Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
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 space of 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,
At this one 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)
Chalice Lighting (words by Cliff Reed)
We kindle the light of our liberal faith: may it be
the light of knowledge to dispel ignorance,
the light of reason to dispel superstition,
the light of love to dispel bigotry and inhumanity,
no matter what their guise.
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 painful events in their lives and in the wider world,
Of which we are all a part.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so you must know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy:
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity though the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with his own sacred tears.
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 Called to care by Celia Midgley, from With Heart and Mind
How often do we hear the words, ‘I don’t care’ – uttered with a shrug of indifference or even anger? I heard them again this morning. ‘I don’t care about…,’ the man began, and I half stopped listening as he launched into his own concerns, the things he did care about. His vehemence silenced his hearers. It was not that he did not have a point. It was his lack of caring for another’s.
It is easy to say that we do not care. It is a way of not engaging with others. It is the way of the bully, of the demagogue. It wins the plaudits of the crowd. But it succeeds by sweeping aside others’ viewpoints and sensitivities.
We are called to care. Care about everything, the small and the great. Care about tiny plants and creatures, about large trees and rivers, about buildings and cities. Care about people you pass on the street, make way for them. Care about those you may never meet but who, like you, inhabit this world.
Caring is the more difficult path. It compels us to review constantly all that we say and do. It slows us down. But it helps us to balance our lives, and to take tentative steps towards peace.
Prayer: by Celia Midgley (adapted)
Loving Spirit, help us to love
our neighbour as ourselves.
Create in us a tender heart for all that lives,
for all that may grow.
Make us aware of the fragility
and potential of human beings.
Let our passion ever be tempered with kindness,
our lives with humility,
and, however hard the path
may caring be our calling.
Reading Incarnation by Peter Sampson from With Heart and Mind (adapted)
James Martineau wrote, ‘The Incarnation is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.’
Martineau’s distinctively Unitarian ‘take’ on the transformation of God into our human – all too human – flesh and blood has been a constant inspiration to me.
Our responsibility for our own lives and, necessarily, for the lives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world lays upon us all a duty which cannot be dodged: our humanity is defined by how we serve and care for the needs of the human family. You can’t have faith without works and working for the good of all inspires our faith in God-given life.
It is small comfort to me to be told that God died for my sins. I see every one of us missing the mark in our lives, and whenever a fellow-creature is harmed, we must pray for forgiveness for ourselves. We are all culpable, but if we are to serve human progress, we have to say ‘sorry’ from the bottom of our heart and move on.
When we look around us, we tend to focus on what’s going wrong: suffering – often caused by human ignorance – waste, devastation, degradation, contempt, the whole sorry spectacle of ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man’. I see this as a betrayal of our God-given humanity, a trivialisation of our God-endowed divinity.
Resorting to armaments and the inflexible war-talk of politicians, shouting at those we don’t agree with, and throwing our weight about if we don’t get our own way – I want to say, ‘Come off it! Who do you think you are?’
There is that of God in every person, in every creature on the planet.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Peter Sampson, from With Heart and Mind, adapted)
When nothingness threatens,
take us away, O Spirit, to a quiet place.
When there’s too much pain and misery, cruelty and destruction,
give us, O Spirit, a calmness and a depth –
to accept the nothingness…
but see that it is not all there is.
Help us to start again, because others need us,
others love us,
others see in us what we have lost sight of.
In this way we serve the eternal impulse
to give and receive,
to make and to mould,
to hold fast to a vision and strive
for peace and happiness,
fulfilment and relationship through all the world.
Let us ponder these things in the silence…
May we be people of vision, and strive for a better world, for all its inhabitants.
Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Address On Pain
People the world over are experiencing so much pain, just now. Whether it is through injury, illness, a chronic physical condition, or emotional or spiritual pain, it still hurts.
Pain can manifest itself in many ways. There is physical pain, which we feel when our bodies are damaged in some way, whether through accidental or deliberate injury; illness, whether acute, like a virus or a bacterial infection, or the perhaps harder to bear chronic pain that is always with us, caused by a long-standing medical condition, such as rheumatism, angina, or in my case, bunions.
The causes and experience of emotional pain are similar – we may feel new and acute pain, when we hear about the death of a loved one, for example, while later on, the grief may have settled into our bones, and always be with us. And emotional pain is closely linked to spiritual pain, when the part of us that is wounded is that deepest part, which some of us call the soul, and others, the psyche.
There are various ways in which we, as human beings, respond to pain: some wise, some foolish, some downright irresponsible. For example, we may have a particular pain in our bodies, which is making itself felt more and more often, particularly as we grow older, although some instances like this, such as toothache, can occur at any age.
How we respond to this pain will influence how long and how acutely we suffer from it. It seems to me that we have a number of choices. First, we can ignore it, in the hope that it will go away. If it is a minor pain, not caused by any underlying physical condition, this might work, at least temporarily. Second, we can try to brazen it out, bull through it, “suck it up” (horrible phrase, but so descriptive!). The outcome of this approach will also vary; if it is an acute pain, not caused by anything serious, such as banging our funny bone on something, this may work, and may even be the best response. Making a huge fuss about a small, transitory pain might be considered self-indulgent, even hypochondriacal.
Third, we can pay attention to the pain, and try to learn what it is telling us, and then act to alleviate it, if we can. I am not sure that I have the same attitude as the Prophet, in my first reading, who describes pain as, “the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self,” and that therefore we should, “trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity.” That is advanced spirituality indeed. But I have read of cases where this option has led to the serenity the Prophet advocates. One example which springs to mind is St Therese of Lisieux, who suffered greatly during her short life, but who was able to write, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”
Fourth, we can wallow in our pain, allow it to overcome us, become victims of it, until it comes to define who we are as people. This is a temptation – noble suffering, believing that no-one else suffers as much as we do. As the Prophet truly remarks, of those who choose this response, “Much of your pain is self-chosen.”
Fifth, we can lash out against whatever we believe has caused our pain, for which we may have good and valid reasons. Witness the protests in recent days over the murder of George Floyd, both in the United States and here. Many protesters bore witness to the injustice of this black man’s murder by white police. And they were right to do so. As Celia Midgley wrote in my second reading, “We are called to care. Care about everything, the small and the great. Care about tiny plants and creatures, about large trees and rivers, about buildings and cities. Care about people you pass on the street, make way for them. Care about those you may never meet but who, like you, inhabit this world.” My Facebook feed has been filled with posts and memes supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign. And yet. Where the protests have turned into riot and looting, resulting in the injury of innocent bystanders, we have to draw a line. The question is, where should the line be drawn?
The difference that our perception of pain makes, comes partly from whether we believe (or know) it is temporary or permanent. For example, most women suffer enormous pain during childbirth, but they know that the only choice is to get through it somehow, because the reward of a new child is so great. Chronic, permanent pain is more difficult to deal with, because it has no end. To give an example from my own life, I suffer from bunions, combined with very broad feet, which make wearing any shoes except slippers, the widest trainers, wide-fitting shoes and boots, or adjustable sandals, a species of torture. When I was the GA President’s guest at the Cenotaph ceremony last November, I wore a pair of court shoes which had been bought pre-bunions, and ended up walking through the streets of London and the Underground station afterwards in my stocking feet, because the pain was so intense. And yet I know that the only option available to me is surgery, which is not always successful. So I grin and bear it. And have donated those shoes to charity.
Of course, we can choose to numb ourselves to the pain, ours and other people’s, by armouring up against it. We can use pain-relieving medication to help us ignore our physical aches and pains. Emotional and spiritual pain is not that easy to ignore. It takes the courage of vulnerability to open ourselves to our own pain, or another’s, then respond to it with empathy and understanding.
Where emotional or spiritual pain is longstanding and chronic, it can change the entire way we respond to the world; whether we cower away, in expectation of the next attack, endure attacks with stoic resignation, or make the decision to rise up and fight against the underlying cause or causes. We can take responsibility for our own pain, and act accordingly; or we can sit back and leave it to others to “do something” about it.
The pain of perceiving something wrong in our society, and how we respond to that perception, depends to a great extent on our position in that society. For example, are we the privileged, or are we the oppressed? Or do we merely perceive ourselves to be the oppressed, when to an outsider’s eye, we are not that badly off? This is a complex question, which deserves unpacking.
I believe that the arrogance of judging another’s pain to be minor or meaningless is the sin of privilege. We, as people of privilege (mostly) can choose how we respond to any situation, as we saw earlier – we can ignore it, brazen it out, take a token action like signing a petition to sooth our consciences. Or, we can actually stand up and do something to right that wrong, to alleviate that person’s or group of people’s pain. Because unlike our black, coloured, other faith, other sexuality, or poor sisters and brothers, we do not have to live each day with the discrimination that just being themselves brings down on their heads.
The ways in which we respond to the pain of others will also vary – the roles of compassion and empathy – walking a mile in another’s shoes, are important here. If we don’t at least attempt to do this, it is easy to condemn protests, without considering why people are protesting. Last Sunday, I attended a Zoom service led by Rev Winnie Gordon, on the theme Black Lives Matter. It was an incredibly powerful call to action.
In our democratic society, it should surely be the right of every person to fight against, protest about injustice, regardless of who they are. Unitarians have a proud tradition of dissent. It is time to stand up and be counted. At the Asparagus Lunch last year, Rev Celia Cartwright gave a moving speech to support our Unitarian toast “To civil and religious liberty for all, the world over.” She said, speaking of early Unitarians who fought for our right to worship openly and legally, “It is hard for us to put ourselves in the mind-space of those men and women who struggled through bigotry and hatred, accusations of heresy and treason, prison sentences and loss of possessions, to bring about the faith we cherish, with all its freedom and its reason and its tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others. It is hard to understand the strength of their faith. The strength that defied the will of intolerant laws and unreasonable restrictions in its struggle for the freedom to believe as their conscience dictated.”
Let us think for a moment, about how we would feel if we were still the ones struggling with bigotry and hatred, still the ones suffering from intolerant laws and unreasonable restrictions. Because that is where large minorities of our so-called open democracy are living, right now. The freedom to choose to care, or not to care, is one reserved for the privileged, who can choose to ignore discrimination in our society, because they do not suffer from it themselves.
I agree with Peter Sampson, whose words I shared in our third reading, when he wrote, “When we look around us, we tend to focus on what’s going wrong: suffering – often caused by human ignorance – waste, devastation, degradation, contempt, the whole sorry spectacle of ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man’. I see this as a betrayal of our God-given humanity, a trivialisation of our God-endowed divinity.” And it is up to us to do something about it.
I have always loved the story that Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke about the shepherd and the lost sheep. It is very short, so I will quote it in full: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
I read a powerful interpretation of that parable on Facebook this week. It was a refutation of the question that people ask, “Don’t all lives matter?” when someone posts something about “Black Lives Matter.” Of course all lives matter, as Peter Sampson wrote, “Our responsibility for our own lives and, necessarily, for the lives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world lays upon us all a duty which cannot be dodged: our humanity is defined by how we serve and care for the needs of the human family.” Nevertheless, if a particular person or sector of people in our society is suffering, it is eminently right to “leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness” and concentrate our attention on the one that is lost or injured.
May we find the courage in ourselves to recognise the pain and suffering of others, and do all that is in our power to alleviate that pain. Amen
Our time together is drawing to a close.
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