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 light our chalice
to celebrate our heritage of light:
the light of science and of art,
the light of story and of poem,
the light of nature and of reason,
the inner light of spirit and of truth.
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 The Book of Books by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps. Part 1
The Book of books, some call it, and so it is, not because it belongs on a pedestal, but because there’s nothing quite like it:
A book of stories, myths and legends, a book of poems, hymns and lamentations, a book of ruthless politics and sacred history.
There is something there to express every feeling, to match every mood, to suit every occasion.
There is love and passion there, fear and elation. There is victory’s triumph and defeat’s despair. There is cruelty and compassion, slavery and liberation.
There are tales of loyalty and tales of betrayal, the highest ideals and the basest villainies. There are words of wisdom and power, words of comfort and words of bitter loss.
There is exultation and wonder at the glories of creation. There is the prospect of desolation and promise of restoration. There is depression and madness, and righteous anger at the world’s injustice.
There is the strife of nations and of empires, the feuding of tribes and families, the inner conflict of the soul in torment. There are faith and doubt, credulity and scepticism, humility and overweening pride.
We read of natural, everyday lives, and we are swept into wild, psychedelic hallucinations. We read the words of bards and prophets, sages and list-makers.
There are kings and heroes, queens and heroines. There are tax-collectors and prostitutes, lovers, fishermen, soldiers and law-givers.
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 The Book of Books by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps. Part 2
There is a carpenter and a tent-maker. And there are men who failed the greatest test, and women who passed it.
Life and death, goodness and evil, war and peace, sex and violence, joy and sorrow – all are there, and all that we human beings do and feel and hope.
There is no single theology, no one answer, no one voice, no one vision, no single perception of the mystery we call Divine. No book deemed holy accommodates so many contradictions, so many versions that cannot all be true, so many circles that cannot be squared.
The Book of books is the words of men and women, inspired and uninspired. It is the word of humanity in all our shades and depths, virtues and aberrations.
And that, perhaps, is what also makes it the Word of God, echoing and whispering through the tunnels of the human soul.
If, like those ancient scholars, I had the task of assembling scriptures, of compiling a new Book of books to last for generations, a collection of words timeless and eternal to show that ‘revelation is not sealed’, where would I start?
And where could I possibly end? Where could I stop and choose on the way from Mother Julian to Mary Oliver, by way of Machiavelli, Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King?
Prayer For the Wordsmiths by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth
Divine Word, who speaks in us for our re-creation and salvation,
we give thanks for the wordsmiths whom your gift of words has inspired.
For those who reveal to us the secrets and strivings of their souls,
that we might better understand and nurture our own.
For the poets whose words move, delight, and challenge us,
weaving webs in which are captured wonder, joy and pain.
For the storytellers, bards and skalds, the novelists, playwrights and scriptwriters,
who transport us to other worlds that we might better understand our own.
For those who bring to us the arcane mysteries of science in words that we can comprehend,
and help us in our striving to understand the universe.
For those who bring us news from our tumultuous world,
the information with which to make our choices and our judgements.
For those whose skill is to translate the words of others,
reversing the Babel curse and restoring the wholeness that was lost.
Divine Word… we give thanks for all the honest, healing wordsmiths of the world.
Reading Language by Phil Silk, from With Heart and Mind
Isn’t language wonderful? Where would we be without it?
To me it seems a miracle that I can put marks on paper and expect, even be pretty sure, that other people will get a fairly clear idea of what I am saying, if they know English. They do not just ‘bark at print’, as someone once described reading. However perfect the message, however perfectly it is expressed, for communication to take place there needs to be an able and willing receiver.
I wonder what life was like for our ancient ancestors before language developed beyond body language and varied noises? It would have been hard not only to convey information, but also to be aware of the complexity of inner and outer reality and to think, let alone imagine and plan.
We are not the only creatures to communicate, as we are becoming increasingly aware. Nature programmes on TV, for example, are helping us appreciate the importance of messages sent and received by other animals and the variety of ways it is done. Amazing! Inspiring! Instructive!
Early humans made drawings over 30,000 years ago. Later, they also made figurines, engravings, decorated pottery and clothing, jewellery, shaped buildings and burials. Music and dancing are ancient, reflected in the art. When we began to talk is hard to say, but writing itself seems little more than 5,000 years old. Indeed many groups of people today do not have a written form of language. There have been thousands of different languages, many now extinct, many still untranslated. People can now talk to each other anywhere on earth. And now we can send messages to and from space vehicles in space and on other planets. (Is anyone out there?) Fantastic!
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Phil Silk)
Let us rejoice in the history of human communication.
We are grateful for all the individuals who have shared their experiences and interpretations of life with us. Let us also appreciate the efforts of those who continue to help us understand the multitude of tongues they use and have used.
Let us recognise the importance of being careful communicators ourselves; careful to think and feel clearly what we want to say; careful to convey messages in ways appropriate to the intended audience; careful to be honest but not hurtful; wise enough to know when to be silent and when to speak.
Let us learn to be good listeners: attentive, sensitive, patient, responsive.
There are many ways to explore life and to share the results.
May we be alive to the possibilities, recognising how connected we are to all human beings, dead, alive and to be born.
May we also appreciate how connected we are to the rest of the universe, living or not.
Language is the medium, and the message.
May it be so,
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Words, Language and Communication
The 19th century American Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, once wrote, “The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading; but a great book that comes from a great thinker is a ship of thoughts, deep freighted with truth and beauty.”
We heard Cliff Reed’s reflection on The Bible in our first two readings. He considers it to be a collection of great books and I agree with him. His description of what it contains may prompt us to turn to it anew, with fresh eyes. Whatever else we may think of it, it is a marvellous collection of stories, reading which may give us new insights into our own lives.
Reading has always been a passion of mine, to the extent that it has occasionally got me into trouble, when I have been too deeply buried in a good book to pay attention to life going on around me. Yet few things give me greater delight than the discovery of a new book that makes me think, that makes me see the world and everything in it in a new light. In his introduction to Mister God, This is Anna, which is definitely one of those books for me, Vernon Sproxton speaks of Ah! Books, (forgive the non-inclusive language), “those which induce a fundamental change in the reader’s consciousness. They widen his sensibility in such a way that he is able to look upon familiar things as though he is seeing and understanding them for the first time… Ah! Books give you sentences which you can roll around in the mind, throw in the air, catch, tease out, analyse. But in whatever way you handle them, they widen your vision. For they are essentially Idea-creating, in the sense that Coleridge meant when he describe the Idea as containing future thought – as opposed to the Epigram, which encapsulates past thought. Ah! Books give the impression that you are opening a new account, not closing an old one down.”
I believe that reading can be a deep and rewarding spiritual practice, if we take the time to read with hearts and minds open. Huffington Post contributor, Kester Brewin, wrote in 2014, “To read widely, and often, is… to hope to be changed, to still believe that change is possible. It is never, ever a waste of time. Be it an essay or short story or novel or article, a good read never goes unanswered, because a good read opens up a world that requires our attention. That might be the inner world of the self, it might be the domestic world of a family relationship, or it could be the plight of a whole people.”
“A good read opens up a world that requires our attention.” Yes. I think that this is so true. A good read can change our lives, whether it is how we see ourselves, how we relate to other people or other living beings, or the rest of creation, or it might galvanise us into action. It is said that reading broadens the mind, and that is good and true. But there are a few special books (probably different ones for each person, the Ah! Books that Vernon Sproxton mentions) that also broaden the heart. As I said before, few things give me greater delight than the discovery of a new book that makes me think, that makes me see the world and everything in it in a new light.
Given the huge impact that reading other people’s words can have, I believe that all writers, whom Cliff Reed calls ‘wordsmiths’, have a responsibility to be careful about the words they write. Because words have power. They can paint a picture in a reader’s or listener’s mind, influence them for good or ill, or even to rush off and change their lives. So it is vital that we who make our livings through words are careful about what we write, what we share. And I don’t mean only authors of fiction. I also mean journalists, non-fiction writers, storytellers, teachers, lecturers, even ministers and other worship leaders. We always need to bear in mind the influence that our words might have on the reader or listener.
This is also true in conversation, for everyone. And doubly true when posting on social media. The saying I learned in the playground, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, is the most inaccurate maxim I have ever heard. Bones mend, bruises heal, but harsh words, teasing words, belittling words, words filled with hate, can leave scars that never heal. They have a real and very evil power. Even when the person saying them thinks they are doing it in jest, or are unaware of the power of what they are saying.
Another saying from my childhood, often quoted by my mother, was, “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” And I’ve seen a quote about right speech, “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” attributed to the Buddha. I googled it just now and found a fascinating article on a blog called Fake Buddha Quotes. The author gave a genuine quote, translated from the Vaca Sutta, written in Pali, by Thanissaro Buddha, which is even better, if not as snappy, as the fake quote. It reads,
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless and unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
- It is spoken at the right time.
- It is spoken in truth.
- It is spoken affectionately.
- It is spoken beneficially.
- It is spoken with a mind of goodwill.”
Such words are a power for good.
I would guess that most of us could quote particular poems or passages which have had a profound effect on us. For me, the opening of Under Milk Wood by Welsh poet and playwright, Dylan Thomas, is one of these. My parents had the original Argo recording of it, starring Richard Burton and a very distinguished all-Welsh cast. Thomas was one of the people who, long years ago, taught me to love words, and to marvel at their ability to move human minds and hearts. I used to have the opening speech of the First Voice by heart – it is mesmerising in its hypnotic beauty and vividness, brought to life by Richard Burton’s wonderful frayed-velvet voice.
Words have so much power, especially in conjunction with the human voice. They can be used to encourage, sustain, energise and uplift; or they can be used to arouse hatred, bitterness, despair and all other kinds of bad feelings. On the one side, look at someone like Martin Luther King, and his “I have a dream” speech, or, more recently, Amanda Gorman’s inspirational words at Joe Biden’s inauguration. On the other, turn on any documentary about World War Two, and listen to Hitler mesmerising his German subjects into going along with policies of vengeful genocide. Or Donald Trump, fomenting ill-will and division with his every Tweet.
Words have so much power. With one word of praise or blame, one human being can build another one up, or fling him or her into the pit of despair. The human memory has an uncanny knack of remembering words spoken in anger or despite, which can cause people with fragile self-esteem (that is to say, all of us, deep down) to think badly of themselves, whereas words of praise may be shrugged off. How many times have you heard an actor or singer say that they only remember what is said in the bad reviews, even if those are outnumbered ten times by positive ones? I can now attest to the truth of this – the one “bad” review I have on Amazon haunts me… But my friend Stephanie Bisby told me that you’re not a real author until you’ve had a bad review, which cheered me up again.
Words have so much power. We need to remember Phil Silk’s wise words, which we heard in our Time of Stillness and Reflection, “Let us recognise the importance of being careful communicators ourselves; careful to think and feel clearly what we want to say; careful to convey messages in ways appropriate to the intended audience; careful to be honest but not hurtful; wise enough to know when to be silent and when to speak.”
Words have so much power, for both good and evil. May we all be responsible in their use, using them wisely and well.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Open our hearts and minds
To new words and new insights,
Written by the many wordsmiths in our lives,
And may we be careful about the words we use ourselves.
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