Prelude Roots and Wings 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 kindle our chalice flame.
By its light we meet each other
face to face.
In each other’s faces
may we sense another light,
the one divine Light
that glows within us all.
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
Readings: from Beliefs of a Unitarian by Alfred Hall and Unitarian? What’s that? by Cliff Reed
When Alfred Hall wrote Beliefs of a Unitarian in the first half of the 20th century, most Unitarians would definitely have identified themselves as Christian. About the Holy Spirit, he wrote, “It was a supreme moment in the history of religion, when Jesus declared that God is Spirit, whose presence does not depend upon the existence of any particular temple and who can be worshipped anywhere in spirit and in truth. So to the Unitarian the Holy Spirit is the ever-present Living God himself, who sustains the universe and dwells in the inmost spirit of man, and not a separate person or activity of the Godhead … God is not a distant, mysterious being … for in him we live and move and have our being.”
Cliff Reed, at the beginning of the 21st century, wrote, “Unitarians do not see any differentiation between the Holy Spirit and God, and use the words more or less interchangeably. We conceive of the Spirit as the active divine presence in individuals and communities, as the divine breath that gives us life, as that ineffable factor that binds us together.
The Spirit, for many Unitarians, is the divine mystery moving among us and within us as we work and worship. Indeed, for many, God as loving, creative Spirit is their primary concept of the divine.”
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 Quaker Faith and Practice
The Quakers too, believe in the Spirit as an inward Light. There are several beautiful advices in their Advices and Queries, which refer to this:
“Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. … Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you.”
“Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. … Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?”
“Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. … Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.”
Reflective Prayer The Wind and the Spirit by Stephen Gutteridge
Then, the locked upper room.
Here, lonely paths and high blue sky.
The fear and the hope
Combined in terrible ecstasy.
Invisible Wind, felt and unseen.
Invisible Spirit, inspiring and empowering.
Come down on me, make me a prophet too.
Guide this stumbling tongue, give courage
to drive out the fear.
First the wind and the spirit.
There, a faith unto death is born.
Here, hope and courage live again.
That still small voice.
Be with us now and for evermore. Amen
Reading Locating God by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps
‘God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes, I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something, I’m listening to God’ (Pete Seeger)
‘We created man. We know the promptings of his soul and are closer to him than the vein of his neck’ (The Qur’an, 50:16)
There is nowhere where God is not.
The Divine is wholly present everywhere
and in all things,
and all things subsist within the Divine Unity.
Look out at the infinity of the stars, you will see God.
Look at the green growing things, you will see God.
Look at the rocks on the mountains,
the sands of the desert, the waters great and small,
you will see God.
Look back through the aeons to the Beginning
or forward to the End, if there is one,
and you will see God.
Look at the myriad creatures that live with us
on the earth – walking, flying, creeping, swimming –
you will see God.
Look at a woman or a man, a child or a newborn babe,
you will see God.
Look at love and kindness, grief and suffering,
hope and despair, darkness and light, you will see God.
Look into your own heart, you will see God.
Listen to the promptings of your conscience,
your deepest wisdom, you will hear God.
You may not always recognise God,
because there are many false images that can get in the way.
You may not be able to use the word ‘God’,
because it has been debased and misused too often.
But God is there nonetheless,
closer than the vein in your neck.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Holy Spirit: for Whitsunday by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth (adapted)
Holy Spirit, Breath of God,
that came to prophet and apostle,
come to us, we pray.
Pour down on us
as life-giving rain,
make our souls bloom
like the desert.
Rest upon us
as tongues of fire,
kindling our souls
to be beacons of hope.
Come to us as guide,
leading us into all truth,
as Jesus promised.
Come to us as comforter,
raising us when we fall
crushed by an unforgiving world.
Come to us as advocate,
witnessing to love’s endurance,
when doubts oppress.
touch us with your liberty,
give us the right words to speak.
Make our spirits one with you,
our very selves the vessels of
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Wind and the Spirit
Today is Whit Sunday, the Christian festival of Pentecost, when Christians celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, as described in the Book of Acts, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. … All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. … In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
We are Unitarians, and most of us do not believe in the Holy Spirit as one person of the Trinity. Nevertheless, as we saw in my readings from Alfred Hall and Cliff Reed, Unitarians have seen the Holy Spirit as, “the ever-present Living God himself, who sustains the universe and dwells in the inmost spirit of man” and as, “the divine mystery moving among us and within us as we work and worship.” Even St. Paul, who was largely responsible for moulding early Christian doctrine, wrote in his first Letter to the Corinthians, ” Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
So today I am going to explore what the Spirit might mean to 21st century Unitarians. Many, of course, do not believe in any divine being at all, and so will not agree with my belief that the Spirit does dwell in each one of us, in our hearts, waiting to be listened to. I love Quaker Stephen Allott’s description of the Spirit, “What manner of spirit are we of? have we any connection with the spirit which descended on the upper room, sounding like a ‘mighty, rushing wind’? Do we look to be swept out of our comfortable existence by an invading power which comes, as Jesus said, no one knows whence? Or do we look rather for a gentler movement within? Do we say, it was this Spirit of God which breathed into our human clay to make us living souls? It is there, in our humanity, but mixed with passions which confuse its purpose, limited by the tunnel vision of the self. Occasionally a blinding flash may come from without and someone is jolted forwards; but the Spirit’s normal method is a quiet insistence, a still small voice barely audible amid the turbulence of earthquake, wind and fire.”
Two lines of this particularly speak to me: “it was this Spirit of God which breathed into our human clay to make us living souls” and “the Spirit’s normal method is a quiet insistence, a still small voice barely audible amid the turbulence of earthquake, wind and fire.”
“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 in the last few years, through reading the works of the great Celtic poet and theologian, John O’Donohue. He wrote, and I have come to believe (because it makes sense to me) that our souls come from elsewhere, and inhabit our human bodies, 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 is when we respond to something beautiful. As Cliff Reed showed in his lovely reading, ‘Locating God’, which we heard earlier. I am sure that you have all felt your hearts lift and your levels 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, or when you are listening to uplifting music or the songs of birds or to a beloved voice. I believe that this is the Spirit within us recognising and responding to the beauty of the world around us.
How can we learn to listen to the Spirit, and to recognise her at work in the world? I think that this may be attempted by what I would call ‘sacred living’. The Christian author John Macquarrie believes that we live in a sacramental universe. Rather than the Divine presence being limited to either two or seven sacraments, Macquarrie believes that God has so arranged things 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, “man’s spiritual wellbeing demands that he should recognise and cherish the visible things of the world as things that are made by God and that provide access to God.”
In other words, God / the Spirit / the Divine other is present everywhere, all the time. The trick of sacred living is recognising this.
Sacred living is about weaving moments of attention into our everyday lives and recognising the sacred there. It is about living with a new level of awareness. It is about going through our day paying attention to what is happening in each 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.
Coming back to Quaker Stephen Allott, whom I quoted at the beginning of this address, the other sentence that spoke to me was, ” the Spirit’s normal method is a quiet insistence, a still small voice barely audible amid the turbulence of earthquake, wind and fire.” How many of you, I wonder, have become occasionally conscious of this “still small voice”, prompting you to take or eschew a particular action? Some Unitarians may be more easy with describing it as the voice of our conscience, but I believe that it is the Spirit, nonetheless.
Although to Christians, the Holy Spirit is one person of the Trinity, she is described quite differently in the New Testament, as John O’Donohue notes in Eternal Echoes, “It is interesting to read in the New Testament how the soul is always seen as a continuation of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere does it ever say that we should pray to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not different from the activity of your prayer. You pray in the Holy Spirit. The little preposition suggests how you are suffused with the Holy Spirit. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the deepest level of you is spirit.”
“Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the deepest level of you is spirit.”
I would like to finish with some words by Jacob Trapp, about how worship and the Spirit are connected:
“To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand.
To worship is to be silent, receptive, before a tree astir with the wind, or the passing shadow of a cloud.
To worship is to work with dedication and with skill; it is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music.
To worship is to sing with the singing beauty of the earth; it is to listen through a storm to the still small voice within.
Worship is a loneliness seeking communion; it is a thirsty land crying out for rain.
Worship is kindred fire within our hearts; it moves through deeds of kindness and through acts of love.
Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond.
It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak; it is the window of the moment, open to the sky of the eternal.”
May we recognise the Spirit whenever we see, hear, or feel its quiet presence.
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
to the presence of the Spirit,
all around us, and
deep within us.
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, Amen
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley