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 one hour,
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 one hour.
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
We kindle a light against the darkness.
We affirm hope against despair.
We invoke love against indifference.
come among us
enflame our souls
as we meet in your name.
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.
Reading Seeing Differently by Bridget Woollard, from Doing December Differently
This year has contained many experiences of seeing, as if for the first time. I am now on exercise number 50 out of the 70 that make up my photography course. The experience of being taken out of my habitual way of looking led me from simply regarding a scene as I found it, to thinking about where I could put myself in it to see things differently.
Most recently, I have been watching the light changing throughout the day. Moments of special lighting effects are often very fleeting as the sun interacts with the contours of a building, field or tree. Over months, the changes are huge. I knew, of course, that the sun moved through the year, but it has taken me 48 years to appreciate just how far the position changes, for example, from a summer sunset to a winter one. There are so many moments in time as light, colour, vegetation and wildlife change throughout the year. I wonder if I am experiencing the same excitement that the ancients felt as they watched for the solstice sunlight on their stones.
Waiting for the moment. Waiting an hour or a week or a month. Waiting with endurance, as wildlife photographers do, always hoping to be ready at the moment the longed-for one comes…. Perhaps my prayer is that we would all expand inwardly, rather than outwardly, taking something to our hearts and minds as if for the first time.
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 A winter prayer – anticipating spring by Jeffrey Bowes, from Celebrations
When we think of the turn of the season which we expect to happen soon, we know that, whatever the coming months may bring, we may have great hope for the future. In all the years we each have lived, the spring has faithfully followed the gloomiest of winters. From that faithfulness we learn to have hope.
Hope for ourselves; no matter how chill we may feel the winters to be, no matter how hard our lives may be, no matter how dispirited we may become, we can and we do, come to a springtime of light and love and life and growth.
Because we have hope for ourselves, we may have hope for others; for our family and friends – sometimes relationships can seem chilly and distant. For our neighbours and acquaintances, colleagues and fellow-workers – sometimes our attempts to understand and move towards another can fail and make us feel as though ice-bound. For the people of other lands – sometimes relations between states can seem icy cold, sometimes the peoples can suffer hardship such as we might if our frozen farmlands never thawed.
Our hope for others is that, in trying to reflect and share the warmth of the love we see and feel in the faithful return of the spring, we can help to thaw the ice of difficult relationships, to ease the hardship caused by the delay of the growing season.
We know that the damp and mists of the coming months will be signs that the earth is warming once again. As our world turns towards the sun, as the days lengthen and fresh, green growth begins, so we can see that even through tears and sorrows we can turn, in our hearts and minds, toward that which is light and life in all we have. We too can turn, and be warmed.
Prayer Christmas Aftermath by Cliff Reed
Thou out of whose mystery came Jesus to show your love for us,
who gave us Christmas as a time of hope,
be with us as the world closes in once again.
We want our Christmas faith in the power of peace
to be a faith for the whole year.
We want our Christmas spirit of love and goodwill
to be a spirit for the whole year.
We would believe that Christmas promise
is mightier than the world’s betrayal – help thou our unbelief.
In the aftermath, grant us the clarity of a bright winter’s morning,
a pure vision to follow for the world’s healing.
And give us the dedication to make it real.
Reading from The Circle of Life: the Heart’s Journey through the Seasons by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr
There is a tendency to want to hurry from autumn to spring, to avoid the long dark days that winter brings. Many people do not like constant days bereft of light and months filled with colder temperatures. They struggle with the bleakness of the land and the emptiness of trees. Their eyes and hearts seek colour. Their spirits tire of tasting the endless gray skies. There is great rejoicing in the thought that light and warmth will soon be filling more and more of each new day.
But winter darkness has a positive side to it. As we gather to celebrate the first turn from winter to spring, we are invited to recognise and honour the beauty in the often unwanted season of winter. Let us invite our hearts to be glad for the courage winter proclaims. Let us be grateful for the wisdom winter brings in teaching us about the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal. Let us also encourage our spirits as Earth prepares to come forth from this time of withdrawal into a season filled with light…. Soon we will welcome the return of the sun and the coming of springtime. As we do, let us remember and embrace the positive, enriching aspects of winter’s darkness.
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Alison Patrick
One year draws to an end, and a new year is soon to begin. Because it is our tradition that the years end here in December, we may feel a burden of significance, the responsibility of resolutions.
We try to let go of the past, only to shackle ourselves to future expectations.
Help us to simply greet each new day as it comes and do the best we can.
We do not forget either the sorrows or joys of the last year –
They are now part of us.
Help us to be at peace with our sorrows and our joys as we go forward.
We do not forget the injustices and suffering that have happened in the last year,
Because the world needs us to remember and to mind.
Help us not to be downhearted, but to comfort and
Work for better wherever we can.
Living within nature, taking care of one another, letting go.
Blessed be, Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Return of the Light
And just like that, Christmas is over. This strange year of 2020 is drawing to a close – in four days’ time, it will be New Year’s Eve, and I am sure that we are all hoping that the New Year will bring better tidings – that the Covid vaccine will work, and that our long time of lockdown and isolation will come to an end.
We are now in the in-between time between Christmas and New Year. I have always enjoyed this quiet part of the Christmas season, as the family visits are over and we have time to reflect quietly, peacefully, on the year that has been, and perhaps on our hopes for the year to come. The Winter Solstice was on Monday, and even now, the days are getting longer – we may not notice it at first, or even perhaps for weeks to come, but it is true – each day, the sun rises a little earlier and sets a little later. We can welcome the return of the light. As Jeffrey Bowes wrote in our second reading, “In all the years we each have lived, the spring has faithfully followed the gloomiest of winters. From that faithfulness we learn to have hope.”
Honoré de Balzac wrote, “Light is a symbol of joy and life.” And like many of you, I would guess, my heart is lifted by visions of light. I do a quiet sit each morning and, at this time of year, because I am a Lark rather than an Owl, and rise early, I often witness the return of the sun at dawn from my bedroom window, as the sky changes from black to darkest blue, then to red and orange and yellow, before metamorphosing into what we call “the clear light of day.” It fills my heart with wonder at the beauty of God’s universe.
In our Unitarian services, we light a candle, a chalice light, at the beginning of each service. The symbolism of this is deep and wide-ranging. It is a symbol of life, and shared community (even if this is only virtual at the moment) and also of the hope that comes from being in community, together.
The Quakers speak of “the Light within”, which is their term for the divine spark that is in each of us. This divine Light is deep within each of us, waiting to be noticed, and attended to. A divine spark resides deep within each single human being – old, young, male, female, non-binary, of whatever sexual orientation, class or race. A part of each of us that has never been wounded, never suffered grief. And I believe that it is our job, while we are here in this life, to recognise the divine spark, that of God, in others, and reach out to it in recognition and joy. So easy to write, so very hard to remember, sometimes…
But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, there is wisdom around that can help us to recognise the Light in others, in our world. In his wonderful book, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, Richard Rohr explains how we can only become aware of this presence of God within us, in our lives, by detaching from our monkey-mind, ego-driven selves and finding Him/Her/It in the stillness. He argues that the busy acquisitive world we live in is the antithesis of this stillness and is the reason why it is so hard for modern people to perceive this divine Light within us all.
The Buddha, Jesus, Hafiz and many other mystical teachers all stress the importance of being awake; of being aware of what is happening in the present moment. Rohr shares an amusing conversation between a Zen master and his disciple:
“Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”
“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
Rohr writes, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realise that God maintains us in existence with every breath we take. As we take another, it means that God is choosing us now and now and now.”
This really came home to me last week, when I had a session with my spiritual director. Towards the end of it, we spoke of our relationship with God, and he shared the revelation that there is no separation between us and God, “not even the shadow of a hair’s breadth.”
In the past, I have felt moments of connection with the Divine, whatever we choose to name Him/Her/It. But the idea that there is *no* separation between us was new to me – or maybe I was not ready to receive it before. My spiritual director said that it would take time for this idea to move from my head to my heart, that I would have to sit with it for a long time before I truly experienced it. Before I can fully experience the truth of the Light within us all.
But the other morning, I was mulling over what he had said, during my morning sit, and these words came to me (the first image came from my director, the rest are my own):
God is the sun, we are the sunbeams,
we are emanations of God.
God is the Light within us all,
reflecting and connecting with the Light around us.
God is the water, we are the ripples,
caught up in the Divine Flow.
God is the air, we are the breath,
each breath in, a breath of Life,
each breath out, a breath of Love.
God is the One Tree, we are the branches,
growing out of the Source of Being.
God is the fire, we are the sparks,
lighting up our universe from within.
God is Love, we are lovers,
sharing, caring, healing, understanding.
There is no separation between us,
“not even the shadow of a hair’s breadth”.
We are working parts of God.
I share this with you as a symbol of hope for the year to come. Jeffrey Bowes has it right. The inevitable return of Spring, which is beginning even now, in the depths of winter, as the light returns and the days grow longer, is a powerful symbol of hope, a reminder of the divine Light. Let us remember his words as we go forward into the new year of 2021 and have “Hope for ourselves; no matter how chill we may feel the winters to be, no matter how hard our lives may be, no matter how dispirited we may become, we can and we do, come to a springtime of light and love and life and growth. Because we have hope for ourselves, we may have hope for others; for our family and friends, for our neighbours and acquaintances, colleagues and fellow-workers. … Our hope for others is that, in trying to reflect and share the warmth of the love we see and feel in the faithful return of the spring, we can help to thaw the ice of difficult relationships, to ease the hardship caused by the delay of the growing season.”
May 2021 confer on us the ability to see differently, in a new light, as Bridget Woollard wrote in our first reading, so that we are “taken out of [our] habitual way of looking… [able to] “expand inwardly, rather than outwardly, taking something to our hearts and minds as if for the first time.”
By the time we meet again, the New Year will already be here. May it be for you a year of light and hope and renewal.
As light is a symbol of hope and renewal,
May we go into the new year with our hearts high,
Anticipating new life, new hope.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude: Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley