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,
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.
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 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 of lockdown,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
We hold in our hearts
the brave and dedicated staff of the NHS,
and other key workers,
who are carrying on in impossible conditions,
and 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 by Ant Howe (adapted)
The season of Lent reminds us that there are journeys we all have to make in
life. Physical journeys… Spiritual journeys…..
Some journeys we can share with others….. but other journeys lead us into
the wilderness alone.
Some people give something up during Lent, others take something on.
Whatever we think about this season of Lent, may we know that ours is a
journey of hope. Our free and liberal faith calls us to journey from oppression to inclusion, from grief to gladness, from despair to hope.
And so on this Sunday before Ash Wednesday we have come together for a time of worship, and together we enjoy the company of one another, and know the blessing of God.
In this time of worship, may we find renewal for ourselves as we
gather virtually with others whose journey has also brought them here.
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. Amen
Reading No sat-nav for us by Ray Seal, from With Heart and Mind 2
Our journey through life is through largely uncharted territory. We only have a sketch map and we certainly don’t have a ‘sat-nav’, [that] piece of technology which is meant to make it easier for travellers to reach their destination – but which, however, seems to make my journeys more stressful. The theory is, you tell it where you want to get to and then you follow its instructions. Fine if you know exactly where you are going and you are prepared to follow the instructions without question.
That system may work well for the followers of some religions and denominations for their journey through this life, but life’s journey for Unitarians is not like that. We may all have different destinations in mind or at least consider there to be options and will certainly want to ask questions along the way. How then are we to find our way?
To return for a moment to the ‘sat-nav’ analogy; I still carry a road atlas and road maps in my car when I’m on a journey. As Unitarians, I think that, as we journey, we still need to refer to the guides that earlier travellers have left us. We will all have our preferred guides; some may be old and ‘dog-eared’, some may give us something new and exciting that we may have only just discovered. And sometimes our maps may fail us and we have to stop and ask for directions.
Journeys have never been easy, and our Unitarian journey is no exception. But, open your eyes, stick with it and what a wonderful, fulfilling journey it can be. I don’t know where, or when it’s going to end. I’m just enjoying every moment of it.
No sat-nav for me!
Prayer by Ray Seal, from With Heart and Mind 2 (adapted)
On our journey through this life, let’s pause for a pit-stop,
let’s pause to re-fuel… to re-fuel spiritually.
May each of us, as we pause, be able to let that inner spirit,
that is all things good, refresh us,
refuel us, and set us up for the next steps of our journey.
We will not all be at the same place along this journey,
let us be ready to lend a helping hand to those who are behind us,
and to listen to those who are ahead of us on the road.
Let us pause in quiet reflection
on our own unique journey
May we have the courage to continue on our journey,
the patience to deal with those we meet along the way,
and faith and confidence in ourselves.
Reading Lent, from Whistling in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days. After being baptised by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness, where he spent forty days asking himself the question, what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another, what it means to be themselves.
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like, and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are, but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Cliff Reed)
For one man, driven there long ago, it was bare rock, cave, and waterless wadi. What, where, is your wilderness?
Marsh or mudflat, lonely shore, wind whistling through dry winter reeds?
Moorlands purple with heather in the summertime? The forest, still and deep?
Mountains, eternal pillars of the sky – haunt of gods and ravens?
The snowfields – perilous and pure? Even a city lot the wild has reclaimed?
Wilderness – where you are alone with God, and maybe with your demons…
Go now to the wilderness, if you dare. Go there in your mind and soul. Go there and be still.
Come out now, out of the wilderness to your cluttered life – but carry the wilderness within you, learn its truth.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Lent as a Spiritual Journey
Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. As most of you will know, I was not brought up in a church-going family. I imbibed most of my cultural Christianity from daily school assemblies, and from reading my Children’s Bible (and my Gideon New Testament, as a teenager). Neither of which included any Lenten observation. So Lent has always been something that other people did, not very relevant to me. I enjoyed my pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, but never considered any sort of Lenten practice.
The origin of Lent, of course, goes back to the Gospels, and the story about how, after he was baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus went off for forty days into the wilderness, and did some serious soul-searching, as we saw in our third reading.
Let us remind ourselves how Christians approach Lent: according to the United Methodists, they put ashes on their heads on Ash Wednesday “to remind us that we all have sinned, we all need repentance, to let God through Christ change our hearts and lives; to remind us of all those around the world who are mourning and suffering; to remind us that in the passage of time, we will all someday die; to remind us of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection; and to remind us that in the midst of all this, we are still called, claimed, forgiven and loved children of God.”
Now I would guess that there are things in that statement that the vast majority of Unitarians would not be happy with – the idea that we need Christ’s mediation to be in right relationship with God being the main one. Nevertheless, I wonder whether a periodic examination of our inner lives might be beneficial, if it leads to an awareness of our shortcomings (which we surely all have) and to a resolution to do better in the future. And I love the final reminder “that in the midst of all this, we are still called, claimed, forgiven and loved children of God.” This is something that I have come to believe profoundly.
Then during the 40 days (seven weeks excluding Sundays) of Lent, many Christians “give up” something, usually chocolate, or biscuits, some food they like. A work colleague of mine years ago, used to give up chocolate, biscuits, cake and alcohol for the period of Lent each year, and my goodness she was grumpy! Which I really don’t think was the idea. I also winced at a post the other day by the Christian satirical website Unvirtuous Abbey, “For those who think that the season of Lent is The Biggest Loser – Jesus Edition, we pray.” Ouch.
Then a couple of years ago, something popped up in my Facebook feed from an American Unitarian Universalist friend, Barb Greve, who shared a UU idea for Lent:
“As Unitarian Universalists, we share theological roots with our Christian siblings. However, rather than a practice of self-denial, we offer this opportunity to spend the Season of Lent engaged in a spiritual discipline of deep intention and appreciation of our world, our place in it, and an openness to Grace in our daily lives.
Practicing Lent is designed to be used individually, as a family, or as a congregation. We have selected a word for each day in Lent. We believe each word will be accessible to all ages and stages of faith development. Reflect on the meaning of this word to you. Find a photograph each day that speaks to you about the word, idea, practice, or concept. Share it on [the website] and celebrate the shared inspiration we bring to one another.”
Which was a very different approach. This year there has been quite a flurry of interest among Unitarian friends about Lent, and what they are planning to “do” for it. Which has made me look at these two aspects of Lent more closely. On the one hand, there is the self-denying, penitential aspect, which (interestingly) many secular folk have also latched on to. Even my avowedly-atheist son knows that you’re supposed to give up something for Lent. And on the other, there is the life-affirming, positive aspect of using the period of Lent to intentionally establish a new spiritual practice, which I rather like. And in between these, there is the idea of giving up something as a positive practice, rather than as a penitential one.
So let’s look at the three approaches to Lent, and perhaps pick one that appeals to us, and resolve to do something about it, now, here, in 2021.
First of all, giving something up as a penitential, self-denying practice. I had toyed with the idea of giving up chocolate for Lent, as a way of losing weight, then I read that post from Unvirtuous Abbey, and winced. I cannot enter into the proper Christian self-denying head space, so I think it would be disrespectful of me to give up something just because. And anyhow, I don’t really want to!
However, there is another aspect to giving something up, which may be more appealing to Unitarians, because it could be done for what we might consider to be “the right motives.” That is, to decide to give something up for Lent for a positive reason. Here’s what my friend Kate McKenna, minister at Bury, has to say about drinking only water during Lent, which is her chosen spiritual practice: “I’ve done the water-only thing before, and found it one of the best Lent things I’ve tried. It feels like a tiny-sacrifice-with-a-purpose, and gave me a real appreciation of how only drinking water, but drinking all the fresh clean pure water I want is actually a massive privilege.”
I was tempted by this idea for a while. But then I realised that if I did it, I would only be copying her, and not doing it because I felt any great prompting from the Spirit. Other examples of this sort of idea are Stoptober, during which folk are encouraged to stop smoking for a month, and Dry January, during which they are supposed to give up alcohol for a month. I’ve never seen the point of these, except as a stepping stone for a permanent change of lifestyle, in which case, good for them. And the season of Lent might provide another opportunity for a dry-run at making a beneficial change in your life.
But the approach to Lent that really speaks to my condition is that of the adoption of a positive spiritual practice. This year, having been blown away by them, I am going to sit with the questions Frederick Buechner posed in our third reading – by which I mean, sit in silence and contemplate them, then journal about whatever comes up for me. I believe it is important, at regular intervals on our spiritual journeys, to spend some time “in the wilderness” of our own hearts and souls, and to do as Ray Seal advises, take a pit stop, so that we are “able to let that inner spirit, that is all things good, refresh us, refuel us, and set us up for the next steps of our journey.”
So now I’m going to give you a few minutes in silence to think about which spiritual practice you might like to try this Lent. It might involve silence, or writing, or drawing, or something else. Nobody else will know what it is – it is for you alone. And it’s not compulsory – you may decide that this is not for you. In which case, please just hold the silence, until I bring us back.
[2 minutes of silence]
Whatever you have decided, it is good to recognise that your soul is on a journey, and that time in the wilderness, which is what Lent originally commemorated, is a part of every person’s soul-journey.
It’s not easy, this spiritual work. It is much simpler, as I said last week, to skate over the surface of our lives, spending our time regretting the past or worrying about the future, rather than concentrating on the present moment, which is the only point at which time and eternity co-exist. But I am coming to realise that the effort must be made, if we are to grow into the best people we can be.
Let me finish with the words of poet Wendell Berry:
And the world cannot be discovered
by a journey of miles,
no matter how long.
But only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous, and humbling, and joyful,
by which we arrive
at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.
May it be so for all of us.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Open our hearts,
That we might take this opportunity
Of the season of Lent,
To examine our lives and our spiritual journey,
And resolve to continue with what is good,
And leave behind what it not so good.
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