Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We gather to share
in the spirit of freedom,
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.
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 light our chalice
to celebrate our heritage of light:
the light of science and of art,
the light of story and of poem,
the light of nature and of reason,
the inner light of spirit and of truth.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in our 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 from The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck
In Dante’s inferno, after picking their way through the ghastly realm of “the violent”, the poet and his teacher Virgil finally reach the inferno’s lowest depths. Imprisoned here are the worst of all sinners, those whose crimes exceed even those of the most vicious atrocities, like war crimes and murders. Approaching circles eight and nine, Dante braces himself to encounter the worst sinners of all: liars.
Wait, what? Liars? Shouldn’t they be up in some comparatively mellow white-collar circle at the very top of the inferno? After all, everybody lies. We do it to be nice, for heaven’s sake! Research shows that the majority of people lie multiple times in a typical ten-minute conversation, tossing out fibs like “I’m doing great, thanks” and “I was just going to call you” and “I love your shoes.” Is this really worse than, say, plotting terrorism? …
Lying, like a ubiquitous blood-sucking insect, is insidious partly because it’s so small, so common, so nearly invisible. And lying enables every other type of evil.
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 The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck
We tend to categorise lies as black, white, or gray… Black lies [are] deliberate, premeditated deception…. Once I asked a woman… how she managed to work in law enforcement while also selling the illegal drugs she’d confiscated from dealers…. She answered, “Everything is easy when your believe your own lies.” … When we deliberately leave our own truth, we live in a foggy world where nothing we experience feels trustworthy or reliable, because we ourselves aren’t trustworthy or reliable.
White lies: the social contract leads to social fibs…. Any lie, even an unconscious one, splits us from integrity…. The more typical type of white lie [is] the things we say, knowing they aren’t true, in order to maintain social equilibrium…. Many social situations work a bit better because of our collective agreement to tell such fibs. But be careful: little white lies can easily turn gray.
Gray lies: the fudge factor. While it’s rare for people to commit huge crimes and tell wholesale lies, it’s quite typical to cheat a little and then tell stories that preserve our concept of ourselves as upstanding citizens. This is what I call a gray lie…
Obviously, the moral differences between and among black, white, and gray lies are enormous. The darkest lies are evil; a white lie may be unconscious or kind; a gray lie is a tool almost all of us use to calm the waters of life. You’d think that actions with such disparate origins would have very different effects on our bodies and minds. But this isn’t the case. All lies, whatever their origin, wreak similar kinds of havoc.
Prayer by Joel Miller (adapted)
Live in us, Spirit of Life.
We are alive
Because others have lived
And we all were born within homes we did not build.
Every one of us is alone
And we all will have made our choices before we die.
Yet we are not alone:
Any act one of us will choose must change other lives
Just as every act others choose changes our own lives.
We are hurt
Most often in error
By the very risk of living we all accept in some way.
We know joy
When our souls embrace others
And new souls come to life between us.
Alone and yet bound by unbreakable bonds,
Knowing hurt and joy,
We choose to live:
So that others may live,
And we may bring each other joy
And learn to salve each other’s hurts.
We choose a life
That blesses those who live
When we are dead and forgotten by all but God,
so they may bless the home of love we leave for them.
Live in us, Spirit of Life, that we may live in You.
Reading from The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck
Radical truth-telling rocks a lot of boats, so other people may be reacting badly to your no-lie challenge… People around you are probably unnerved by your new behaviour because it challenges their own cultural compliance. In other words, they’re all telling polite or mandated lies in order to keep peace with others, and the way you’re following integrity may involve the very things they’re repressing in themselves. Cultures rely on consensus – if everyone agrees, there’s no pressure on the system. Any dissent, like the child shouting that the emperor has no clothes, could bring down the whole social order. People who want their culture to stay as it is (remember, everyone is socialised to feel that way) may react to honesty by trying to push you back to your inferno of self-betrayal and self-abandonment. They may push hard….
If just speaking your truth bothers your culture, you can imagine what happens when you start acting with integrity. You might stop laughing at your co-worker’s crude jokes. You may come out as gay or trans. You may start posting things on social media that shock your loved ones. You may turn into some version of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.
Some people will applaud your new behaviours. Others – often the ones closest to you – will not. In fact, if you’re entrenched in political or racial oppression, you may even face violent resistance.
Time of Stillness and Reflection
Quaker Kenneth Barnes wrote, “Integrity is a condition in which a person’s response to a total situation can be trusted.” Let us also consider the words of Abraham Lincoln, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.”
We too can be people of integrity. Let us reflect in the silence about the times when we have lived up to the light that we have, and the times when we have taken the easy path and compromised our integrity.
May we strive to take the road less travelled, the path of integrity, living up to the best that we know, day by day.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
My theme this morning is integrity – what it is, and how possible it is to hold onto in this complicated modern society of ours. I’ve chosen to talk about it today following a visit to Westonbirt Arboretum, last week. At one point on our wander around that beautiful place, we came across an A-board at the side of the path. On one side, it read, “Stop… take a breath… take another… How are you feeling?” and I thought, “How lovely!” and did so. Then on the other side, it read, “How are you really feeling? Take some time to look after yourself, only then will you have the head space to look after others #WestonbirtWellbeing.”
“How are you really feeling?” reminded me of how often I fib when asked, “How are you?” The standard answer, “Fine, thanks. How are you?” Even if I’m feeling rubbish, physically, mentally, or spiritually. Which sent me back to Martha Beck.
I bought her book, The Way of Integrity (from which our readings came) earlier this year, on the strength of a recommendation by one of my favourite writers, Liz Gilbert, and because integrity is a quality I have always valued highly, although putting it into practice in my life is very much a work in progress. It is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to “walk the talk” in their lives, to live truthfully and to be the best person they can be.
At its heart, I believe integrity means being honest, straight and honourable in all our dealings and doings, whether or not anybody knows about it. The thing that matters is that we know we have done or said the right thing for the right reason. A more down to earth example is that of a blacksmith mending a cart, from David Eddings’ book The Pawn of Prophecy:
“Always do the very best job you can,” [Durnik] said on another occasion as he put a last few finishing touches with a file on the metal parts of a wagon tongue he was repairing.
“But that piece goes underneath,” Garion said. “No one will ever see it.”
“But I know it’s there,” Durnik said, still smoothing the metal. “If it isn’t done as well as I can do it, I’ll be ashamed every time I see this wagon go by – and I’ll see the wagon every day.”
So integrity may be defined as doing or saying the right thing for the right reason. But there is more to it than that. I used to be a librarian, so the first thing I do when I want to find out what something means is to turn to a reference book, in this case, The Concise Oxford Dictionary. The dictionary defines integrity as, “wholeness, entirety, soundness, uprightness, honesty”. It means adopting a whole heart and soul approach to our lives, so that we do not detract from our spiritual wholeness by any mean action or thought. This is a lot harder than it sounds – most people (and I certainly include me in this) often fall short of this ideal and compromise our standards of what we know to be right.
I think that integrity means more than this, however. To me, the most important part of that definition is “wholeness”. For example, you can talk about a machine or building having ‘structural integrity’, which means that all the parts of it fit together in the right way and work together. Going back to people, it means striving towards the best we know, acting consistently according to what we believe is right, and not allowing ourselves to deviate from this standard. In this way, our whole selves, body, mind and soul, can have integrity and wholeness. This is very much what Martha Beck writes about in her book.
Acting with integrity also involves thinking for yourself. I would like to repeat Abraham Lincoln’s words, which I used in our Time of Stillness and Reflection: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. / I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.” This implies making a judgement about what you believe to be right and true, and then sticking to it, no matter what anybody else thinks.
But the path of integrity, the path of truth-telling and truth-acting, is not an easy one. As Martha Beck wrote in our first reading, “Research shows that the majority of people lie multiple times in a typical ten-minute conversation, tossing out fibs like “I’m doing great, thanks” and “I was just going to call you” and “I love your shoes.” And the social pressures to tell “little white lies” may be very strong – perhaps we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings – yet even white lies are a departure from integrity. And, as Beck warns, they can easily lead to gray ones, when we are tempted to “cheat a little and then tell stories that preserve our concept of ourselves as upstanding citizens.”
It becomes dangerous when we commit lies of omission – not doing or saying what we know is right, for fear of the consequences. Or lies of commission – staying silent or going along with what someone else says, because we don’t want to “rock the boat.” Personal integrity is not cheap – it means refusing to compromise when you are told to do something that you believe in your heart is wrong. It means following your principles, at whatever personal cost. It means putting what you know to be right above what you would like to happen.
Being part of a silent majority is the easy way out in our society. It means that you keep your opinions to yourself, or grumble to your friends, but don’t speak up or act if you believe that something is wrong. I am uneasily aware that I do much less than I should to right the perceived wrongs of the world. For example, I am a member of Friends of the Earth, yet I do not consistently use green products or make every effort to save energy. In other words, in those areas which I fall short of the standards I perceive to be right, I lack personal integrity.
You might say “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. You don’t do so badly. You do your best.” But do I? Does anyone? If we truly believe that acting with integrity is of paramount importance, it ought to apply to every area of our lives, not just when it’s easy or convenient to do so.
Rev Lindy Latham once sent me a quotation, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, about God’s calling for everyone, when I started my ministry training. For me, it summarises exactly what living with integrity is about:
“You must give up everything in order to gain everything. What must you give up? All that is not truly you; all that you have chosen without choosing and value without evaluating, accepting because of someone else’s extrinsic judgement, rather than your own; all your self-doubt, that keeps you from trusting and loving yourself or other human beings.
What will you gain? Only your own, true self: a self who is at peace, who is able to truly love and be loved, and who understands who and what [s]he is meant for. But you can be yourself only if you are no-one else. You must give up ‘their’ approval, whoever ‘they’ are, and look to yourself for evaluation of success and failure, in terms of your own level of aspiration, that is consistent with your values.
Nothing is simpler and nothing is more difficult.”
As the Quakers tell us in Advices and Queries, “If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions.”
Integrity is not something we can achieve all at once, it is the work of a lifetime. Yet every time we choose the way of integrity, the way of truth-telling, the more it will become habitual and the braver we will become. It is up to us to make the attempt to be authentic, to live with integrity, to be true to ourselves and what we value in our hearts, rather than trying to persuade ourselves into inappropriate feelings, just because they are what the majority in society believe. It is not a particularly comfortable way to live – it is much easier to run with the crowd and to follow others – to “fit in”.
But if we can learn to follow the “still, small voice” of our consciences, there is a better chance that we will do some good in the world. We are all inter-connected – to other human beings and to this beautiful planet we live on. As Joel Miller wrote in the prayer I shared earlier, “Any act one of us will choose must change other lives, just as every act others choose changes our own lives.”
May we choose well. Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we learn to follow
The still small voice of our consciences,
May we be brave enough
To speak and act with integrity.
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