Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this time of continuing 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)
The Divine within us reaches out
to the Divine around us,
and the fire that burns concealed
in the ark of the heart, burns too
as the broader universal flame
which makes our spirits one.
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. Amen
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Then Almitra spoke, saying, we would ask now of Death.
And he said:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
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 Do Unitarians believe in life after death? from Unitarian? What’s that? by Cliff Reed
Unitarians hold a wide variety of beliefs on this subject. Some have a very firm belief in personal survival beyond death and cite evidence to support it.
Others – probably most – are less categorical, perhaps believing that in some way all that constitutes a human being continues to exist after death. However, they would not wish to be specific about how, where, or in what form. They might talk in terms of the soul or spirit returning to God. They might say that the essence of a person is rewoven into the spiritual life of the universe, just as the body’s constituents are reworked into the universe’s physical dimension. Some are interested in exploring the various theories of reincarnation. The persistence of a person’s ideas, genes, and more intangible influences would be as much as many Unitarians would be prepared to concede. Some prefer to say nothing at all, being content to “take one world at a time.” Most, though, would also point to the continued existence of individuals in the memories and lives of those who knew and loved them, and would see in this a source of comfort.
Whatever our position, most Unitarians agree that this is an area of mystery. Many theories exist, many claims are made, but undisputed evidence is hard to find. Unitarians take the view that, in any case, the focus of our attention should be this world. Our concern is better directed to considering how we should live our lives in the here and now. A life well lived is the best preparation for death, whatever may lie beyond it.
Prayer Everything has its season by Richard Bober, from Celebration (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
Everything has its season,
All is change and decay:
in each blossom
is contained the russet browns,
foretelling the year’s end.
To everything a season.
Flowers will fade and die.
Snow clouds never far
from rich harvests.
In every moment, a season
Is held in every step.
May we take each day, each hour,
The only certainty, change,
And within each dying minute
May we reverently accept
The harbingers of renewal.
Reading: When Death Comes by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Trevor Jones)
Truth lies not in greeting, but in parting –
When activity and sharing cease, truth
meets us in the silent room of the soul
when we have only ourselves to greet.
Shall we know ourselves then?
Shall we like what we know?
Will our room reflect the lights and shadows
of these our companions who are with us in activity?
Will the colour of their differences warm the room?
The silence of ourselves,
When activity and sharing are done,
Yet, we should not fear it –
From the depth of silence comes the ebb and flow of life.
Silence is not empty,
It has strength, colour, warmth.
We can emerge refreshed from silence.
Let us reach into ourselves,
Yet know the love and friendship that lies between us
and these our friends and companions.
Let us be silent together…
We are thankful for the silence we have shared.
May the love and friendship which lie between us now
Go with us into our living –
Giving comfort in our sorrows, delight in our joys,
drawing life and vitality from our differences and our sharing.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address On Death
For many people, death is the last taboo subject. In a world filled with discourse about every subject under the sun, most of us shy away from talking about death. It is like the elephant in the room, always present, rarely spoken about. Except in the form of grim statistics in our news feeds.
This year, 2020, has been a year in which many of us have had to face up to the death of loved ones, not only due to the coronavirus, which has brought death into our living rooms so much in the past six months, but also from the many illnesses which afflict us as we grow older. Because for all of us, death is inevitable. As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
And none of us know what will happen to us after death, because, as one of the respondents to my survey wryly remarked, when responding to the question, ‘Is there life after death?’, “No idea. I haven’t died yet [or if I have, I’ve no recollection of the previous life].” So I was interested to read the Prophet’s take on the subject. “If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one… For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”
This view of death chimes in with my own. I believe, with the Prophet and John O’Donohue, that our souls, which come from God, and inhabit the clay of our bodies during our lives will, when we die, return to God. But as we saw in my second reading, by Cliff Reed, Unitarians have many and varied views about life after death, from those who believe that once we die, that’s it, to those who “have a firm belief in personal survival beyond death.” In between are many views, “They might say that the essence of a person is rewoven into the spiritual life of the universe, just as the body’s constituents are reworked into the universe’s physical dimension. Some are interested in exploring the various theories of reincarnation. The persistence of a person’s ideas, genes, and more intangible influences would be as much as many Unitarians would be prepared to concede. Some prefer to say nothing at all, being content to “take one world at a time.” Most, though, would also point to the continued existence of individuals in the memories and lives of those who knew and loved them, and would see in this a source of comfort.”
I do believe that life and death, love and death, are interwoven, in some mysterious way and that it is important to talk about death, and that a loving Unitarian community is possibly one of the best places to do so. In his book, Love and Death, written while he was dying of cancer, UU minister Forrest Church, wrote, “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means… Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death. The one thing that can never be taken away from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.”
Until our own time comes, we can only experience death through the grief we feel about the loss of others. Forrest Church again, “Love and death are allies. When a loved one dies, the greater the pain, the greater love’s proof. Such grief is a sacrament… The measure of our grief testifies to the power of our love.”
The measure of our grief testifies to the power of our love. Yes. When we are in the depths of grief, it can be difficult, almost impossible, to remember this. One of the inevitable questions, when we are in great pain, is to ask why this has happened to us, and some of us will lose our faith in a benevolent God, as we ask why He/She permitted the death of our loved one to happen. Because we loved them so very dearly, and find life without them almost intolerable, hardly worth living, in fact.
Yet for most of us, this first sharp grief will pass, and we will slowly move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving, denial, a refusal to accept that this has happened to us; anger, wanting to blame someone else for our misery; bargaining, most often taking place before the death of a loved one (take me instead, or if you prevent this from happening, I’ll do anything); depression (I feel so sad, what is the point of going on?); and finally, acceptance – yes, this has happened, yes, I will always miss my loved one, but yes, I choose life. Although often not in a linear fashion; often some new loss in our lives will throw us back to an earlier stage.
And grieving need not only apply to the death of a loved one. It can also hit us for other reasons, such as the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the onset of disease, an infertility diagnosis – there are so many things in our lives that can cause grief. Each a little death. One example in my life was when I was diagnosed as a coeliac in 2017 and felt real grief for all the loved foods I would no longer be able to enjoy, especially bread.
During this pandemic, David Kessler has applied these five stages to responses to the coronavirus, saying, “It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world… There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
To this we can add our fears for the future – will we ever be able to do so many things we took for granted, ever again? Like attending any event with large numbers of people, such as our General Assembly meetings, without worrying about our health and safety. Like hugging our friends when we see them. The ‘new normal’ is going to be very different to the old one. Which is a source of grief to many of us.
So there are many ways in which death, in which grieving for a loss, can affect us. Which is why Mary Oliver’s poem, When Death Comes, brings me so much consolation, so much hope. I want to share her courageous attitude to death, “When death comes… I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering; what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
And in the meantime, I want to live my life as fully as possible, so that, as she wrote, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life, I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
As Forrest Church wrote, choosing life, choosing love, is about “emptying ourselves that we may be filled, losing ourselves that we may be found, giving away our hearts even though they will surely be broken. And when they are, remembering that pain is a sign of healing, not only physical but spiritual pain as well… We cannot protect love from death. But by giving away our hearts, we can protect our lives from the death of love.”
Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we appreciate the people around us,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
Sharing our joys and our sorrows,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley