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 gather to share
our faith in the spirit of freedom,
our doubts in the spirit of honesty.
We gather to focus
Our love in prayer,
to send it to those
who suffer and grieve –
in our own community
and in the wider world.
We gather to strengthen
the good that is in us,
that goodness may be
stronger on the earth.
We gather to worship.
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 Proof of Faith from The Truth in 60 seconds by Art Lester
A long and devastating drought had afflicted the village, and people had become desperate. Food became scarce and what little there was, was very expensive. The elders gathered and discussed the problem. After a lot of complaining with very little in the way of ideas, a man stood up and said that he had heard of a holy man who was able to make it rain.
“We’re desperate enough to try anything,” the headman said. “Summon the holy man and let’s give it a try.”
Messages were sent, and at the next meeting of the council, the man reported that the holy man was willing to come, but had one requirement. “He said that God will only comply with our request if someone from this village has faith in Him. He cannot do it alone.”
“Tell him we are all people of faith here. Let him come,” the headman said.
The following day a small man with a large bundle on his back appeared in the village. He asked that everyone assemble in the square to beseech God for rain.
The crowds began to gather, and by late afternoon everyone was there. Farmers had left their dry fields, wives had left their bare kitchens and even the children had stopped playing their games. The holy man stood in the centre of the square and looked carefully at everyone. He walked through the masses, apparently looking for something among them. After scrutinising everyone, he stood on a box and addressed the crowd.
“I have come under the belief that this village was populated by people of faith. I see that it is not true, however, and so it is pointless to ask God for rain.” He turned and walked away from the stunned assembly, still carrying his bulky burden.
The headman hurried after him and caught his arm. “Master, he said, “Why have you decided we are not people of faith?”
The holy man kept walking. Over his shoulder he said, “No one brought an umbrella.”
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 Questions, questions, questions… by Lewis Rees, from With Heart and Mind 2
It can often be easy for us to believe that the writings we consider sacred, whether it be the Bible or any other text, are something akin to a ‘Teacher’s Edition’ of a school textbook – complete with all the answers.
Likewise, it is often easy to assume that the religious leaders, whose example we attempt to follow, are people who have all the answers to life, the universe; and have everything ready-made for us.
Good spiritual role models are, however, often helpful not because of the answers they give, but because of the questions they ask…
Our faith, and indeed life itself, is full of many questions; and at some points in our existence we all struggle with some of the bigger questions in life. As strange as it may sound, these don’t necessarily have to be bad things to experience.
For our faith to be authentic it needs to ask us the big questions; it is then up to us to question our faith in order to seek the answers in our daily lives.
Prayer by Lewis Rees, from With Heart and Mind 2
Doer of things seen and unseen,
remind us today that there will always
be more questions than answers.
Give us the will to grow and develop
through both questions and answers.
Help us to be quiet within ourselves,
to silence the din of the outside world
so that we may dwell safely in our rest.
Let both our doing and our resting be
the signs of our faith to an unseeing world.
Reading Faith from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC by Frederick Buechner
Faith is better understood as a verb rather than as a noun, as a process rather than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.
I have faith that my friend is my friend. It is possible that all his motives are ulterior. It is possible that what he is secretly drawn to is not me but my wife or my money. But there’s something about the way I feel when he’s around, about the way he looks me in the eye, about the way we can talk to each other without pretence and be silent together without embarrassment, that makes me willing to put my life in his hands as I do each time I call him friend.
I can’t prove the friendship of my friend. When I experience it, I don’t need to prove it. When I don’t experience it, no proof will do. If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, the test itself would queer the friendship I was testing. So it is with the Godness of God…
Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved. … I cannot prove that life is better than death or love is better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful. … Faith can’t prove a damned thing. Or a blessed thing either.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Bruce Southworth)
O Source of life and love,
Torn by desires to sit back
and to enjoy the beauty of the world—
to savour the blue skies and gentle days—
and by desires to recast the world and to fight its evils—
to save the world…
Torn by all those things that hurt and confuse
and make no sense amid beauty—
yet supported by all those things that heal and hold us—
smiles, kisses, mountain vistas
and gentle waves, warm words…
We live in mystery.
We live torn apart at times —
so much glory —
so much pain.
We live in faith —
faith in ourselves and each other —
faith that we can create bonds of the spirit
that proclaim we are not alone.
We have much health within us —
we can live through the heartache to new life.
So, for the grace of the world
and all the tumble, too,
this day we give thanks. Amen.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address What is faith?
This morning, I want to muse about the answer to two questions: What is faith? And What does it mean to be people of faith?
Faith is a strange word, with many different meanings. The classic Biblical definition is in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” This seems to imply that it is a quality which, once you have it, you don’t lose it. I have friends who have this kind of unshakeable faith, and a small part of me envies them their certainty. They *know* that God exists, and that they have been saved by Jesus.
But if this certainty translates into what one might call blind faith (“There’s a reason for everything” or “It’s all part of God’s plan”), then I baulk. I’m with Brené Brown, who defines faith as “a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” This definition encompasses the classic “conviction of things not seen” but rejects the “assurance of things hoped for”.
Because I believe that real life just isn’t like that. I found the words of Richard Rohr, my favourite liberal Catholic theologian, on this subject fascinating. He says, “My scientist friends have come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of faith! How strange that the very word ‘faith’ has come to mean its exact opposite.”
This view is shared by Frederick Buechner, as we saw in our final reading: “Faith is better understood as a verb rather than as a noun, as a process rather than a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. [And Paul] Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
Perhaps this understanding is more palatable to the Unitarian way of thinking.
For example, we can never prove that God exists (or doesn’t exist), but we can have faith that He (or She or They) does. And live our lives as though we believed it. Which includes a healthy dollop of doubt – not taking anything for granted, not accepting anything without questioning it first.
Unitarians have always been in the habit of questioning beliefs and cherishing doubts. I would guess that many of us came to Unitarianism exactly by that path – by starting to question some of the beliefs that we grew up with. In my case, I realised that I could not accept the divinity of Jesus as the unique Son of God, and also struggled with the idea that his death on the cross somehow put me back into right relationship with God. When my father gave me Alfred Hall’s Beliefs of a Unitarian to read, it was such a relief to learn about a denomination that “holds faith and doubt in reverent balance”, to quote UUA minister Jan Carlsson-Bull.
What does holding faith and doubt in reverent balance mean? I believe that it is a very delicate balancing act, which certainly needs to be undertaken with reverence. It means actively searching for and working out what gives your life meaning, putting your whole heart and mind and soul into it, and yet at the same time totally respecting the right of every other member of your Unitarian community to disagree with you. It can be a very tough call sometimes.
Because it is only human nature to feel passionately about religious and spiritual matters, about things that touch us deeply. And when we feel passionately about something, it can be difficult to remember that our fellow Unitarians are absolutely free to disagree with us. And that it is our job as Unitarians, as folk who are aiming to “live Unitarianly”, to use Michael Dadson’s wonderful phrase, to not only tolerate their different views but also to wholeheartedly accept and cherish them. And to not feel aggrieved because Reverend X or Mrs. Y has written something on Facebook or in The Inquirer with which we disagree.
Holding faith and doubt in reverent balance also means being open to new ideas, from wherever they come. Unitarianism at its best is a wonderfully open way of approaching life and religion, based on an appeal to reason, conscience and our own life experiences. And it is an ongoing process – you don’t just experience a one-off conversion, and then rest on those fixed beliefs for the rest of your life; every Unitarian has a duty to approach all new ideas and concepts reverently and critically and take from them what speaks to our own reason and conscience, and what makes sense in the context of our own life experience, in order to live out our lives in the best and truest way we can.
The interplay of individuals’ beliefs is one of the great strengths of a Unitarian congregation – the bouncing of ideas off each other means that we can never be complacent about what we believe. It is stimulating to belong to such a congregation but can also be very hard work. Nothing is set in stone, and each individual is responsible for keeping his or her or their mind open to new ideas, so that our faith can grow. As Robert T. Weston wrote: “Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. … Doubt is the testing of belief.”
And yet, in spite of our doubts, we describe ourselves as “people of faith.” Ours is a faith which does not demand certainties, but which requires each one of us to grant our fellow Unitarians (and other people) the freedom to believe what we will (so long as it is consonant with our reason and conscience and doesn’t harm anyone else) whilst simultaneously being a member of a religious / spiritual community, whose members share the belief that we are all on a spiritual journey together. We come together in community, providing a safe and sacred space in which all can explore what gives our lives depth and meaning. For some this may involve a belief in a divine presence, which they may call God; for some it may be more of an internal process; or a faith in humankind; or a reverence for the natural world.
But the important thing is that we are united in our diversity; united in the mutual provision of this safe and sacred space, in which we may explore our diverse beliefs and faiths, knowing that our doubts and questions and beliefs will be held and respected, and that we will be welcomed just the way we are.
And that is precious. So let us cherish our doubts and support each other on our spiritual and religious journeys, as we explore what gives our lives meaning. This is true faith, for me – having the courage to share our deepest beliefs with each other, with no certainty that others will agree. But in the sure faith that our beliefs will be respected and accepted.
To be a person of faith is also, in Brené Brown’s words, about having “the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” One of my favourite quotes about this aspect of faith is by Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch paraphrase of the New Testament, who wrote: “Faith is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences.”
And he put this into practice: in 1942, with his wife, and another couple, he created an inter-racial, Christian farming community in the segregated state of Georgia. They called it Koinonia, which means communion or fellowship in Greek, and was applied to the earliest Christian communities. The partners bound themselves to the equality of all persons, rejection of violence, ecological stewardship and common ownership of possessions. In the sixties, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed the community became a target for violence by white citizens who supported the status quo. But they carried on – “life in scorn of the consequences.”
So being a person of faith is also about having the courage to do what you believe in, and about standing up for those beliefs, whether or not it will benefit you personally. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” His faith, his dream in a more equal world for people of all races, ultimately cost him his life. But I am sure that if it were possible to ask him whether he would have done and said what he did, knowing that he might die for it, his answer would have been a resounding yes. He is a splendid example of a faithful life, lived “in scorn of the consequences.”
Most of us will not be required to put our lives on the line for our faith. But in smaller ways, every time we do something new, whether it is a new meeting of the Discussion Group, a new relationship with someone we do not know, or taking part in a protest march, we take a risk, we show faith. Because we have no guarantee that it is going to work out well.
May we live in faith, today and always.
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
to faith in the unknown, the ineffable,
that is beyond our rational mind’s
ability to understand,
so that we may live faithful lives
“in scorn of the consequences”.
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