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.
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 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 I come in the little things by Brenda Catherall, from With Heart & Mind 2
Sometimes when we feel at our lowest ebb, our lives are touched by a happening or gesture that comes like the rainbow after the storm.
A few years ago I woke to discover that my house had been ransacked by burglars while I and my young daughter, Sophie, slept. Thankfully we had not been aware of the unwelcome visitors, helping themselves to our property and then driving away in my car. As I waited for the police to arrive, I received a phone call from the hospital to tell me my much-loved aunt had died. It was all too much. We spent anxious nights feeling distraught, and worrying that the burglars would return.
A few days later, I went to the hospital to take Sophie to the dental department to have an orthodontic brace fitted. We spent four hours sitting in a packed and chaotic hospital department. Sophie was eventually called in to have the brace fitted and took in with her a small teddy bear to give her courage.
As we drove home, Sophie, still clutching the bear, said, “Oh, no! Teddy’s hat is missing!” I told her there was no chance of finding the tiny hat now and she sat silently for the rest of the trip home, upset at her loss.
Two days later, an official-looking envelope arrived with Sophie’s hospital number on it. I opened it to see when her next appointment was. But there was no appointment card, and no message, just a small plastic denture bag… containing Teddy’s hat, a one-inch piece of wool.
I wept at this overwhelming gesture from a busy nurse, in an over-stretched hospital department, who had made a child happy and restored my faith in human nature. The words of the novelist and mystic, Evelyn Underhill, kept going through my mind – “I come in the little things, saith the Lord.”
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 from The Last Victory by Stanley A. Mellor
Optimism, generally, is a way of facing the mystery and problem of life that is characterised by a certain ability to “cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt”, to believe that doubt, difficulty, and even despair, have a sunnier side. That on the whole, and in the last resort, the significance of this universe and of our lives is a real significance, and not an illusion, and is expressible, if at all, then truly only in terms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, our longing for these and achieving of these. Such optimism, you will observe, stretches away to the furthest confines of time and bounds of space. It is not limited to events of a day and hour, nor concerned only with breaking the clouds of a moment. … The optimism one really wants has to be infinitely more than a pious belief in the future, more than a mere worship of progress, more than even the brightest, though illusive, certainty that, if only you give them time enough, things will all come right in the end. One needs the optimism that is born out of blackest pessimism, that is bought with a price, paid for in heart’s agony and blood, the optimism that realises the delusiveness of time, the possible vanity of progress, and will not be content to establish itself on anything less than recognition of the eternal here and now.
Prayer by A. Powell Davies
O God who hast given us the vision of a world made beautiful and good,
be with us as we seek once more that faith
that makes our dreams come true.
When it seems that all before is dark,
give us to remember that so it seemed
to many who went before us.
When mistrust and doubt are upon us
and we are battling bleakly with despair,
let us know that the great and good of every time
have had to find their way, as we must,
by their courage and confidence and trust.
Help us, O God, to keep close company with their spirits.
Reading from The Last Victory by Stanley A. Mellor
The optimistic view of life needs inspiration always, but circumstances sometimes emphasise the need. Such circumstances we are living in today. Consider the mental and spiritual atmosphere of our existence at this moment, its crudities and violences, its narrowness of judgement, its frequent failures to hold fast the purity of professed ideals, its problems and contradictions, its apathy and indifference. We know how these things, to which we cannot be blind, press upon the spirit of faith, and tend ever to darken and make heavier the actual cloud lowering on our world of sorrow, pain, anxiety, and loss.
Anyone who thinks that a splendid, buoyant belief in the ultimate worth and goodness of life, in God and eternal values, in the glorious destiny of the individual soul and the human family, is easy in such a time, is surely deluded, does not really know what faith is and means. …. Every optimism needs its continual inspiration. Every soul touched by faith, moved at all by holy spirit, needs strength to endure and patience to remain loyal to love and the peace of inward realization. … In such times, then, we need … all the inspiration for our faith that we can possibly find, and needing it, we must diligently seek it, since we cannot expect it to visit us altogether without cooperation of our will. [We can find it] in the heart’s silence, in study of poetry and great books, in the world’s religious literature, in lives of good men and women, in reflection on deeds and words of faith.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Room for the Darkness by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place (adapted)
We are a fellowship –
a place to share insights and ideas,
a place to foster faith and sometimes find joy,
a place where we can be ourselves and let others do the same.
We are a fellowship of the liberal path,
open-minded, open-hearted – at least, that’s our aim.
But is there room for the darkness,
the shadow beneath the chalice flame?
Is this a place where we can bring our pain,
our confusion, our despair?
Let us say that this is such a place,
a place for the whole of life’s experience,
a place for healing and solace.
And let us not just say that it is.
Let us make it so, difficult though it may be.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Resilience and Hope
A while ago, I received an unexpected, but most welcome, gift through the post, a copy of a slim, manila-coloured book called The Last Victory: Studies in Religious Optimism by Stanley A. Mellor, Unitarian minister of Hope Street Church in Liverpool. Each of the four short sections is based on addresses delivered at the church during the darkest days of World War One. The author explains, “Their purpose was … to remind people again of the conditions under which glowing faith must always furnish its warmth in a finite world, to face certain fundamental perplexities in the life of faith, and to provide encouragement and hope. The responsibility of surviving into the world of peace after war … must press heavily on every sensitive spirit, and the need for radiant constructive faith in the ultimate goodness and worth of life is very great, and will become greater.”
The whole book is a paean of hope; of “radiant constructive faith in the ultimate goodness and worth of life”. The attitude that shines through it is his “certain ability to ‘cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt'” – an immovable belief that life is fundamentally good; and that ultimately, the good will prevail. He is careful to explain that this is “infinitely more than a pious belief in the future, more than a mere worship of progress, more than even the brightest, though illusive, certainty that … things will all come out right in the end.” The religious optimism Mellor espouses is “unswerving belief in what I have called the solidarity of goodness, the belief that, if once you get hold of the good in any measure or degree and give your life to it, to support it and do battle for it, then, no matter what appearances to the contrary may be, in the last resort, the whole universe is on your side, you are in touch with something solidly triumphant from first to last throughout the whole amazing and problematical texture of history and experience.”
The whole book has resonated with me at a profound level. I have had a true epiphany – that I am that kind of religious optimist, who continues to believe in the ultimate good in the face of the evidence. Which is what resilience is all about – a refusal to lie down and despair, even when life seems bleak. Which is why the words of Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings have always moved me so greatly: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass. … There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
The part of The Last Victory which has brought me the most enlightenment is where Mellors insists that “Optimism is not a scientific certainty, no true optimist ever said it was. It is an affirmation of the spirit, a risk accepted by the soul. … Call it what you will, belief in the unseen world, belief in the reality of the Ideal, faith in the solidarity and eternal value of goodness … the certainty remains that without it Humanity cannot go forward, and without it, we ourselves can do no good and worthy work in the world.”
This kind of optimism is what fires volunteers to work to alleviate the terrible conditions in refugee camps, to give just one example; that inspires people to join pressure groups which are working for a better world. A world which is still worth fighting for, cynical politicians to the contrary. People may sneer, and dismiss me and others like me as hopelessly idealistic, but without optimists like us, what good would ever happen? If Nelson Mandela had not had belief in spite of the evidence for a free South Africa, would it have happened? If Gandhi had not believed in equality for the people of India, would it have happened?
What does this have to do with us? I believe it has everything to do with us, as individuals, and as Unitarian congregations. For the last nearly twelve months, the threat and bitter reality of Covid 19 has loomed over us. All of us have had to change the way we meet together, to devise new ways of being in community. It could be seen as an unmitigated disaster, yet it has brought new people through our (virtual) doors. What can we take from this experience, to use in the future? How can we find both the resilience and the hope to bounce back from this period of lockdown and isolation, so that when the ‘new normal’ finally arrives, we are ready for it? How can we ensure that our congregations will not only survive, but thrive?
I believe that the most important question we need to consider is what our congregations are *for* – what their primary purpose is. This may be hard to think about, at a time when we are unable to be together in beloved community, but we could see this time as a precious opportunity to consider this question, to plan what we want to do, to hope and dream about new possibilities, when we can open our doors once more. Rev. Ant Howe, Ministry Tutor of Unitarian College, has this to say about Unitarianism, which I hope you will find as inspiring as I do:
“I have always held a private hope that Unitarianism could be the church that God daydreams about: A church where differing ideas might not diminish the unity of the community; a church where different shades of theological understanding will only enrich and enhance the community.
But then I look at our shrinking numbers and fragility and I wonder what went wrong? Isn’t the Unitarian message so fantastic, so amazing that it should be shouted from the hilltops?
The belief in the essential Oneness of all that is holy – transcending space, time, religion, creed – and touching us in the here and now, uniting us, inspiring us, transforming us, is something so dynamic that I would be ashamed to keep it to myself.
Straightaway I can hear the voices: “but I don’t believe that…..”.
But, I would rather hear about what you do believe rather than hearing about what you don’t.
What is positive about your religion, faith, or belief? What about it would bless others and make a difference in the lives of those around you?
We can become so comfortable with what we want, what we like, how we think church should be, that we lose sight of the fact that we have a gospel – good news – to share.
Surely it can never be fully shared if we are too busy proclaiming what we don’t believe? Even if your beliefs are few, those few remaining beliefs can be the embers that can fuel the flames of passion, vitality, and zeal.
The Bible speaks of those who are “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power”. I wonder if that could be said of us?
I believe, with my whole heart, that the Unitarian message is the greatest news that can ever be shared…..and if we don’t believe that, then what business do we have standing in pulpits or at lecterns?
We can dis-believe at home. But a gathering for worship is a chance to celebrate those things which unite us.
Surely it is not enough to come to worship to hear an academic sermon, a book review, or a talk about a garden?
I need something that will nurture my soul, inspire me, enthuse me.
The Unitarian message can be power-full. The world deserves nothing less of us.
But at the heart of it is the firm belief that what we are doing is vital. It’s not an option for us, because to not share the message would be the most grievous sin of all: that we let the world down by not giving them the opportunity to join with us in fellowship.
Sometimes the work is hard. We strain to hear the “still small voice” whispering to us in the midst of the stress and business of running a congregation.
But is it worth the effort? Yes! Not for what I get out of it, but the fact that I can play a tiny part in the story of religious faith which, at its best, has the power to change the world.”
Wow. This is what I dream of for our congregations. I’d like to leave you with an inspirational quote by Lyman Abbott, that I have up on the wall in my study at home:
“Put all your ambition, all your enthusiasm, into the work of service. Make it the aim of your life to leave the world better and happier because you have lived in it, and take without greed or grasping what the world will give you of service in return.”
Let us do this together – share the Unitarian dream – as a District, and as congregations.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Open our hearts and minds
To new hope, to new possibilities,
So that we can bounce back from
This time of lockdown and
Open our doors with joy and 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