Musical Prelude: Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Hornby
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) Words by Cliff Reed (adapted)
As the true prophets of God have always told us,
the Divine will is for mercy and compassion,
love and justice.
May we never suppose that vengeance and cruelty,
hatred and murder, serve the Divine purpose.
In the spirit of human solidarity and oneness
we join in worship.
Opening Prayer (words by Martin Whitell)
Spirit of God and Lord of the morning,
we come together and to you
in the coolness of the beginning day.
We thank you for the hope that is ours
in the community of faith and in the determination
of the best of humanity to make this world
and every situation one of kindness and care.
We think today of those who are very sick,
those who are worried and those who are bereaved.
May they find comfort in the presence of loved ones, carers,
and the unfathomable resources of the Divine.
Be with us and help us to be what we are called to be.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
And one of the elders of the city said, Speak to us of Good and Evil.
And he answered:
Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil.
For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?
Verily, when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.
You are good when you are one with yourself.
Yet when you are not one with yourself, you are not evil.
For a divided house is not a den of thieves, it is only a divided house.
And a ship without rudder may wander aimlessly among perilous isles, yet sink not to the bottom.
You are good when you strive to give of yourself.
Yet you are not evil when you seek gain for yourself.
For when you strive for gain, you are but a root that clings to the earth and sucks at her breast.
Surely the fruit cannot say to the root, “Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance.”
For to the fruit giving is a need, as receiving is a need to the root.
You are good when you are fully awake in your speech.
Yet you are not evil when you sleep while your tongue staggers without purpose.
And even stumbling speech may strengthen a weak tongue.
You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.
But you who are strong and swift, see that you do not limp before the lame, deeming it kindness.
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 from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good,
You are only loitering and sluggard.
Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.
In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.
But in some of you that longing is a torrent, rushing with might to the sea, carrying the secrets of the hillsides and the songs of the forest.
And in others it is a flat stream that loses itself in angles and bends and lingers before it reaches the shore.
But let not him who longs much say to him who longs little, “Wherefore are you slow and halting?”
For the truly good do not ask the naked, “Where is your garment?” nor the houseless, “What has befallen your house?”
Prayer Standing on the Side of Love by Cliff Reed (adapted)
May we stand on the side of love, as Jesus did.
We stand on the side of love, as all God’s messengers,
all champions of humanity, do.
The love that knows no false boundaries,
The ones that prejudice, ignorance, and fear erect:
Boundaries of nationality and ethnicity, creed and sect, gender and lifestyle, sexuality and sexual orientation.
May we stand on the side of love.
We stand against hatred, injustice and violence.
We stand against the bigotry that beats and shoots and stones,
And thinks itself righteous in doing so.
May we stand against ideologies and theologies,
Which dehumanise human beings for being ‘different’.
We stand against governments and institutions – be they secular or religious –
Which persecute love and those who love because they love.
May we stand on the side of love, as Jesus did.
Help us to do so. Amen
Reading from Unitarians: Together in Diversity by Sue Woolley
Respondents’ views on the nature of evil were sometimes complex and almost always carefully nuanced. Some believe that the term ‘evil’ is not helpful, and others that a distinction needs to be made between natural disasters and human-made ones. Some see evil as a human construct, used to control others, while others perceive it as a separate, active force in the world, in opposition to good. And it is seen by some as a deliberate turning away from good, or God. The most common perception, shared by more than half of the participants, was that evil is a human characteristic, and they explained this in various ways. Some described it as part of the human condition and believe that everyone has the capacity to do evil things. Others believe that no-one is born evil, but that various factors cause people to turn to evil: for example, environment, upbringing, or mental-health problems.
The views expressed about sin were equally complex. For some, sin is about humankind’s relationship with God; for others, it is more about human behaviour: about ‘wrongdoing’, ‘breaking the rules’, or ‘relational dysfunctionality’ – although of course there may be some overlap between these. Some believe that the concept of sin is a harmful one, designed by religions to control and manipulate people, but others find it a helpful guide to behaviour.
Time of Stillness and Reflection May I Radiate Hope by Reginald W. Wilde (adapted)
May we radiate hope
– where others may feel only depression and misgiving.
May we radiate courage
– when people grow faint-hearted and are likely to fall.
May we radiate loving-kindness and compassion
– where too often the world is heartless and unconcerned.
May we radiate good humour
– where impatience or indifference is common.
May we radiate tolerance and the desire to understand
– where people are too often judges by mere labels or without real inquiry.
May we radiate unselfishness and generosity
– when too often the world is ruled by mere self-advantage.
May we radiate an unremitting desire for truth
– where people are frequently blinded by passion, or greed, or uninformed prejudice.
Let us ponder these things in the silence.
And may we do all these things without pride or pretension or self-consciousness.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Hornby
Address On Good and Evil
Some people find the bad things that human beings do very easy to explain. It’s all to do with “original sin”. Many Christians believe that when Eve tempted Adam to eat that famous apple in the Garden of Eden, and God expelled them from Paradise, that all humans are fated to carry the burden of that sin in perpetuity.
In his fascinating book The Unitarian Way, Phillip Hewett speaks of “the outlook of those forms of religion that lay heavy stress upon the depths of depravity to which human nature can sink – an outlook illustrated classically in the words of the Westminster Confession: ‘we are utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite of all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.’”
I would imagine that if you have to repeat those words (or similar sentiments) in church every Sunday, it would be difficult to have a hopeful view of the potentialities of human nature! Hewett continues: “no very exacting survey of the current world scene is called for to verify the plausibility of such a pessimistic view. It seems to be validated by a glance at the headlines in any newspaper, and it requires more of an effort of thought to remind oneself that dramatic examples of evil behaviour are precisely the stuff of which headlines are made.”
Hewett’s point, with which I thoroughly agree, is that decent behaviour seems less spectacular and is less often reported. Perhaps the reason for this is because we instinctively expect such behaviour, and therefore feel it unnecessary to call attention to it? Perhaps this is more a Unitarian view of human nature. To quote Alfred Hall, author of Beliefs of a Unitarian: “Human nature is indeed prone to corruption, but Unitarians teach that man is constantly being called to respond to those divine influences making for beauty, truth and goodness in his character.” Or take Cliff Reed’s explanation in Unitarian? What’s that?: “Unitarians affirm that all human beings originate in the Divine Unity, all have something of God in them, all are alive with the same divine breath.”
As I see it, our job as Unitarians, as human beings, is to be constantly aware of the “divine influences” around us, in the world, in our fellow human beings, and to recognise that there is that of God in everyone, and that we are all connected to each other, on a very fundamental level. If we approach life and our relationships to the rest of humankind with these thoughts in mind, surely we cannot write humanity off as evil or depraved? Albert Schweitzer was quite pessimistic about the prospects for civilisation, and yet he could still write: “To the question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.” I think that we have to go along with that – to believe that there is good in the world, and that we can help to make it a better place. Otherwise, what is the point of living?
Another way of putting it is to say that “Unitarians are committed to an affirmation of life in face of all life-threatening forces [and] a hopeful belief in the potentialities of human nature.” (Reed) If we believe that Life with a capital L is fundamentally good (although our individual lives at any particular point may be fairly horrible) and that all human beings have the potential to be good or evil, then we must commit ourselves to doing our best to live our lives as well as we can, in accordance with the best we know, and to make our lives and the lives of those we touch as good as we can. This is what being part of a Unitarian community is all about.
This is not to say that there is no evil in the world. But I think that we have to believe that on an individual level, each person can choose whether to behave in a good or evil way, and that most human beings would instinctively choose to behave in a good one, left to themselves. It is when humans allow themselves to be influenced by others to commit evil acts, or believe evil things, that problems start.
When something dreadful, like the Manchester Arena bombing three years ago, happens, we have a choice about how we are going to respond. It’s quite a simple choice really, and it’s made on quite a deep, often subconscious level. We can choose to respond with fear and hatred, or we can choose to respond with love. Much of what I’m going to say now comes from a blogpost I wrote at the time.
I believe that in the violent world in which we live, it is vital to ponder about things like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and ‘sin’, so that we can respond appropriately, when incidents like the Manchester bombing happen.
So let’s think about the nature of evil. My own belief is that nobody is born evil. Who could believe that an innocent babe, fresh from the womb, is evil? Nevertheless, through a combination of factors, such as upbringing, poor environment, bad nutrition, mental instability, addiction, or brainwashing, people are driven to do acts which we judge to be evil. As we saw in my third reading, almost all the respondents to my survey were very clear that *no-one* is evil in the beginning, but that the capacity to do evil is within every human being, and must be kept in check, by each and every one of us. Evil comes from an absence of compassion, an inability to feel with the other. It is about the deliberate choice to do the wrong thing, not the right one. Which many Christians would define as sin.
But people are not evil. Only the acts they do are evil. It is important to hold on to that distinction. I have to wonder what lies the Manchester suicide bomber was told, that he would believe that blowing himself and other people up was the next right thing to do. I felt for his family, who are surely grieving for a beloved son, a beloved brother.
For me, the lies that the suicide bomber was surely told are the real sin, the real evil. Sin is a falling short of the standards we know are right, that we should be aspiring to. Many of my respondents defined the concept of sin as this falling short, as making the wrong choice, as separation from good, from God. Again, they were very clear that this is a learned thing – the vast majority of my respondents were against the idea of original sin – that human beings are born flawed.
And we need to hold on to the other side of things too – the outpouring of love and compassion and support that we saw in the first days after the Manchester Arena bombing (that we see every time something awful happens). Twitter was filled with offers of support – of a room for the night, of food, drink, safe transport home, anything that people could think of. The emergency services did (and do) their usual splendid job, and taxi drivers of all religions and none turned off their meters and showed up at Manchester Arena to offer a free ride home to anyone who needed it. Local hospitals were flooded with offers to give blood.
The British Red Cross, in conjunction with the Manchester authorities, set up a ‘We Love Manchester Emergency Fund’, and money poured in to support the families and friends of the victims. Because as usual, once the horrific event faded out of the news, which it did, those people were still bereaved, still had to live with the consequences of that young man’s evil deed. It is ever thus, sadly. Whenever something dreadful happens, we respond with compassion in the moment, and then most of us forget about it. But the victims, and their families and friends, have to live with it for the rest of their lives.
Tolkien, as ever, has it right. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo comments, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandalf responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We are all human beings, we are all members of many communities – our families, our friends, our colleagues, our church – and we are all members of the human race. What difference can we, as individuals, make to those communities? We need to be aware that we are in a living relationship with the rest of the world, and that our words and actions can influence the fate of that world and its inhabitants, our fellow human beings, not to mention all the other living things. Whether our influence is for good or ill is up to us.
I also agree with Phillip Hewett that “Asking whether human nature is good or evil is like asking whether water is hot or cold.” The answer is that it depends. And in our case, it depends on us.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” May we decide well and respond by standing on the side of love.
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 choose to stand on the side of love,
Acting according to the best that we know.
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Musical Postlude Sand Dunes by Elizabeth Hornby