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).
We light this chalice in praise of the sacred,
Which is all around us,
Present to our senses,
In the most ordinary things.
We light this chalice for presence
May we see the flame of the sacred, everywhere.
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. Amen
Reading by Jennifer Johnson
Spring is here. The magnolias are in bloom, and the gardens and verges are filled with daffodils and tulips. The blades of grass are bursting forth after their winter hibernation. Leaves have unfurled on the trees. New life is pulsing through them. And it pulses in us too.
The pulse of life calls us to nourish our bodies with good food and movement, to nourish our spirits with art and song, friendship and tenderness, and quiet.
When we heed the pulse of life, we know what we need to do:
To rise in the morning and rest into darkness.
To put our hands, hearts, and minds to work.
To meet those in our midst with compassion.
To join with the vulnerable and speak truth to power.
To play with our youngest and hear the wisdom of our elders.
To heal the sick and wounded.
To grieve the dying and remember the dead.
To be of use, and sometimes, to be still.
The pulse of life is beating in each and every one of us. Amidst the clamour of these times, let us heed its sure and steady rhythm.
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 Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Prayer Spirit of Unbounded Life from Sacred Earth by Cliff Reed
In the glory and beauty of springtime
we turn to you in humble gratitude,
O Spirit of unbounded life.
Our hearts leap as the skylark sings
in the heavens, and all around us is
blossom and bursting, freshest green.
We rejoice, and bow our heads in wonder.
But, for too many, the season’s joy
and beauty is dimmed by fear –
fear of unemployment and poverty,
fear of homelessness and bankruptcy,
fear of a future without hope.
Spirit of unbounded hope,
come to all who dwell in fear’s shadow.
And come to us, that our community of
faith may help to lift the gloom, reflecting
in our worship and our fellowship, in our
words and our deeds, the ancient promise
that ‘All shall be well’.
In love for all who despair this day, we
pledge ourselves to be your messengers
of better days to come.
May it be so, Amen
Reading Lost Dimension by Jane Barton, from With Heart and Mind
In Hugh L’Anson Fausset’s book, The Lost Dimension, he reminds us that for many today, the idea of ‘the sacred’ is meaningless. That fact perhaps reveals more clearly than anything else the devaluation of modern life by an increasingly secular society. Most surely in the 21st century we need to be reminded of our spiritual nature which is attuned to the deeper, vaster world of being in which we are ‘invisibly immersed’.
This other dimension is easily ignored or forgotten when we are so involved with, and responsive to, the physical and material demands all around us. It is so much easier to continue our journeys sustained by ideas and behaviour which are acceptably humanistic and ethical. But for many there are occasional moments of vague unease when recognition comes upon us that some spiritual muscle has atrophied through neglect and that we have lost, or are in the process of losing, some innate ability. Thus, as Wordsworth writes in Intimations of Immortality, “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”.
However, a way through this spiritual slumber is found in the latter part of the same poem, when he is able to write, “the meanest flower that blows can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
By truly opening ourselves to be awed by the power of the divine manifest in creation, we can be reconnected and awakened to the invisible world in which we live and move and have our being.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Spirits from Sacred Earth by Cliff Reed
Are there spirits in the trees?
Are there spirits in the streams?
Are there spirits in the hills?
Are there spirits all around us,
wishing us well, wishing us ill?
Awaiting our prayers? Awaiting our offerings?
Spirits to worship? Spirits to fear?
We thought so once – but not now, not really,
though poetry and myth remember them.
Ours is a universe without spirits.
But we breathe life’s breath,
and so do all the myriad creatures.
Among the crags, across the fens,
out over the heaving seas, is the
whispering, howling wind,
the breath of Earth –
the Spirit of Life.
One breath, one Spirit
in all things,
filling dust with life,
filling life with love
‘And God is Spirit.”
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Sacred Spaces
Sacred space is all around us. I believe that the sacred permeates the whole of creation, particularly the natural world. The only places where nature does not exist is in completely sterile, human-made environments, and even there, given half a chance, it will make its way in. Think of all the times you have noticed grass or a flower poking its head up between the flagstones of a pavement, or in the gaps between bricks.
A particular space can become sacred to us by its associations. The Nightingale Centre at Great Hucklow is one of those for me. When I turn left and drive up the lane to the car park, I can feel my spirit relaxing as I absorb the special atmosphere there. It has been made sacred for me by the beauty of the surrounding countryside and by remembered spiritual encounters with many Unitarians. I guess that all our churches, chapels and meeting houses have the potential to be sacred spaces in the same way, made so by what we have experienced there.
Like Jane Barton, in our third reading, I believe that “the power of the divine [is] manifest in creation.” A deep reverence for Nature is an important part of my faith. Growing out of the fairy tales and legends of my childhood, Elsie Proctor’s wonder-full book, Looking at Nature, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s powerful evocations of Middle-Earth, I have always found it easiest to sense the presence of God / the Spirit in the natural world. Yet it was not until fairly recently that this reverence for natural beauty became integrated into the rest of my spiritual life.
This started in early 2009, when I did a module on my second Open University course, called, Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. I was particularly fascinated by contemporary Celtic spirituality and have gone on to learn much more about it. I was introduced to the concept of the Wheel of the Year, and to the notion that we (and all living things) move through life in a cyclical rather than a linear manner, in which the dark side is welcomed as an important part of the process.
At around the same time, I also came across A Guide to the Sacraments by Christian theologian, John Macquarrie, which reinforced my belief that the whole of the universe is sacramental. He explained that, rather than God’s presence being limited to either two (Protestant) or seven (Roman Catholic) sacraments, God has so arranged matters that the material world can “become a door or channel of communication through which he comes to us and we may go to him.” For this reason, “[our] spiritual wellbeing demands that [we] should recognise and cherish the visible things of the world that are made by God and that provide access to God.”
“We should recognise and cherish the visible things of the world that are made by God and that provide access to God.” If you would rather think of God as the Divine, the Spirit of Life and Love, or the Source of All Being, this statement still rings true. Because I believe it is possible to recognise the sacred in and through everything we encounter in our lives, by using our senses to see, hear, smell, taste and touch them. And our bodies, too, are sacred spaces, without which our minds and souls would be unable to perceive the sacred around us. We can be transported out of our mundane lives by what our senses feel, into another dimension.
Human beings are complicated organisms – we have bodies, we have minds and we have souls. I believe that in order to grow into the best people we can be, we need to nourish all of them. In religion, our bodies often get ignored; all the emphasis is on what we think and believe and feel. But our bodies need nourishment too – we ought to look after them by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. If we neglect them, we will become unhealthy, and all of a sudden everything seems twice as difficult, like pushing a hippopotamus uphill. If we look after our bodies, they will look after us.
Rabbi Lionel Blue shared an interesting viewpoint about bodies, when he wrote, “My body is not just a lump of meat. It thinks, and has its own insight. Many times it came to my aid when my mind and my soul could not help me.” Before I read that, I hadn’t really thought about my body having feelings of its own. But it’s true: if I am sad, I don’t want reasons or explanations or even spiritual insights; I just want a cuddle. And it is my body, through my senses, which gives me access to a whole world of beauty and spirituality. This morning, on my walk, the feel of the sunlight on my skin, the taste of a polo mint, the sight of spring flowers and buds in the forest and the sound of birdsong combined into one joyous paean of praise for the universe.
This way of perceiving the world as one magical, numinous, sacred space demands that we believe that the Divine is not only transcendent, the one-time creator of the universe, but also immanent – existing in the world and acting through it. In other words, we are always in the presence of the Divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. Anything can be a door to the sacred.
I also believe that being aware of the sacred in the world can help us to perceive the grace of God everywhere. That through sacred living – weaving moments of attention into our everyday lives and recognising the sacred there, we will find it. Sacred living is about living with a deeper level of awareness. It is about going through our days paying attention to what is happening at every passing moment. It is about noticing the presence of the divine, the numinous, everywhere: in the natural world, in other people, in ourselves, and in things that happen to us. Sacred living is about rediscovering our sense of wonder and living our lives in response to that. Sacred living is about truly appreciating what we have. About being awake to God’s grace at work in our world.
So how do we do this? How do we recognise the sacred all around us? I love the words of Quaker, Stephen Allott, “It was this Spirit of God which breathed into our human clay to make us living souls.” This is something I have come to believe over the past few years, through reading the works of the great Celtic poet and theologian, John O’Donohue. He wrote, and I believe (because it makes sense to me) that our souls come from elsewhere, and inhabit our human bodies, our “clay”, and go elsewhere after death. Our souls are animated by the Spirit – it is the Spirit that enables us to respond to the Divine in the world.
One of the most obvious ways in which the Spirit works within us (at least to me) is when we respond to something beautiful. Cliff Reed calls it the “Spirit of unbounded life.” Who has not felt their heart lift and their level of joy soar when contemplating a majestic mountain, or the endlessly changing sea, or the intricacies of a flower, or a man-made work of art, or the face of someone you love? Who has not thrilled to the sound of uplifting music or the songs of birds in the springtime – I heard a skylark yesterday and was transfixed by the beauty of her song – or the sound of a beloved voice? I believe that this is the Spirit within recognising and responding to the beauty of the world all around us.
Our opportunities to experience the sacred in nature have been the saving of many of us during this last, unprecedented year. Even in the deepest lockdown, we have been permitted to exercise out of doors. Most mornings, I go for a walk, round our village, or over the neighbouring fields and, my favourite, in Salcey Forest. I walk alone and make a conscious effort to be present to the world around me – to perceive the beauty of this flower, this tree, the birdsong (present at all seasons of the year), the warmth of the sun on my face, the patterns of the clouds in the sky, or the cosiness of my winter jacket. There is always something new to wonder at, to be grateful for.
May we go through our days paying attention to what is happening in each passing moment. May we notice the presence of the divine, the numinous, everywhere; in the natural world, in other people, in ourselves and in things that happen. May we rediscover our sense of wonder and live our lives in response to the sacred spaces all around us.
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
to your presence all around us –
on the earth, in all living creatures,
in the waters,
in the fire and the burning sun,
and in the air we breathe.
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 Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley