or vice versa.

For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflection, of re-connection, easy in flip flops, with a cocktail or coffee.
For others, this is a desperate financial & family crisis.

For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest & time with their mother, father, sons & daughters.

Some were concerned about getting a certain candy for Easter while others were concerned if there would be enough bread, milk and eggs for the weekend.

Some want to go back to work because they don’t qualify for unemployment and are running out of money.
Others want to kill those who break the quarantine.

Some are home spending 2-3 hours per day helping their child with online schooling, while others are spending 2-3 hours per day to educate their children on top of a 10-12 hour workday.

Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it.
Others don’t believe this is a big deal.

Some have faith in God and expect miracles during this 2020. Others say the worst is yet to come.

So, friends, we are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different. Let us ponder these things in the silence…


Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is very important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing.

We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey.
May we all care for each other, as best we may. Amen

Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Hornby

Address On Appearance and Being

Everyone relies on their senses to help them to understand the world and to react appropriately to whatever and whoever they encounter. When we meet someone new, our eyes and ears (and perhaps even our noses) will be sending us a thousand subliminal impressions, which the unconscious parts of our brain will process at lightning speed, and then send a value judgement to our conscious minds.

In the instant of first meeting someone, most of us will automatically make a number of snap judgements about them, based entirely on their external appearance – how they dress, the colour and style of their hair etc. What does their choice of clothing, cosmetics, headgear, footwear, jewellery, body piercing(s) and tattoos(s) say about them? Not to mention the colour of their skin, and less obvious factors like posture. And the sound of their voice, whether they have a regional accent.

In a flash, our brains sum up a person up… Let me share three made-up examples:
• Young, punk haircut, torn clothing, pierced nose, tattoos… dangerous, avoid.
• Grey hair, wrinkles, no make-up, tracksuit bottoms, oversize top… has let herself go, not worth engaging with.
• Sharp suit, smart haircut, clean-shaven, briefcase… respectable, trust.

And these first impressions are very often inaccurate. The young person with the piercings and tattoos may be an environmental activist or a creative genius (or both!). Or simply someone who is happy in their own body, happy to express themselves through their clothing and appearance. The older woman may be a highly-respected professional on her day off, on her way to a yoga class. The man in the smart suit might be a con artist, or a religious fundamentalist.

The point being, we cannot possibly know what anyone’s character is like until we get to know them properly. Judging by appearances is dangerous, and wrong.

But we are so very good at it. Appearance is such a complex matter. Our clothes can indicate our identity – such as the Muslim hijab or Christian clerical collar that Winnie Gordon mentioned in our second reading. They can confer low or high status, as in the examples I gave above. Even though we may think they offer the “freedom of privacy” as the Prophet suggests, they may more truly be “a harness and a chain”. And even today, we refer to “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, the have nots and the haves, whose clothes indicate their status in the workplace. Many people wear certain types of clothing to “fit in” with their peers. I expect that many of us can remember instances of being taunted as a child or teenager, because our clothing or appearance did not fit with what the in-crowd was wearing. And how we choose to present ourselves to the world might be exactly the same as how birds use plumage… to attract people to us. And we judge ourselves poorly by comparing ourselves with the airbrushed, manipulated perfection of images of celebrities, in magazines and the social media. Maz and I watched a series called The Age of the Image recently, and it was fascinating to see how much images influence our society. Far too much.

I remember an old TV advert for the Guardian newspaper, many years ago. It opened with a shot of an old lady walking slowly down a pavement hauling a shopping bag on wheels behind her. The scene then cut to a young, black man running towards her… the implication being that he was going to attack her. Then the camera zoomed out, and you saw he was rushing to save her from some falling masonry… The point of the advert was that we need to know the whole story before we make judgements about anyone.

Learning to write fiction has taught me that everyone is the hero or heroine of their own story. Each person has a unique list of qualities, and each person has their own good points and flaws. And each is a child of God, unconditionally loved by Him/Her. So the final goal of every human being should be to become like the divine parent, and offer this unconditional love and compassion to others, regardless of appearance.

We have to try to let go of judgement, particularly judging by appearance alone. Because it is only too easy to fall into the bad habit of judging ourselves and others, and finding them and ourselves wanting. What if, as Brené Brown suggests in an anecdote retold in her book, Rising Strong, God came down to Earth one day, and told us “Every person you meet is my child, worthy of love and respect, and deserves to be treated as though they are doing the best that they can.”? What impact might this have on our lives?

Because it is so very easy to be in judgement, all the time. It can be over silly little things, like being consumed with impatience when I’m stuck behind a driver doing 35 on a 60-mile speed limit road; or it can be over big things, like jealousy, like finding it hard to believe that we are equally loved by a parent, or a child, like getting caught up in political issues.

Each time we respond to the situation we are in by judging, we are falling short of the people God intends us to be. I firmly believe that we were put in the world to try to be as compassionate and loving as we can, treating those around us, and the planet, with a concern and care for how they might feel. As it says in the Charter for Compassion “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creature, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

It’s about embracing the Golden Rule: to act towards others as you would like them to act towards you, and to not be mean to others, as you would hope they would not be mean to you. I went to a conference hosted by the Charter for Compassion a few years ago, and Karen Armstrong, the Charter’s founder, was the principal speaker. She spoke of the urgent need to implement the Golden Rule globally, because conflicts the world over are not just “their” problems; they are “our” problems too. The whole of humankind is inter-connected in a very real way, and we need somehow to make a difference in the world. The corona virus has underlined this…

It’s about acting as if we believe that every single person we meet is doing the best that they can; and being generous in our interpretations of their actions. Take the example I gave earlier, when I was irritated by the slow driver. If I had remembered that they were doing the best that they could, I might have not been irritated. Or in the jealousy example, I might have reflected that just because a person is showing love to someone else, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have loving feelings for me too. Or not responding angrily because someone on Facebook has posted something political with which I disagree. Not easy, but it is what I strive to do, when I remember compassion.

So how does this work out in the Unitarian context? If we want to make our religion more compassionate, less judgemental, it is we that have to do it – we who have to be the change we want to see in the world. We have to take responsibility for our own traditions. It is no good waiting for “them” to do something – even if “them” is the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, which is a partner organisation of the Charter for Compassion. It is we, the individual congregations, the individual people in those congregations, who need to take responsibility ourselves – to become activists *where we are*. We need to work hard, to think outside the box, to grapple with difficulties. There are no simple blanket solutions. We are not all in the same boat.

It is we who have to stop judging by appearances and learn to encounter each person as an individual child of God. Winnie gave us the gold standard to aspire to, when she wrote, “I strive to create a place I would wish to walk into and feel my skin tone and ethnicity represented in the style or structure of worship – even if I am the only person of colour. I want inclusivity to be at the heart of all our congregations, where the mask can be safely removed, and diversity celebrated.… each time we tell others what we are not, we are saying we are an exclusive community with limited welcome. I want us to say, ‘clap if you want’, say ‘amen’, dance, pray, sing, hold hands, wave arms, kiss. For who you are, whoever you are, no mask is needed here, for the whole of you is accepted and welcome here.”

Let us strive to make it so, Amen

Closing Words

Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
And do the work that is ours to do.
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,

Musical Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Hornby