Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this time of continuing insecurity and social upheaval,
When most of us 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)
In this strange year,
we have all experienced what it means,
to live on the margins of our lives.
May our chalice flame remind us,
of the sacred community we share.
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 Margins create liminal space by Richard Rohr
When we are content and satisfied on the inside of any group, we seem to suffer from a structural indifference. We do not realize that it is largely a belonging system that we have created for ourselves. It is not until we are excluded from a system that we are able to recognize its idolatries, lies, or shadow side. It is the privileged “knowledge of the outsider” that opens up the playing field…
I believe it is for that reason that so many saints and mystics and even everyday people have chosen to live their entire lives at the edges of most systems. They take their small and sufficient place in the great and grand scheme of God by “living on the edge of the inside.” They build on the solid tradition (“from the inside”) but from a new and dynamic stance (“on the edge”) where they cannot be co-opted by a need for security, possessions, or the illusions of power.
People such as Francis and Clare of Assisi try to live on the margins so they will not become enamoured by the illusions and payoffs of prevailing systems. They know this is the only position that ensures continued wisdom, ever-broadening perspective, and even deeper compassion. Such choices may be seen in the lives of monks, nuns, hermits, or Amish communities. There are softer forms, too, like people who do not watch TV, people who live under the level of a taxable income, people who make prayer a major part of their day, people who deliberately place themselves in risky situations for the greater good. It is ironic that we must go to the edge to find the centre, but that is what prophets, hermits, and mystics invariably do.
I want to acknowledge that there is a difference between being marginalized—forced (usually by prejudice and systemic discrimination) out of the common benefits and goods that come from living in mainstream society—and choosing to live on the margins. Both can be privileged places for spiritual growth and transformation.
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 On the Margins by Ann Peart, from With Heart and Mind
Recently, a mainstream Christian minister suggested that Unitarians had a vocation to be on the margins. Usually to be marginalised suggests deprivation, but there is one sense in which it can be seen positively.
Those who are at the centre of an organisation often only understand that particular organisation; while those on the edge have to understand not only the organisation which keeps them on the edge, but also their own group, of which they may be in the centre. bell hooks, a black feminist writer in America, explains this in relation to her own upbringing. She lived in a poor area of a small Kentucky town, literally on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Her family worked in the more prosperous centre of the town, and although they could not eat in the restaurants, or shop in the stores there, they knew how the richer white people lived. As they worked as maids, caretakers, and in other menial work, they needed to understand the ways of the rich people in order to serve them.
So the black people’s understanding of life included at least two perspectives, their own, from the margin, and that of their employers, from the centre; they knew more than those who only knew one way of life.
Those Unitarians who engage with mainstream Christians may claim to know not only the mainstream Christian mindset, but also the experience from the edge, and so have a richer knowledge to share.
Prayer by Ann Peart, from With Heart and Mind
May we who live on the margins learn to value
our rich understanding of life.
May we learn to share our experience
of both privilege and deprivation;
forgiving those who would deny us,
and reaching out in sympathy
to those who live on other margins.
May we be a gateway
through which others may pass,
thereby enlarging their vision and sympathy
as well as our own.
Reading: from a blogpost by Ray Lovegrove, December 2011.
Of course living on the border is not the same as ‘living on the edge’ – people that live on the coastline of a country are always fully part of that country – yet those that live on the border are always something strangely different. Living on the edge (in both senses) may be more dangerous, but living on the border is more compromising.
Perhaps being a borderliner means that you never feel that you are fully part of anything; you always feel… not detached, but marginalized. You are at the boundary of the field and can get a good view of what’s happening in the next field – over the hedge. Perhaps being a borderliner means that you can too easily see the flaws in your argument and the good points of another. Overall, being a borderliner means that you are committed to your cause, but you don’t feel that it entitles you to dismiss the cause of another. Borderliners don’t feel that they belong on this side of the border, or that side, they feel that they belong ON the border. Some borderliners don’t actually live on a border at all; they just feel as if they do or, perhaps, if you live in a country that you have adopted, you feel that the border is just around you.
Borders are not only geographical, they are also philosophical. If I look at the descriptions people write about themselves on their blogs, Facebook or Twitter, you can identify those who feel that they need to describe themselves by adding a degree of shading to their beliefs. People are sometimes reluctant to fit into just one group, or maybe they relish the chance to span more than one.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Roger Courtney, adapted)
Let us join in a time of stillness and reflection …
Today it is hard to find silence
We are bombarded by noise from all sides
And when we might be able to find silence
We destroy it by turning on some noise
In order to find distraction from ourselves
Because we are restless,
Uncomfortable in our own skins.
If we experience the stillness of silence
We might have to look deep inside ourselves
And we are not sure if we would like what we would find.
Mother Teresa said, “God is the friend of silence.”
The trees, plants and flowers all grow in silence,
The sun, moon and stars all move in silence.
Let us take a few moments to enjoy silence
To allow ourselves to be who we are,
To be comfortable with who we are,
To allow the divine to flow through us.
In returning from silence, may we find peace in our hearts.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Living on the Margins
This week’s service was inspired by the words of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, which I shared as our first reading, and by the fact that today is the anniversary of the death of one of my favourite saints, Francis of Assisi, who died on 4th October 1226. Rohr explains the benefit of living on the margins, “[such people] take their small and sufficient place in the great and grand scheme of God by “living on the edge of the inside.” They build on the solid tradition (“from the inside”) but from a new and dynamic stance (“on the edge”) where they cannot be co-opted by a need for security, possessions, or the illusions of power.” St Francis and his companion saint, St Clare, adopted this stance and lived it out for the remainder of the lives, in medieval Assisi.
The story of Francis of Assisi is well-known. Francesco Bernadoni was born into a wealthy merchant’s family in either late 1181 or early 1182. In his twenties, he renounced his family’s wealth to live in poverty and devote his life to helping the poor. He founded the Order of Friars Minor, now known as the Franciscans, as well as the Order of Poor Ladies, which was run by St. Clare, and is now known as the Poor Clares. He was an early panentheist, recognising the presence of the divine in everything, not only animals and birds, but also other phenomena such as the sun, the moon, fire and bodily death. He is perhaps best known to non-Christians for his famous Canticle of the Sun, in which he gave thanks for all creation. As Rohr comments, his influence down the ages has been profound. “People such as Francis and Clare of Assisi try to live on the margins so they will not become enamoured by the illusions and payoffs of prevailing systems. They know this is the only position that ensures continued wisdom, ever-broadening perspective, and even deeper compassion.”
Unitarian Rev Dr Ann Peart makes the same point in her reflection, On the margins, which formed my second reading. She explains that people who live on the margins of any mainstream organisation or society, such as Unitarians on the edge of Christianity, and black people in predominantly white societies, “have to understand not only the organisation which keeps them on the edge, but also their own group, of which they may be in the centre.” Or in the case of many Unitarians, also at the margin of our widely diverse movement!
I believe it is important for us as Unitarians to embrace the benefits of living on the margins, so that we will be able to discern the “idolatries, lies, or shadow side”, as Rohr puts it, of the society we live in. For example, our society and our denomination are both predominantly white, and in recent weeks, my eyes have been opened to my privileged position in this country, through studying Leela M. Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy: How to recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world. I wrote a blogpost about this towards the end of August and would like to share some of the insights I have gained through my exploration of the marginalisation of non-white people with you.
“Chapter by chapter, Saad covers all the multifarious aspects of white supremacy, including white fragility (feeling hurt and defensive if you become involved in a conversation about racism and are criticised), white silence and white apathy (saying and doing nothing in the face of a racist situation) and white exceptionalism (believing that you are one of the good people, and hence do not need to do this work). The list goes on… Saad gently leads the reader to understand how insidious white supremacy in all its manifestations is in our society and gives them the tools to overcome it in themselves and become a true ally to black people and people of colour in the battle against racism.
Reading it, working through it, has helped me to see with new eyes. It has made me realise how far I have to go, but I am determined to stay the course. Because if I do not, I will be betraying one of the central Unitarian values, as stated in the First Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, ‘We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.’ And it is not possible to do that, from a one-up position.”
At the same time, I would like to acknowledge the wisdom of Richard Rohr’s final comment, when he wrote, “there is a difference between being marginalized—forced (usually by prejudice and systemic discrimination) out of the common benefits and goods that come from living in mainstream society—and choosing to live on the margins. Both can be privileged places for spiritual growth and transformation.”
As I said, to some extent we Unitarians do live on the margins, at least of mainstream Christianity. As Ray Lovegrove comments, “Perhaps being a borderliner means that you can too easily see the flaws in your argument and the good points of another. Overall, being a borderliner means that you are committed to your cause, but you don’t feel that it entitles you to dismiss the cause of another. Borderliners don’t feel that they belong on this side of the border, or that side, they feel that they belong ON the border.”
And I believe that this can be a place of strength, a place from which it is possible to work for the good of other marginalised people and sectors of society. For example, many Unitarians today have become involved with Extinction Rebellion, an organisation founded only two years ago to highlight the dangers of climate change and ignoring the needs of the planet. On their website, they state that they are, “a politically non-partisan international movement that uses non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.” They further state that in the UK, they have three demands, “1 Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communication the urgency for change. 2 Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. 3 Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.”
Organisations such as Extinction Rebellion today and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament fifty years ago, exist on the margins of mainstream society and see their role as waking people up from their complacency, a phenomenon which Rohr explains clearly: “When we are content and satisfied on the inside of any group, we seem to suffer from a structural indifference. We do not realize that it is largely a belonging system that we have created for ourselves. It is not until we are excluded from a system that we are able to recognize its idolatries, lies, or shadow side. It is the privileged ‘knowledge of the outsider’ that opens up the playing field…”
I guess that when it comes right down to it, working and living on the margins is about discerning what is most important to us, ethically and spiritually, and then taking action to align our actions with our values. Like St Francis and St Clare in Medieval times, like activists in organisations such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, as Unitarians living on the margins of mainstream Christianity, it is up to each and every one of us to live our values, so that we can live with ourselves.
What do you care enough about to stand up and be counted?
Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
Perhaps even challenged…
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