Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this period of gradual unfolding,
when we are slowly coming out of our year-long lockdown,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short 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 short 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 gather in a house of peace,
where violence of hand or tongue
are unwelcome strangers.
The Spirit is among us as we breathe and sing and pray,
speaking gentle, kind, and friendly words.
Within us and through us may Divine Love reach out,
cooling hearts in which resentment burns,
warming hearts made deathly cold by hatred,
reviving hearts grown lukewarm with unconcern.
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,
as we begin to come out of lockdown,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
We hold in our hearts
all those who have helped us
to come through this difficult time,
and all 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 from Jingo by Terry Pratchett
He wanted there to be conspirators. It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere, made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t, then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people.
It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No-one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.
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 Scapegoat Mechanism by Richard Rohr
Human nature, when it is seeking power, wants either to play the victim or to create victims of others. In fact, the second follows from the first. Once we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we will soon find someone else to blame, accuse or attack—and with impunity! It settles the dust quickly, and it takes away any immediate shame, guilt, or anxiety. In other words, it works—at least for a while.
When we read today’s news, we realize the pattern has not changed much in all of history. Hating, fearing, or diminishing someone else holds us together for some reason. Scapegoating, or the creating of necessary victims, is in our hard wiring. Philosopher René Girard (1923–2015) calls “the scapegoat mechanism” the central pattern for the creation and maintenance of cultures worldwide since the beginning.
The sequence, without being too clever, goes something like this: we compare, we copy, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn, and we crucify. If we do not recognize some variation of this pattern within ourselves and put an end to it in the early stages, it is almost inevitable. That is why spiritual teachers of any depth will always teach simplicity of lifestyle and freedom from the competitive power game, which is where it all begins. It is probably the only way out of the cycle of violence.
It’s hard for us religious people to hear, but the most persistent violence in human history has been “sacralized violence”—violence that we treated as sacred, but which was, in fact, not. Human beings have found a most effective way to legitimate their instinct toward fear and hatred. They imagine that they are fearing and hating on behalf of something holy and noble: God, religion, truth, morality, their children, or love of country. It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high ground or being responsible and prudent as a result. It never occurs to most people that they are becoming what they fear and hate.
Reflective Prayer Does God really care? from Carnival of Lamps by Cliff Reed
Does God really care what name or pronoun we use when we speak of the Divine?
Does God mind whether we stand or kneel or sit to pray? Or which way we face when we do?
Does God care whether we worship in silence or in song, with poetic beauty or in stumbling prose, so long as we do so in spirit and in truth?
Is God bothered about what we wear and how – or if – we cut our hair, so long as it’s our own free choice?
Does God mind what we choose to eat from Creation’s smorgasbord, so long as we do so with gratitude and with deep respect for the life we all share?
Does God have the slightest interest in our theologies, doctrines and dogmas – or in the squabbles we have about them?
Did God really lock up the truth in a few old books, imprison the Spirit in dead words, and then speak no more?
Does God care a jot whether those who minister to us are black or gay, male or straight, white or female – so long as they do so with humble, loving hearts?
Is God really as mean, as petty, as narrow-minded, and as downright stupid as we too often are in the sanctification of our own bigotry and prejudice?
Perhaps all God wants is for us to be kind to each other, to be fair and just in all our dealings, and to be responsible in our stewardship of this good earth, our common home.
May it be so, Amen
Reading Right Speech by Chris Goacher, from With Heart and Mind 2 (adapted)
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.’ Remember learning that at school? I believe it is the most erroneous thing that we can teach children. A broken arm will heal in time; a broken soul may take a lifetime, if at all.
Some time ago, following the dubious behaviour of two radio broadcasters, we saw the power of words; words can destroy relationships, a career, a reputation; they can also destroy a childhood, a love, a faith. Many people recognised that a boundary had been crossed; and what was suggested as funny or entertaining was anything but.
In Buddhism, there is a concept of ‘Right Speech’. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “There is a saying in Vietnamese, ‘it doesn’t cost anything to have loving speech.’” It is true, we need only choose our words carefully, and we can make people very happy. Many people believe that they will be generous once they have accumulated huge wealth; young people dream of becoming doctors or movie stars or rich and famous people, before they can help people.
There are many ways to be generous to people right now, we don’t have to wait. If we are motivated by loving kindness and compassion, we can make people happy right now, beginning with Right Speech. Being aware of the danger of careless or unmindful speech leads us into a world of loving kindness. We can make the world a better, happier place. Maybe we could begin to practice mindful speech by using Socrates’ ‘triple filter’. Ask ourselves – is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?
We have seen for ourselves the consequences that uncaring, unmindful speech can bring. Let us promise to be aware and compassionate to each other… beginning now.
Time of Stillness and Reflection by Chris Goacher, from With Heart and Mind 2
Let your mind rest.
Let the rhythm of your breathing be to you a safe haven.
Let all but this moment be forgotten… for a time.
So much of our speech is reflective of our inner feelings.
Are we really angry with our friend, or embarrassed that they have discovered our error?
Have we scolded our child for using bad language when we should have realised that it is from us that they have learned such words?
Have we been guilty of gossiping and offering judgement when we should have been caring?
For a moment, let us reflect on such times…
In recognising times when we have fallen short of this ideal, let us also recognise times when we have felt the pain and disappointment of words that have been said to us, and about us… painful times.
In forgiving, may we too be forgiven, and in remembering the costs of unmindful speech, may we learn and aspire to do better.
Words have the power to break us down or to build us up; to generate hate, or create love, to open the gates of Heaven or Hell.
This is the responsibility we have for each other.
May the words we choose be true, kind, and helpful.
May it be so, Amen.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Be Kind to Each Other
“Be kind to each other.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet how often do we fall short of this ideal, in the words we say, in our actions? Because, as I was once told, there are always three sides to any argument (or, indeed, any situation): your side, their side, and the right one.
I believe that only God can see the whole picture – we as imperfect mortals can only have a partial view. But, we can at least try to see, to understand, the point of view of the other, rather than becoming entrenched behind our own viewpoints, which can easily lead to us acting out with prejudice, fear, distrust and even hatred.
And this applies not only to people of other countries, other faiths, but also to our neighbours, the members of our local community. Whose views may be very different from our own. Who are we to say that their views are invalid, wrong? Who are we to say that we have the only correct view?
I guess I’m saying that we ought to at least try to listen to the views of other people, before instantly leaping to judgement. Because if we had their life experiences, our views might also be different. Or perhaps to realise that even people whose views are different from our own are still “unique, precious, children of God,” as the Quakers have it.
I’m not saying that we should not stand up for our own beliefs, our own principles, nor that we should not defend the right of others to live in freedom and peace. Of course we should. But I also believe that at least attempting to understand the other point of view is better than instant condemnation.
It takes active and conscious kindness to stay out of judgement of others. French actress, Jeanne Moreau, once wrote, “It’s not the façade that matters, but the treasures inside.” How can we practice kindness, which includes self-kindness, if we judge others by their façade rather than by staying out of judgement long enough to see the treasures inside?
One of my favourite Catholic divines, St Francis de Sales, once wrote, “When it comes to being gentle, start with yourself. Don’t get upset with your imperfections… It’s a great mistake – because it leads nowhere – to get angry because you are angry, upset at being upset, disappointed because you are disappointed… You cannot correct a mistake by repeating it.”
“You cannot correct a mistake by repeating it.” Oh. How often do we pile anger on top of anger, upset on top of upset, and disappointment on top of disappointment, rather than trying to gently, kindly, rationally explore how not to repeat our mistakes? I know I do…
In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus bids us to be wary of judging others if our own copybook is less than spotless, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”
It is only too easy for us to judge others without really knowing them. To judge them by how they look, what they say, how they act. Without knowing what is in their hearts, what their motivations are, what their life experience has been, which has led them to this point in our lives.
If we don’t remember this, it is easy, very easy, for us to put the blame for our own situation on others, blaming them for our own pain and discomfort. In her wonderful book, Daring Greatly, sociologist Brené Brown writes about what she calls ‘the blame game’, “If blame is driving, shame is riding shot-gun. In organizations, schools and families, blaming and finger-pointing are often symptoms of shame. Shame researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing explain that in shame-bound relationships, people ‘measure carefully, weigh, and assign blame.’ They write, ‘In the face of any negative outcome, large or small, someone or something must be found responsible (and held accountable). There’s no notion of ‘water under the bridge’. They go on to say, ‘After all, if someone must be to blame and it’s not me, it must be you! From blame comes shame. And then hurt, denial, anger and retaliation.’”
Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we’re uncomfortable and experience pain – when we’re vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving. There’s nothing productive about blame, and it often involves shaming someone or just being mean. If blame is a pattern in your culture, then shame needs to be addressed as an issue.”
Sometimes, we put the blame on other people by making them into a scapegoat. As Richard Rohr wrote in our second reading, “Human nature, when it is seeking power, wants either to play the victim or to create victims of others. In fact, the second follows from the first. Once we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we will soon find someone else to blame, accuse or attack—and with impunity! It settles the dust quickly, and it takes away any immediate shame, guilt, or anxiety. In other words, it works—at least for a while.” He adds sadly, “Hating, fearing, or diminishing someone else holds us together for some reason.”
And it is the opposite of showing kindness to them, making space for them in our minds and hearts. In the reflective prayer that followed that reading, Cliff Reed wonders whether God really cares about all the positions we take up, in opposition to “the other”, whoever the other might be. He finishes by writing, “Perhaps all God wants is for us to be kind to each other, to be fair and just in all our dealings, and to be responsible in our stewardship of this good earth, our common home.”
Yet it can be difficult to discern how to act, when our Western media often reports events in a judgemental way. To give you one example: you may remember that, about five years ago, Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the offices of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. And a few days later, the Islamist group, Boko Haram, massacred around two thousand people in Nigeria. I blogged about it at the time, “The thing which started me thinking was my perception of the widely different reactions of the Western media to these events. We were swamped with coverage of the Charlie Hebdo story when it broke, and the subsequent Je Suis Charlie campaign. It was only too easy to be swept up in the media storm, because… freedom of belief? Freedom of speech? Of course they’re important. As were the untimely deaths of seventeen people.
A few short days later, more than two thousand people were massacred in the north east of Nigeria, in and around the city of Baga. They were murdered by the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram. Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly, who could not flee in time. It made the news alright, but the sense of outrage just wasn’t there. I was shocked by the contrast.”
Charlie Hebdo was a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics and jokes – a bit like our own Private Eye. There is no doubt that satire is a useful political and sociological tool, pointing out injustices and hypocrisies in our societies. The question is, where should the line be drawn, between what is ‘fair game’ for the satirist’s pen, and what is vicious and harmful and inciting hatred – the opposite of kind. I do wonder how being satirical and disrespectful about the dearly-held beliefs of others fits into this. And whether, ultimately, the world is a better place because of satire? Okay, it has an important role in highlighting injustices. But we need to be careful that we aren’t making judgements from a position of Western non-understanding and privilege. There are at least two sides to most issues, and it is very easy only to see one – the view of the white, Christian, straight majority that dominates our media. The satirical stories and cartoons printed in magazines like Charlie Hebdo and Private Eye might be amusing if you are a member of the privileged class / race / gender. Perhaps not so much otherwise. Like I said, it is certainly not kind.
In the days following the Charlie Hebdo killings, there were fifteen attacks on Muslim communities all around France. And, after the death of Private Lee Rigby, innocent Muslims were attacked in this country, just for being Muslim. And I believe the comparative lack of reaction to the more than 2000 deaths of innocent people in Nigeria was just another symptom – “after all, that’s just what happens in Africa.” It’s ‘over there” and hence not Our problem.
But we are all human beings. We were all made in God’s image. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist or even Unitarian, whatever colour and gender we are, each time we choose to judge the other, rather than trying to understand them, acting from a place of prejudice, bigotry and hatred, we are being less than our best selves, falling away from the people we should be. We are all unique, precious, children of God, and we need to respect that of the Divine in each other. I believe what I was taught as a child, that two wrongs do not make a right, whatever the circumstances.
Let us remember Terry Pratchett’s wise words, “It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No-one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.”
We all have the ability to choose the path we take in the world, the path of loving kindness, or the path of judgement and hatred. Let us strive to choose kindness and understanding, now and from now on.
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
so that we may practice
being kind to each other,
in both our speech and our actions,
thereby making our own world
and that of others, a happier place.
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