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) Words by Cliff Reed.
We light our chalice
To celebrate our heritage of light:
The light of science and of art;
The light of story and of poem;
The light of nature and of reason;
The inner light of spirit and of truth.
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
Then said a teacher, Speak to us of Teaching.
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom, but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.
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 by William Ellery Channing from The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present, compiled by Stephen Lingwood.
I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognises its own reality and greatness; which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.
I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith; which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come; which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.
I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse; which discovers everywhere the radiant signature of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.
I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion: which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.
I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its old virtues: but listens for new and higher notions of conscience, and rejoices to pour itself forth in fresh and higher exertions.
I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathises with suffering: which recognises in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself up a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.
I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace of peril can enthral: which is calm in the midst of tumults, and possesses itself, though all else will be lost.
Prayer: These things endure based on Francis Bacon, from Songs for Living (adapted) with apologies for the non-inclusive language
Spirit of Life and Love,
The thoughts of men endure longer
than the buildings made with their hands.
Men’s ideas are more lasting
than the monuments of their power.
Visions of seers, thoughts of thinkers,
songs of poets, continue to live on,
whilst palaces, temples, castles
and cities decay and fall.
The conquests of princes perish
with the passing centuries, but
the images of man’s mind remain.
They live on as a bridge across the ages,
bringing the wisdom and dreams of the past
To new life in the world of today.
And our visions will generate new thoughts
in the minds of others, provoking
an endless chain of actions in succeeding
generations in time to come.
May it be so, Amen
Reading Learning from Life by Sarah Tinker from With Heart and Mind
What have we learned in our lives so far, and where did we learn it? Did we learn it in the meadow path or on the mountain stair, as the hymn suggests; did we learn in school, did we learn as we lived our everyday lives?
Some friends and I spent an evening together a while back, talking about our school days. The conversation ranged from the teachers we remembered, to trying to recall what we had actually learnt in school, in those long years that we spent sitting at desks, busily taking notes. What had we learnt, and what could we now remember?
The one and seemingly only fact that had imprinted itself in all of our minds was from a geography lesson, and it was an explanation of how ox bow lakes are formed – not, perhaps, a vital piece of information, though fascinating nonetheless!
What surprised us was how little knowledge we had consciously retained from those long years of compulsory education. What we had remembered instead, were the people and the skills – how to get on with groups of people; how to find books in a library; how to make your homework look as though it had taken you hours to complete, when you had only spent ten minutes on it.
Some of my more profound times of learning have occurred far away from the school gates, in adult life, and often these have been the difficult times of sadness, illness, challenge, loss – life experiences that taught me something about myself, about others, about humanity, about life itself. I wonder where you have learnt some of the most useful lessons of your life… and does anyone else remember how ox bow lakes are formed?
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Sarah Tinker, from With Heart and Mind)
As we enter a time of stillness and silence together, I invite you to turn your attention inwards, to let your awareness of the outside world retreat for a while as you focus perhaps on the gentle movement of your breath and the stillness of your body, sitting quietly for a while, with your eyes gently closed if that feels comfortable, and with your feet resting gently on the ground.
And in this time of stillness, you might wish to ask yourself what are some of the things you have learnt from life?
Who or what have been your greatest teachers?
As we sit in silence together now for a few minutes, ask yourself what is the most valuable lesson life has taught you so far? How might you explain what you have learnt to someone else?
May we be people who continue to learn and grow in life, ever open to new ideas and insights and possibilities, for the greater good of all.
Musical Interlude The Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly by Puccini, performed by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Address On Teaching and Learning
For the first time in this series of services, which I have based around readings from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, I find myself in disagreement with him. I do not agree with the Prophet, when he says, “As each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.” On the contrary, I believe that while we may be “alone” in what we decide to do with what we have learned, it is possible to learn from others, to gain knowledge and insights from others’ wisdom. How could this not be true? Otherwise, we would still be living in the trees, arguing about which nuts belonged to whom.
I believe that one of the wonderful things about human beings is their willingness to learn, or at least, that is how we are born. If you have ever watched a baby, or a young child encountering something new for the first time, you will know how full of wonder and delight the learning process can be. But sadly, as we get older, our willingness to be open to new light, new ideas, tends to fall away, unless we are careful. It is very easy for us to become entrenched in our opinions, thereby closing off the possibility of learning a new or different way of thinking.
So I’d like to consider the questions that Sarah Tinker put in her meditation, which formed our time of stillness and reflection. The answers that each of us have will be unique, because no two people have ever led identical lives. The people we encounter, the experiences we have, and how we have chosen to respond to these people and experiences, have all helped to grow us into the people we are now, today.
So, I wonder… what are some of the things you have learnt from life? I have been lucky, I guess, because some of the lessons I have learned are that people are good on the whole, kind on the whole, and that the universe is generally a benevolent place in which to live. And that, to quote the old saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” My experiences have led me to choose three values, which I try to follow in my life. Simplicity – stepping back from the consumer rat-race and appreciating the very much I already have. Integrity – walking the talk, living the values I espouse. Compassion – trying to put myself into the shoes of another before I judge them, and trying to understand where they are coming from. I love how Brené Brown discovered this one, by being asked the question: “Do you believe that people are doing the best that they can?” Which led to a period of self-examination which lasted for months, and which changed her in profound ways.
Sarah’s next question was, “Who or what have been your greatest teachers?” A flippant response might be, “too many to name”, but it would be close to the truth. I have been blessed by some wonderful teachers in my life – the English teacher at my secondary school who gave me a lifelong love of English language and literature, innumerable Unitarian ministers and lay worship leaders whose words have inspired me to be the best person I can, the little red book of the Quakers, Advices and Queries, and two marvellous spiritual directors, who have held my hand along the way.
Her final, combined question was, “What is the most valuable lesson life has taught you so far? How might you explain what you have learnt to someone else?” I had to think about this one – I have learned so many valuable lessons in my life, that to choose just one was difficult. But after gazing at my computer screen for a while, it suddenly came to me. The most valuable lesson that life has taught me so far is the challenge of being me. To dare to be my most authentic self, to walk away from anything which is not congruent with my deepest values. And to live those values, day by day. No matter how I might be tempted to go along with what others think I should believe, or how others think I should act, because that’s the easy route to fitting in.
As I said last week, this has involved a long and often uncomfortable journey. But here’s the thing – I knew I was on the right track, on the right track for me. Which has enabled me to keep on learning and growing, two steps forward, one step back. Your ‘right track’ may be very different from mine; in fact it would be strange if it were not. And your teachers will also be yours alone. The important thing to do is to take on board the lessons you have learned and live them with your whole heart.
I have loved the words of William Ellery Channing the 19th century American Unitarian, which I shared with you as my second reading, for many years. Precisely because they highlight the pitfalls which it is so easy to fall into if you are not following your own deepest values. He speaks of the dangers of “cower[ing] to human opinion”, being a “slave or tool” of others, of not “resist[ing] the bondage of habit, [nor] mechanically copy[ing] the past, nor liv[ing] on its old virtues.” Instead, he recommends being open to new light, receiving new truth, listening “for newer and higher notions of conscience”, setting no bounds to love, and recognising “in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children.” If you do these things, he says, you will discover everywhere “the radiant signature of the infinite spirit,” and learn how to grow on your spiritual journey.
In some ways, I think that our willingness to carry on learning, about our faith and about our lives and the world around us, is the essence of being Unitarian. We know that we must be open to new light, new ideas, not contenting ourselves “with a passive or hereditary faith” as William Ellery Channing wrote, but “receiv[ing] new truth as an angel from heaven,” as he advises.
But of course not all the lessons that we learn in our lives will be easy or full of light and love. As Sarah Tinker wrote in our third reading, “Some of my more profound times of learning have occurred far away from the school gates, in adult life, and often these have been the difficult times of sadness, illness, challenge, loss – life experiences that taught me something about myself, about others, about humanity, about life itself.”
She is so right. Being a human being, living and loving in this complex world of ours, means that there will be difficult times, of “sadness, illness, challenge, loss.” And as I said a fortnight ago, in my service on Pain, how we respond to these difficult times will dictate how well we come out of them – as sadder (perhaps), wiser (maybe) people, but still with a core of faith and hope for the future; or whether they overcome us and destroy the life in us. And I also believe that living in beloved community with others to support us during difficult times can have a huge impact on how well we move through them. Unitarian congregations, at their best, provide such a wonderful, supportive community.
And we also have to bear in mind the unique quality of every individual’s life experiences. Which means that we should never dismiss their pain or sadness as trifling or self-indulgent or unnecessary. Because it is they who are living through it, living with it, not us. And because each of us has been taught different lessons by our varied life experiences up to this date. I said a while ago that I had learned that the universe was generally a benevolent place to live. Which of course is very easy for me to say, because my life has included little direct oppression, bias, or dismissiveness. By and large, I have been listened to, and heard. But that is not true for many. So we need to have compassion for others, whoever they are, and whatever background they come from.
May we have compassion for others, as they share their life experiences, and also for ourselves. So that we can all learn and grow together, into our best selves.
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