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) Words by Linda Hart.
We light this chalice as a symbol of the spark of life which abides within us and around us.
May it be as a light in a dark night, a light in a window that welcomes the weary traveller home.
May it be as a light in the hand of a trusted friend, that guides us along the path.
May it be as the light in the face of one we love, bright with joy.
Opening Prayer by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Spirit of wonder – open our eyes
and minds and souls to the miracle
of the natural, the material
and the everyday.
Spirit of wisdom – open our spirits
to the depths and dimensions of reality,
may we realise that there are many ways
of being real.
Spirit of truth – open our consciousness
to your infinite manifestations,
your numberless incarnations, lead us through
reason and experience to enlightenment.
Spirit of unity – creator, mover, healer:
make us whole, at one with ourselves,
our world and you.
Story Look Higher by Anne Bowman from Rejoice Together collected by Helen R. Pickett
Two travellers on their way to Japan were standing at the rail of the ship, looking out upon the vast open sea. After but a few moments, one of the men turned about and walked away, disappointment written on his countenance. Throughout the day, the man returned to the deck rail and then turned his back upon the scene, each time appearing more disconsolate than before.
Finally, the second traveller, who had remained at the rail, felt compelled to ask his fellow traveller what it was that made him so downcast on what was evidently a pleasure trip. The first man replied that he had been told that at this point of the voyage he would be able to see Mount Fuji rising in the distance. However, the haze over the water was apparently not going to lift, depriving him of a sight that he had so long anticipated.
Taking him by the arm, his shipmate led the man back to the rail of the ship, and said quietly, “Look higher.” The traveller, raising his eyes above the haze, saw, in all its beauty and majesty, the great mountain peak.
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 Grace by Jane Barraclough from With Heart and Mind 2
To experience grace is not about virtue, it is not about any sense of having worked for the blessings that we have. Nor is it about being abjectly humble, as some religious traditions would have you believe it is. Augustine argued that we were such miserable sinners that we could only be saved by the intervention of God, which he called grace. I think he missed the point of grace because he went on determined to be deserving all his life, in a rather life-denying way. Whether we deserve it or not, has nothing to do with it.
The world is simply here for us as a gift. We can choose to receive the gift with gratitude or we can decide it is never enough for us, or we can decide that we receive what we receive in life because we somehow deserve it. The last has always been a favourite among those most privileged in society. Those with an overpowering sense of their own entitlement to all the good things in life are also often the most difficult to satisfy. Those who can live their lives in a state of gratitude are more likely to know when they have enough.
To experience grace we have to be open to the possibility of its existence. The winds of grace may always be blowing but we need to have our sails up if we are to make any headway.
Prayer by Jane Barraclough
Spirit of Life and Love,
Open my eyes that I may see the grace of the world:
the beauty of a human gesture,
the curve of the horizon, the sweep of feathers.
Allow me to inhabit, even if just for a moment,
the perfection of the world,
the abandonment of a child laughing,
the rumble of a purring cat.
let me abandon self-consciousness … just for a while,
and join in the dance. Amen
Reading from Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr
The goodness of God fills all the gaps of the universe, without discrimination or preference. God is the gratuity of absolutely everything. The space in between everything is not space at all but Spirit. God is the “Goodness Glue” that holds the dark and light of things together, the free energy that carries all death across the Great Divide and transmutes it into Life. … God’s job is to make up for all deficiencies in the universe. What else would God do? Basically, grace is God’s first name, and probably last too. Grace is what God does to keep all things God has made in love and alive–forever. Grace is God’s official job description. Grace is not something God gives; grace is who God is. If we are to believe the primary witnesses, an unexplainable goodness is at work in the universe. (Some of us call this phenomenon God, but the word is not necessary. In fact, sometimes it gets in the way of the experience, because too many have named God something other than grace.)
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Graham Phoenix, adapted)
Eternal Spirit of Life,
So often, in the midst of all we do, as we are washing dishes… sending email… going to work… and doing all the things we do, day in and day out, we can forget that our time here on this earth is both a gift and a miracle;
Do not let us forget because if we do, sooner than we think, a tomorrow will come and it will be our last tomorrow and we will have missed the miracle – we will have emailed, and worked, and complained, and watched TV through the miracle;
We will have let the sunrises, the fresh air, the warmth of a bed, the comfort of breakfast, the first snows, and the robin hopping about, slip by, as we go about doing all of our so important things.
May we be open to the grace all around us, as we ponder these things in the silence
Let nothing obscure the enchantment and richness that is life:
May we find the holy in the kiss goodnight; in our awakening each morning; in the hot meal; the warm blanket and also in the chill of the dark night air.
May we, all of us, be seekers and makers of the holy. May it ever be so. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Amazing Grace
The concept of grace is one not much spoken about in Unitarian circles. As my dear friend Jane Barraclough pointed out in our second reading, it is often linked with the Augustinian idea that “we were such miserable sinners that we could only be saved by the intervention of God, which he called grace.” And I have recently been listening to a Great Course called The History of Christian Theology (36 half-hour lectures – fascinating stuff), which explains among very many other things the various different kinds of grace that mainstream Christianity has at various times been concerned with.
I have learned that Catholics and Calvinist Protestants have very different views of what grace is. Catholics speak of “created grace” – an inherent quality or habit of the soul; “uncreated grace” – the action of God, or the Holy Spirit; and “sanctifying grace” – which my professor defines as “the supernatural but created form or habit that is infused into the soul so as to make it righteous before God and capable of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.”
Then there is “prevenient grace”, which “comes before the human choice to accept grace in faith, as opposed to grace that comes as a result of such faith” This is the grace that makes sinners willing to accept it, so that they can come to faith. Calvinists call it “irresistible grace.”
It all seems terribly complicated to me. None of these concepts of grace match what I believe grace to be – a free gift from God, which has the power to transform us, deep in our souls. We simply need to look higher, like the traveller in our story.
Each morning, I receive a Daily Meditation from the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, which features the writings of one of my favourite contemporary theologians, Richard Rohr. And a while back, he was writing about grace, the kind of grace I believe in. He explained that God is not some benevolent Santa Claus, nor yet a tyrant who is in the retributive justice business, anxious to punish every small transgression. Rohr believes (and I do too) that God’s love is limitless and unconditional – we don’t have to earn it – we just have to accept it. Grace is how God works in the world to wake us up and enable us to accept His/Her love.
Rohr wrote, “Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. … Love takes the shape and symbolism of healing and radical forgiveness.” And again, “Most of us think and act as if God is a God of retribution and even eternal punishment. But the Bible, Jesus, and the mystics of all the world religions reveal that God is infinite love, which really changes everything. Most religious people have put the cart before the horse by imagining that we can earn God’s love by some kind of moral behaviour. Whereas, according to the saints and mystics, God’s love must be experienced first–and then our moral behaviour is merely an outflowing from our contact with that infinite source toward all other people and things. Love is the powerful horse; morality is then the beautiful cart that it pulls, not the other way around.”
One lovely example of this, from the Gospel of Luke, is the parable of the prodigal son. I have recently been reading, not for the first time, Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. It is the account of Nouwen’s ongoing and ever-deepening engagement with the 17th century painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt.
So much of what he wrote resonates with me. He examines the painting, and the parable from the Gospel of Luke on which it is based, from every conceivable angle. You will probably be familiar with the story – the younger son demands his half of the family inheritance from his father, then goes off to a distant land, and squanders it on wine, women, and song. Destitute, he hires himself out as a pig-herder, and finds that he is coveting even the pig-food. At which point he comes to his senses, realising that in his father’s house, even the servants have plenty to eat. So he resolves to go home, ask for his father’s forgiveness, and to be taken on as a hired hand. In the parable that Jesus tells, his father spots him coming from far off, and rushes out and embraces him. He orders fine clothes and a ring for him, and that the fatted calf be killed, so that the household can celebrate the return of the lost son.
Later on, the elder son, who has stayed home and “been good”, working for his father, comes back and hears the party going on. When he enquires what it’s all about, the servant tells him that his younger brother has returned. The elder son’s reaction is one of anger and resentment, and when his father comes out of the feast to try to persuade him to join the festivities, these feelings boil over, and he protests at the unfairness of it all. To be met by the father’s compassion: “My son, you are with me always, and all that I have is yours.” In the parable, it is left open whether the elder son repents of his jealousy and joins the feast, or turns away, unable to surmount his sense of grievance.
But for his own good reasons, Rembrandt tells the story slightly differently. The father is depicted embracing the younger son, who is kneeling before him. The father’s face is luminous with love and compassion. These two figures dominate the left hand side of the painting. To the right, and separate, is a stern, upright figure, whom Nouwen (I think correctly) identifies as the elder son, here witnessing the meeting and reconciliation between his father and brother.
Nouwen’s exploration of the painting and the parable takes place in the context of his own life, his own spiritual journey. At first he strongly identifies with the younger son, the prodigal son, who is lost, adrift, but heading home, hoping to be reconciled with his father, forgiven and accepted once more as his son. The phrase Nouwen repeats, over and over, is “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests.” A statement of free grace.
He comments: “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love, and persist in looking for it elsewhere? … I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me – my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts – and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God.”
He also explores the self-rejection born of low self-esteem which is the path of the elder son. He had stayed at home, done all the right things, but when his father rejoices at the return of his younger brother, he cannot understand that his father has more than enough love for both of them. He is lost in anger and resentment against his younger brother, feeling that the latter is his father’s favourite, and that therefore he, who has done what he was told all these years, must be less well thought of, less loved.
He cannot understand that love, whether divine or human, is infinitely elastic in its nature. I know this from my own life – just because I love my son to pieces does not mean that I do not love my daughter just as much. There is more than enough room in my heart for both of them. Here I can get a glimpse of the father’s unlimited compassion and love for both his sons; and of the Father’s unbounded compassion and love for all of humankind. This, I think, is what grace really means.
Nouwen confesses how unworthy he feels to receive the unconditional love of God, whether he sees himself as the penitent younger son, who had squandered the gifts he was given, or the bitter, resentful, elder son, who is full of jealousy and anger. I can recognise these feelings of unworthiness.
The book is divided into three parts, exploring the characters and spiritual journeys of the younger son, the elder son, and the father. The ultimate lesson that Nouwen learns from the parable and the painting is that God’s love is unconditional, and available to everyone, but that we have to turn to Him to avail ourselves of it. We can choose not to, but the love is still there, free and unconditional and unwavering. This is the gift of grace. He realises that the final goal of every human being is to become like the father and offer this unconditional love and compassion to others.
I have come to realise that God’s grace is everywhere, if we had but eyes to see, and ears to hear. I believe that through sacred living – weaving moments of attention into our everyday lives, and recognising the sacred there, we will find it. Sacred living is about living with a new level of awareness. It is about going through our day paying attention to what is happening in each passing moment. It is about noticing the presence of the divine, the numinous, everywhere, in the natural world, in other people, in ourselves, and in things that happen to us.
Always remember, “My child, I am with you always, and all that I have is yours.”
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,
The grace all 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,
Being grateful for the many blessings in our lives,
Now and in the days to come, Amen
Postlude The Secret Garden by Elizabeth Harley (excerpt)