Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed, based on words used by Rev John Fairfax at the opening of Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House, 26th April 1700
Divinity is present everywhere.
Heaven and earth are filled with God.
But in some places at certain times
We feel a specialty of presence.
May this be such a place and such a time.
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
The Divine within us reaches out
to the Divine around us,
and the fire that burns concealed
in the ark of the heart burns too
as the broader universal flame
which makes our spirits one.
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,
in this not quite yet post-Covid world,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way.
Reading Where is your God? by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth
My God is in the swirling majesty of galaxies, and in
the fundamental components of whatever matter is,
both light and dark.
My God is in the breath of every life that breathes
the atmosphere of Earth, and of every kindred
planet there must be.
My God is in the wisdom of the ages, and in every
truth discovered by the human mind and heart.
My God is in the voices of the prophets,
the witness of the scriptures, the sacrifice of martyrs.
My God is in the human spirit, moving it to
kindness, steeling it with courage, healing it
with love – as Jesus showed us.
My God is in the thirst for justice that is denied
to others, and in the impulse to mercy when it
is denied to us.
My God is in the beauty of Creation and in its terrors too,
calling us to reverence and compassion.
My God is in the communities we make,
helping us transcend our fearful selves
to know the Oneness that is 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 Partakers of the Divine by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps
We are products and partakers of the Divine,
Whether we like it or not,
As are all things that live, all things that exist.
With our minds we explore the mystery that is Divine,
Seeking light in darkness,
And darkness in light.
As our souls seek communion with each other
In love and fellowship,
So they seek and find the Divine.
We cannot see God face to face,
Yet we encounter God all the time and everywhere,
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear,
Senses to connect with what is around us –
And spirits to reflect.
The Divine is the Great Mystery
We can never really know, and yet
The Divine is no mystery at all.
Prayer Prayer Poem to the Names of God by Richard M Fewkes
How shall we address thee who art the One of a thousand names yet ever nameless?
O Vishnu, Maya, Kali, Ishtar, Athene, Isis…Great Mother of Creation, womb of the universe, The Feminine Divine… Blessed art thou who hast given life to all
And receiveth us at the end, forever thine…
Jupiter, Zeus, Apollo, Dionysius… Lord of creation, the masculine divine,
In quest of the golden apples of Hesperides, God of ecstasy and wine, and reason sublime…
Amon, Horus, Aten, Ra…
God of beginnings and endings, the soul, the ka,
Soaring like a bird
To the life-giving, light-giving power of the sun,
All life is one…
Shiva-Shakti, Yin and Yang…
The dance of life and death from hand to hand,
In perfect balance the movement of forces,
As the earth turns ‘neath the stars in their courses…
Rama, Krishna, Varuna, Bramah…
God of the Upanishads and Rig Veda, mystic priests and the Bhagavadgita,
Om Shanti, the lotus, a holy vow, Creating our own karma and reincarnation, here and now, And the ever present realization, that art Thou…
Buddha, Nirvana, the Enlightened One…
Liberation sought and won, in daily life begun,
Under a tree, in the sun,
To a state of being indescribable, comparable to none…
Allah-Akbar and Ahura Mazda…
There is no god but God, the All, Ah! the One,
The Righteous One, purity of Fire.
Goodness and Truth to inspire,
Fight fire with fire, quench the evil desire,
Let the call ring forth from minaret to spire…
El Shaddai, Adonai, Yahweh, Elohim
The God of Peace be with you, Shalom Haveyreem
Ten Commandments and the Law for Gentile and Jew
The birth of conscience and a Day of Atonement
To confess, to forgive, to begin anew…
Abba, Spiritus, Logos-Son… God in Three Persons, God in One, God in all persons: prophets, teachers, daughters and sons,
The Kingdom of Heaven is within us, O let thy Kingdom come…
How shall we address thee who art Alpha and Omega, The stars in their courses from Deneb and Altair to Sirius and Vega?
Thou of a thousand names and yet ever nameless,
Let us confess the mystery of thy holiness,
Let us proclaim the wonder of One without a name,
Let the silence praise thee,
And the nine billion stars of thy namelessness.
May it be so. Blessed Be.
Reading from How to be a bad Christian by Dave Tomlinson
Life is packed with moments of God-ness, but mostly we walk by on the other side, anxious about a meeting, hurrying to catch a bus, wondering what to do tonight, dreaming about the weekend, falling asleep on the inside. … Faith is a way of interpreting the world, of making sense of the God-moments as well as finding hope in the dark times. …
I believe in God as this incredibly benevolent force in the universe, a God who is intimate, intense, and immanent – ingrained in the very substance of the world. God, for me, is a radical presence in everything, which is best understood not as an entity over there – an object among other objects – but as the mystery at the core of ordinary reality.
God is everywhere and in everything; or, to be more precise, everything is in God. So we don’t need to ask God to draw near, or to be present in our lives. God is already there! … God is radically present with us, closer even than our breath. God’s spirit is the breath of creation, the breath in our lungs, the Spirit of the cosmos, the life force within every human being, and every creature on earth.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Aspects of God by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps
God of our inmost selves
and of the stars from which we came,
who is both the core of our being
and the transcendent mystery,
of whom there is no need of proof,
because we are here to ask the question,
to whom all true religion points, but whom no religion
can ever truly comprehend,
who is the truth behind the sacred myths,
but whose whole truth no myth can capture, however sacred
who inspires the words of prophets and poets,
but who cannot be defined in words alone,
whose presence we sense where there is love,
but which we lose where there is hatred,
God of our hearts,
we turn to you in the communion of silence…
God of the silence –
in ourselves, in this sacred place,
and in the cosmic void,
bless us in our quietness and our tumult,
in our striving and in our rest.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Healing our Image of the Divine
As a child, the primary school I attended observed the cycle of the Christian year, and held an assembly every morning, so I learned all the lovely C of E hymns. I also had a very nice Children’s Bible, so I knew many of the stories from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Did I have a relationship with God in those days? Well, I took his existence for granted, and accepted the stories I read fairly uncritically. It wasn’t something I thought about much.
After running into issues with Christianity in my teens, and having discovered Unitarianism, the God I believed in was loving, and omnipotent, but strangely powerless. I believe with Mother Teresa that we are God’s hands in the world, and that He/She can only work through us. Over time, I have come to trust that God exists, and believe with the Quakers that there is “that of God in everyone”, and that each of us is “unique, precious, a child of God.” And that therefore it is up to us to treat every human being with compassion and respect.
A few years ago, I had a close encounter with God, while walking the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. I had walked labyrinths before, mindfully, and had found it an uplifting experience. The experience I had at Chartres was of another quality altogether.
When I first entered the labyrinth, I realised that the people in front of me were moving really slowly, stopping every few paces to pray or meditate. My initial urge was to overtake them and carry on, but my guardian angel nudged me at the right moment, and I decided to go with the flow and see what happened.
Slowly, my mindset changed, and I began to pray; firstly the Metabhavna, the prayer of loving kindness, but then, to my surprise, the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in whole or in part, throwing the prayer up to the heavens, in the sure knowledge that *Someone* was listening. It was the closest I had ever come to a direct experience of God, and I don’t think I will ever forget it. It took me 90 minutes to get to the centre of the labyrinth, and I just wasn’t conscious of the passage of time.
Since then, through an increased awareness of the sacred in my everyday life, I have come to recognise that God, the Divine, is everywhere: in the world, and in me. And that is good.
One of my favourite hymns in the Unitarian hymnbook Sing Your Faith is Name Unnamed, which is a beautiful song written by Brian Wren, and which tells of the many and varied attributes of the Divine. In it, the Divine is referred to as ‘Maker of Rainbows’, ‘Spinner of Chaos’, Weaver of Stories’, ‘Nudging Discomforter’, ‘Straight-Talking Lover’, ‘Midwife of Changes’, Woman of Wisdom’, ‘Daredevil Gambler’, and ‘Life-giving Loser’.
And of course Name Unnamed.
You may guess from this that Unitarians today do not impose a particular belief about God, about the nature of the Divine, on others. It is up to each one of us to experience the Divine in our own way, spirit to spirit, heart to heart, soul to soul. This respect for the individual’s right to work out their own beliefs has resulted in a wide spectrum of perceptions of God, the Divine, within our denomination. In any Unitarian congregation, there will be a wide diversity of beliefs about who God is. Some are what I would call “Liberal Christians”, who would define God as a person, perhaps a loving parent; others would say that they “experience God as a unifying and life-giving spirit; the source of all being, the universal process that comes to consciousness as love in its creatures,” as Cliff Reed describes it.
Yet others, whom we might describe as religious humanists, would use the word “God” to signify the best and noblest aspects of human beings themselves, to which they aspire. And then there are some whose chief perception of God is that of the “still, small voice” within us, rather than any external power. It should also be realised that these beliefs are not mutually exclusive. Most of us would say that belief in a combination of them is where we would find God.
Over the years, Unitarians have recognised that if we are made in God’s image, as it says in the Book of Genesis, then God must be beyond gender. We have sought other ways to describe the Divine. Unitarian Universalist minister F. Forrest Church wrote, “God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life Force, Spirit of Life, Ground of Being, these too are names for the unnameable which I am now content to call my God.”
Let us explore some different concepts of what deity is. Monotheists believe that there is only one God; polytheists believe in more than one – in other words, divine power is spread around among several deities. Pantheists believe that all the created world together equals deity. Related to this, but not the same, is panentheism, the belief that every part of creation – both animate and inanimate – is filled with the Divine or has a soul. Deity is equally present everywhere, but is usually not divided into parts as with pantheism. As Unitarians, we can choose which type of deity we believe in, or we can choose not to believe in a deity at all.
Unitarians accept that the concept of the Divine is a very complex one, and there are no right answers (or right beliefs!). The deity you believe in may be transcendent (that is, superior to everything else in the universe, and usually separate, or removed from it). He (and it usually is he!) is “up there” or “out there”, apart from humankind. Or the deity you believe in may be immanent, in other words, wholly present within creation because it penetrates creation in some fashion. The immanent divine is often perceived as feminine. As Marija Gimbutas writes, “The Goddess in all her manifestations was a symbol of the unity of all life in Nature. Her power was in water and stone, in tomb and cave, in animals and birds, snakes and fish, hills, trees, and flowers. Hence the holistic … perception of the sacredness and mystery of all there is on Earth.”
So there are many ways of encountering the Divine in the world. Why have I called this address Healing our image of the Divine? It’s because I think God has got a bad press in recent years. The behaviour of certain extremists of various persuasions, who tell us they are acting “in the name of God” has led to many ordinary, decent folk rejecting the religious beliefs of their youth, and blaming all sorts of evil happenings, from terrorism to child mutilation, on religion.
And I can see their point. But, and it’s an important but, I think it is very unfair to base our reactions to religion, to God, to the Divine, on the misbehaviour, however bad, of a very small minority of people. The vast majority of people are doing the best that they can, with the tools that they have, at any given time. If we can bring ourselves to believe this, then judgement flies out of the window, and we *have* to have compassion for our fellow-travellers in the world.
I particularly warm to Dave Tomlinson’s understanding of God, which I shared in our final reading, “God as this incredibly benevolent force in the universe, a God who is intimate, intense, and immanent – ingrained in the very substance of the world. God, for me, is a radical presence in everything, which is best understood not as an entity over there – an object among other objects – but as the mystery at the core of ordinary reality.
God is everywhere and in everything; or, to be more precise, everything is in God. So we don’t need to ask God to draw near, or to be present in our lives. God is already there! … God is radically present with us, closer even than our breath. God’s spirit is the breath of creation, the breath in our lungs, the Spirit of the cosmos, the life force within every human being, and every creature on earth.”
In recent years, I have come to believe in the loving God whom Dave Tomlinson describes. I no longer believe in God “up there”, remote and transcendent, omnipotent and judgemental. I believe in a loving, immanent God, who loves me just the way I am, without wanting to fix or change me. I believe that every person has the potential for good, and that there is “that of God in everyone.” Which has changed the way I interact with the world.
May your God, whomever He or She is, go with you.
Benediction by Robert Mabry Doss
For all who see God, may God go with you;
For all who embrace life, may life return your affection;
For all who seek a right path, may a way be found;
and the courage to take it, step by step. Amen
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley