Prelude Roots and Wings 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 Cliff Reed
For millennia beyond count,
in winter’s cold and night’s darkness,
people have gathered around fire,
feeling its warmth, seeing by its light,
forging community with food and work
and songs and stories.
In all the faith traditions of our kind,
fire has its meaning. And so we gather
round this candle’s flame, sharers all
in the human spirit that makes us 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 Patience and Wisdom, blogpost 20th July 2019
Ideas can inspire us, and we want to implement them straight away, but unless we take the time to bring other people with us, it is very possible that we will end up at the end of a very narrow branch, with someone sawing it off near the trunk.
In my own context of Unitarian ministry, this is especially important to remember. It often happens that a minister (or lay leader or committee member) has a wonderful new idea, then rushes off to make it happen, or to lay it before the committee, only to be met by lukewarm reactions, if not negative ones.
Unitarian ministry must be collaborative. The leaders in our movement must learn the patience to consult other people, to explain new concepts with patience, in order to help those other people to feel his or her own enthusiasm for the project, whatever it is. This applies not only to BIG IDEAS, like removing the pews from a chapel, but also to small ideas, like moving the chalice from one place to another.
Because change is difficult for most people. They are naturally resistant to change… very few people embrace it wholeheartedly, at least not at first hearing. So patience is needed to do the groundwork first, to explain the reasoning behind any new proposal, and to allow people time to mull the new idea over in their minds, so that they can ask questions about it. Leaders also need to be open to adapting new ideas, because someone has pointed out a flaw in our reasoning. This takes patience too, and also humility.
It is better to get people used to a new idea, by drip, dripping it slowly, rather than flooding their minds with it, so that they slam the gates of their hearts shut. Patience is the companion of wisdom.
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 Living with Heart and Mind by Bob Pounder from With Heart and Mind 2 (adapted)
I have found in life that people can be very conservative. They want things to remain as they are and they don’t want the boat to be rocked too much. This is all very well if living in the past and the preservation of the status quo has become the thing that matters most. In my experience, this kind of conservatism can become an inertia that leads to stagnation, decline, and even defeat.
This fear of letting go, of wanting things to remain the same, is what the Buddhists call ‘attachment’. Attachment is a form of fear or even cowardice, and it is alive and well. I know, because it exists within me. And it is destructive, like a passenger on a sinking ocean liner who will not be persuaded to get into the lifeboat.
We see it all the time, in ourselves and in others, the prevarication and the procrastination that prevents us from doing the right thing at the right time. The time is now. And we can really be at our best in the intensity of the moment, in living our lives fully instead of passively or half-heartedly. I think we get a sense of this in these words from Ecclesiastes (9:10): ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going.’ …
Love calls us to think with our hearts too and I can’t help feeling that when we do this, when we act compassionately and selflessly, then the Spirit of God is with us. It is then that we act truly – with heart and mind.
Prayer by Bob Pounder, from With Heart and Mind 2 (adapted)
Let us feel the wind and the rain,
the icy blast and the fall of snow.
Let us drink the fragrance of summer flowers
in the warmth of the sun.
Give us anticipation of the vibrant spring
and the cool mornings of autumn.
Let us feel the joy of love,
And the longing of separation.
Let us see others as children in your sight.
Let us be alive to the one life,
In unity with you.
May we live in your Spirit,
And in your presence,
Our Lord and God… with heart and mind.
Reading from the Buddhist Sutra Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera
“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.
“The origin of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is the craving that produces renewal of being accompanied by enjoyment and lust, and enjoying this and that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being.
“Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is remainderless, fading and ceasing, giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting, of that same craving.
“The way leading to cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is simply the noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Elizabeth Tarbox
“Dukkha,” they say. The Buddhists say, “All is dukkha.” It is hard to translate, they tell us. It means literally “suffering” but the feeling of dukkha is closer to impermanence. The fact of impermanence is central to the Buddhist path to nirvana, enlightenment.
Dukkha. All is impermanence. Nothing lasts. I thought of that yesterday, watching leaves come down in a shower, and the smell of the rotting ones going back into the earth. Leaf to humus and back to earth to nourish the roots of the mother tree. The crows crying as the leaves fall and their nests are exposed: dukkha . . . all is impermanence.
And life goes on, and people who were with us last year at this time have died, all souls pass on, all is dukkha, nothing lasts.
The path to enlightenment is understanding, accepting impermanence to the point where we no longer struggle against it. That is the way of the Buddha. But here in the West we search for that which is permanent, even as we live with the death of all things, all people. We search for a sure footing on the path strewn with fallen leaves; we notice the buds of next year’s growth tight-curled and waiting; we hold on to the things we can count on — our church, our community, our memories of those who died before us, our love and hope, and the search for certainty in a world that is dukkha.
God of creation, God of today — let us find each other in a changing world; let us experience love as something which exists, a possibility which is. Let us know that we are alive and being renewed miraculously each second; that the impermanence gives to life its freshness and surprise; that our memories of yesterday and our expectations of tomorrow make now a cherished, precious, eternal moment.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Everything Changes
Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. And that can be hard to deal with. Some years ago, a kind friend lent me an amazing book, Who moved my cheese? By Dr Spencer Johnson. Its subtitle is An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life, and it really appealed to me.
The basic plot is simple: four beings (two mice and two Littlepeople) are living in a maze and looking for cheese – “cheese being a metaphor for what we want to have in life, whether it is a job, a relationship, money, a big house, freedom, health, recognition, spiritual peace, or even an activity like jogging or golf.” The two mice are Sniff, “who sniffs out change early” and Scurry, “who scurries into action.” The two Littlepeople are Hem, “who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse” and Haw, “who learns to adapt in time when he sees changing can lead to something better.”
Although on one level, it is a very simple tale – when the cheese runs out at one Cheese Station, the two mice immediately head off to another part of the Maze and eventually find some new cheese, whereas the two Littlepeople take longer to react – it is a profound metaphor for our attitudes to change. Some people sense very early on that change is in the air and trim their sails accordingly, and some rush straight into action in the new direction.
But many, like the Littlepeople, find change very challenging. Some, like Hem, simply cannot accept that a change has taken place, and stay as they are, in the stubborn and despairing belief that things will go back to what they were. They are resistant to change, because it doesn’t feel safe. Others, like Haw, are afraid of change at first, but then common sense kicks in, and they realise that anything is better than staying on the sinking ship, or in the losing situation, and slowly, warily, move on and discover that actually, change can be good. Or at least, learn to accept it.
In the story, Haw leaves Hem at the old, empty Cheese Station, and sets out to find New Cheese. On the way, he makes a series of discoveries about himself, and leaves little notices up on the walls of the Maze for Hem to find, should he summon up the courage to leave the old Cheese Station. In the process, he learns how to cope productively with change, so that he sees it as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. The notices read like this:
- “They keep moving the Cheese (change happens)
- Get ready for the Cheese to move (anticipate change)
- Smell the Cheese often so you know when it is getting old (monitor change)
- The quicker you let go of old Cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new Cheese (adapt to change quickly)
- Move with the Cheese (change)
- Savour the adventure and enjoy the taste of new Cheese! (enjoy change!)
- They keep moving the cheese (be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again).”
It is a fable for our times, because we live in a world of constant change. How we deal with change depends partly on how we perceive our own power to manoeuvre in the changing situation. For example, if it is a change we have decided to make ourselves, it is perhaps easier to deal with it or embrace it. But if it is a change we feel has been imposed on us from outside, for example, how we need to live under the Covid 19 regulations, or if we feel powerless, for example, when someone we love has died, then change can be much harder for us.
But if the change makes sense to us, even if it has been imposed on us, it can be easier to accept it. For example, the first lockdown in the spring seemed much easier to adhere to, because we believed that it was necessary to conquer the coronavirus, than the second one, now, because many of us have lost faith in our government and believe that the new tiers have been carelessly imposed, without much thought for the situation in particular communities. So our family, who live in a very small village and my parents, who live in another very small village, are now both in Tier 2, and so unable to see each other indoors. And the craziness of lifting the regulations for four days over the Christmas period. I am not convinced that the coronavirus will be dormant at this time, just so that we can see our families.
There is of course a third situation, in which our heads agree with the change, but our hearts and souls haven’t caught up yet. This was what I was talking about in my blogpost, which formed our first reading. Most people will adapt to change eventually, so long as the reasons behind it are explained carefully and they are given time to mull it over and so come to accept it.
But my goodness, it can be a long process! I remember when my teenage children were in the throes of applying to go to university. My head was fully behind the idea that now was the time for them to spread their wings and leave home. It was the natural order of things. But my heart and soul were so far behind… it took a full two years before I could wave them off to Sheffield and Leicester with anything like equanimity. I missed them so much.
In reality, as the Buddhists tell us, we are in change constantly. Nothing in our lives is permanent, and to resist change causes suffering. They have two concepts which describe the impact of this on our lives: dukkha and anicca. Dukkha is most often translated by the word ‘suffering’, in its broadest sense. In other words, it not only stands for pain, but also for things like discomfort and boredom. Everything that is unsatisfactory is dukkha. Buddhists believe that life itself is dukkha, because nothing in life is absolutely perfect. The Buddha taught that no-one can escape dukkha, but his teaching was a way of overcoming it.
Anicca means ‘impermanence’ – the fact that nothing lasts Everything is subject to change – people, plants, even ‘solid’ things like mountains. And because everything is impermanent, there is no rest except nirvana. Nirvana is one of those concepts, like the Way of the Tao, that is very difficult to explain. Buddhists would say that it is only possible to say what it is not. The Buddha described it as follows: “A condition there is, brothers, where earth, water, fire and air are not; where there is neither consciousness, nor space, nor a void. Neither this world nor a world beyond are there, neither are there the sun and the moon. It is not a coming, it is not a going, nor a standing still, nor a falling nor a rising. That is the end of sorrow. That is Nirvana.”
The Four Noble Truths are the Buddha’s diagnosis of what suffering is, where it comes from, the fact that the causes of suffering can be stopped if people can learn not to cling to things, and how to achieve that end. Buddha explained these Four Noble Truths in his first sermon after Enlightenment, from which my final reading came.
As we saw, the First Noble Truth defines what dukkha (suffering) is: birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair, association with the loathed, dissociation from the loved, not to get what one wants – quite a litany! The Second Noble Truth defines tanha – the reason for suffering. This is the desire or craving for things we cannot have or which do not last. The Third Noble Truth is concerned with the cessation of suffering, the “giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting of that same craving.” Another way of putting this is that one needs to learn to let go of things, and to recognise that nothing in our lives is permanent.
So having diagnosed what was wrong with people, the Buddha laid down perhaps the most important of the Four Noble Truths: “The way leading to cessation of suffering … is simply the noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
This Noble Eightfold Path is perhaps the most important of the Buddha’s teachings. It explains how people can follow the Middle Way and achieve nirvana. The central symbol of Buddhism, the eight-spoked wheel, is a reminder of this. The eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other. You may have noticed that all the parts of the Eightfold Path start with the word ‘right’. In this context, this does not just mean the correct way to do something; it also means the best possible way.
Change is never easy… perhaps the best thing we can do is to recognise that it is all around us and that we will save ourselves a lot of grief and suffering if we understand this. Let us try to accept that change is going to happen and live in the spirit of the prayer of Elizabeth Tarbox, “God of creation, God of today — let us find each other in a changing world; let us experience love as something which exists, a possibility which is. Let us know that we are alive and being renewed miraculously each second; that the impermanence gives to life its freshness and surprise; that our memories of yesterday and our expectations of tomorrow make now a cherished, precious, eternal moment.”
May it be so.
Closing Words by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Spirit of our hearts,
bless us as we part.
Be with us as we face
the quandaries, fears, puzzles and changes
of the coming days.
Send your peace among us,
and through all our troubled world.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley