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 are called to rekindle the flame of love in our hearts,
to understand the needs and feelings of others
by discerning the same needs and feelings in ourselves.
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 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
Story retold by Celia Cartwright
A young man had just passed some important stage in his training in aikido, the way of the harmonious spirit, in which the primary goal of the practice is to overcome oneself instead of cultivating violence or aggressiveness. He was very full of his achievement and eager to go proudly home to tell his family. His journey involved a few miles by train.
He settled into a corner seat next to a young pregnant woman and opposite a very old and venerable man with a long white beard who sat with his eyes closed, his hands, twisted with arthritis, in his lap. At the next station a big burly man got on, clearly drunk; and stumbled into the young woman, speaking rudely to her.
The young man leapt up, chastised the drunken man, who sneered, and pushed him down. He stood again, pushed out his chest and, grabbed the drunk’s shirt front, informing him he was a black belt in Aikido, so he’d better sit down and shut up.
The drunken man began to raise his fists, but found himself face to face with the old man who spoke quietly to him. ‘Come, sit down here next to me’ he said, ‘I can see your pain, come and rest with me.’ He patted the big man gently on the shoulder and led him to sit down. The young man was affronted and huffed back into his own seat.
As the journey continued, the old man spoke quietly to the big, dishevelled, angry man, and in time the man began to tell his story. His wife, whom he loved deeply, had died suddenly and his heart was broken, he was struggling to work, so deep was his grief, and his friends kept trying to cheer him up but he could not be cheered. He had gone into the city to lose himself in the crowds, but this had only made him feel lonelier, so he had taken himself to a bar and drunk too much, which would have upset his wife, and he began to cry. As the journey continued the old man continued to speak quietly to the bereaved man, who slowly laid his head upon the old man’s knees and fell into a restful, peace filled sleep.
When he came to his destination, the young man spoke to the old man, ‘Master, you have shown me how my pride overcame my teaching, I will not make that mistake again.’
The old man looked at the young man and replied, ‘Oh, I suspect you will, I did, but each time you do, you will learn more about yourself and those around you. One day, if you continue to watch, listen and learn, you may become a greater Master than I of your art.’
The young man bowed politely, humbly, and left the train.
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 Throwing Love at Fear by Celia Cartwright
Something I have gradually become aware of in the last three or four decades is that when it comes down to brass tacks as my granddad would say, the best way to conquer fear is by chucking some love and basic understanding at it like a soft comforter, then sticking around to make sure it’s comfy and that we understand why the fear arose. I have also realised that though when we think of peace we often think of world peace, or peace in our nation, when you stop to think about it clearly, we have to start with ourselves, and when we’ve done that we can start on others.
I would like to share with you some words written by Lao Tse – which is commonly translated from the Chinese Mandarin as “Old Master”:
“If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.”
Prayer by Karen Holden (adapted)
The hardest part is people.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Help us to face them
Without rancour or disappointment.
Help us to see the pain behind their actions
Rather than the malice,
The suffering rather than the rage.
And in ourselves, as we struggle
With the vice of our own desires –
Give us strength to quiet our hearts,
To quicken our empathy, to act
In gratitude rather than need.
Remind us that the peace we find
In the slow track of the seasons
Or an uncurling fern frond,
Is married to the despair we feel
In the face of brutish war.
Remind us that each small bird shares atoms
With anthrax, with tetanus, with acid rain,
That each time we close our hearts
To another, we add to their darkness;
Help us to always follow kindness.
Let this be our prayer.
Reading from Throwing Love at Fear by Celia Cartwright
Being judgemental, being critical – and we see such a lot of that on social media, and in the arrogance of human interaction – is a reaction that betrays our own inner fears and insecurity. If we are truly to find peace in our hearts we must, I think, acknowledge our failings and seek to learn about ourselves, or any peace we find will be easily dislodged. We may have to undo years, decades, generations of habits and ‘understandings’ that are not destined to bring peace.
So, getting back to Lao-Tse, who, in his wise and beautiful poem suggests that peace on earth will begin with peace in our own hearts and in our own homes.
It’s not going to be easy. I’m certainly not expecting it in my life-time, but like the planter of great trees, what I do, you do, what we do, is to plant the sapling of the forest that could, will grow in time. We have to stop thinking of peace only in terms of a global change or being alone with the wood drake, we really do have to start being better humans, seeking to understand ourselves and why we are the way we are. We really must start to take humanity seriously. Someone, somewhere must say, ‘whatever happened to me, I will change’ and I will strive to make sure it doesn’t happen to the children in my charge. I will encourage more emotionally aware people who will better understand the actions of others rather than judge and condemn.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Unanswered Prayer from Carnival of Lamps by Cliff Reed
O God, who doesn’t seem to answer prayer,
who leaves the hungry to starve, the poor to die,
the oppressed to suffer, and the wars to rage,
why don’t you answer prayer, if you’re there at all?
But maybe that’s the wrong question.
Rather, why don’t we, humanity, answer prayer?
Why do we leave the hungry to starve
when there is food enough to feed them
and the means to grow more?
Why do we leave the poor to die
when there are resources enough
to heal the sick, clothe the naked,
and shelter the homeless?
Why do we leave the oppressed to suffer
for want of liberation, and wars to rage,
when we could stop them if the will for peace
ruled our counsels?
O God who can only answer prayer
with human hands, human courage,
and human caring, stir us to the love
that feeds the hungry and heals the sick,
strikes down oppression, frees the slaves…
You are the will for peace with justice.
You are the love that reaches out to us
from others in our need.
God of our inmost hearts,
who calls us to seek you there,
may we find you and so become
your loving presence in this
May it be so, Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Throwing Love at Fear
Last week, I spent three long days (9.30 – 4.00 with an hour for lunch) being the MC for the Zoom Societies Days. Twelve Unitarian societies, four on each day, had an hour to share what they were about, with a Zoom audience of Unitarians. For me, the absolute best presentation was the very last, on Saturday afternoon, led by Rev Celia Cartwright. She gave a moving talk about throwing love at fear – you have heard some of it in the readings.
Her message was simple: “We have to stop thinking of peace only in terms of a global change or being alone [in nature], we really do have to start being better humans, seeking to understand ourselves and why we are the way we are… Someone, somewhere must say, ‘whatever happened to me, I will change and I will strive to make sure it doesn’t happen to the children in my charge. I will encourage more emotionally aware people who will better understand the actions of others rather than judge and condemn.’”
And she quoted Lao Tse, the legendary writer of the Tao Te Ching, who reminded us that peace has to begin with us. It is the small-scale, the individual scale that matters. If we are unable to find peace in our hearts, which will enable us to treat others with compassion, there will never be peace in the neighbourhood, peace in the cities, peace in the nations, peace in the world. We have to begin with ourselves, where we are.
It is about how, if we can stop reacting to our buttons being pressed, like the young man’s in our story, but throw love at fear, as the old man did, we can begin to change the world, from where we are. Because every time we react to another person with judgement, criticism, condemnation, the wall between us will grow a little higher, the chance of understanding that person grows a little less.
I love the Quaker advice that we need to “Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others.” It continues, “Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.”
“Each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.” Think about that for a moment… I am sure that the advice is not just referring to other Quakers, but to all human beings. Which includes the politician whose words and policies we disagree with, the car driver who cuts in on us on the road, the friend, acquaintance or family member who does not agree with our point of view. Each. One. Of. Us. “is unique, precious, a child of God.”
I wonder how differently we would behave if we truly took this belief on board? If we could cultivate peace in our hearts, so that we responded to others with compassion rather than aggression?
An article by Peter Hawkins in The Inquirer some years ago suggested how we might cultivate some peace in our hearts. He recommended instituting a brief “spiritual practice”, which he defined as “a ritual to fully finish one event and empty myself before I cross the boundary into the next event.” This could be something as simple as taking a couple of deep breaths while focussing on your breathing. We might also try to do this before responding to someone who has annoyed us.
Seeing things from a balanced perspective is another very important aspect of cultivating peace in our hearts. When we are rushing around all day it can be difficult to see things as they really are – if we are sufficiently stressed out, everything that happens can be viewed as yet another source of irritation, from the phone ringing to a simple request for help. This is not only unfair on the rest of the world, it is also unfair on us.
Many of us wind ourselves tighter and tighter in an effort to stay on top of things, but that way lies madness. Nothing or nobody is supposed to be under tension the whole time, and eventually something will snap, which could have been avoided by taking a little time out and seeing things clearly. Once again this is easier said than done, but we can always ask for help – from God or from other people.
Nearly a decade ago, Karen Armstrong launched the Charter for Compassion, of which the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches is a partner organisation. And she wrote a wonderful book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which is all about throwing love at fear. It is probably one of the most important books I have ever read, right up there with Alfred Hall’s Beliefs of a Unitarian. In it, she describes how each of us can become a more compassionate person, following the Golden Rule in our own lives. She argues that if enough of us do this, the world could be transformed.
It’s not easy, this putting compassion at the centre of our lives, choosing to respond to others with love rather than aggression. Armstrong explains that most human beings have traditionally been motivated by what neuroscientists call the Four Fs: “feeding, fighting, fleeing and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.” She wrote, “These drives fanned out into fast-acting systems, alerting [our ancestors] to compete pitilessly for food, to ward off any threat, to dominate their territory, seek a place of safety, and perpetuate their genes.” Today, they still dominate our activities – as she says, “we are still programmed to acquire more and more goods, to respond instantly to any threat, and to fight mercilessly for the survival of number one.”
But modern human beings also have a ‘new brain’, the neocortex, which is “home to the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and on ourselves, and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.” Armstrong explains that the purpose of the book is to “re-train our responses and form mental habits that are kinder, gentler and less fearful of others [so that] we actually modify our behaviour and learn to think and act towards others in accordance with the Golden Rule.”
Some years ago now, I attended a conference run by the Charter for Compassion, which is now an independent Non-Governmental Organisation. There is a Global Compassion Council, consisting of 40 people from 18 countries, which has the aim of building a global movement for compassion from the ground up. It is the responsibility of us all to create a different kind of world. Attending the conference re-inspired me to try to make compassion the centre of my life, both by refusing to inflict pain on others, and by behaving to others as I would wish them to behave towards me. Which is what Celia was talking about last week.
As you all know, the Golden Rule lies at the heart of all religions, whether it is phrased positively, “Treat others as you would like others to treat you” or negatively, “Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated.” Imagine what the world would be like if everyone followed it! If every person genuinely tried to behave to the rest of humankind with a concern and care for how they would feel. As it says in the Charter for Compassion, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creature, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
The conference I went to was addressed by Karen Armstrong herself, and some of the things she said really struck home. She spoke of the urgent need to implement the Golden Rule globally, because conflicts the world over are not just “their” problems; they are “our” problems too. The whole of humankind is inter-connected in a very real way, and we need somehow to make a difference in the world.
She explained that compassion isn’t a feeling – because feelings come and go. Compassion demands a “principled effort, all day, every day” to dethrone the ego from the centre of our worlds, and to see things from another’s perspective. I have led engagement groups at both Northampton and Banbury, and we learned a lot about this when we studied her book. But being compassionate isn’t about book-learning; it’s about putting what we have learned into action and being compassionate in our daily lives; in our interactions with our families, our neighbours, our work colleagues, and with the chance-met stranger. It’s about throwing love at fear.
But we can only do what we can, where we are. It is not our responsibility to create peace in the world (although we can surely try) but only to cultivate peace in our hearts, which is where it must all begin. I should like to finish with some advice from Gandalf to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, which for me encapsulates what we might be able to do, if we choose to do our best to throw love at fear:
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
to the notion that peace
has to start with 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.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley