Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words The Beloved Community from Sacred Earth by Cliff Reed
We gather to uphold the liberty of the human spirit
and to reject all that would enslave it.
We gather to be the beloved community where no one
is a slave, and everyone is a sister or a brother.
We gather to uphold the truth that makes us free
and the Divine Unity that makes us one.
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 each of us bring our light
to join the ‘carnival of lamps’.
We come as individual souls to gather in community,
finding our purpose in connection, our freedom in the self’s
surrender, and our oneness in diversity.
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 world in which Covid again seems to be rampant,
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.
Readings. one by ‘Abdu’l-Baha; one by the Bahá’í World Faith
‘Abdu’l-Baha, the author of my first short reading, was the son of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í religion. He became the leader of the Bahá’í on his father’s death in 1892 and was responsible for spreading Bahá’í teachings around the world.
What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless. The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort.
O ye beloved of the Lord! In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no wise permitted. Every aggressor deprives himself of God’s grace. It is incumbent upon everyone to show the utmost love, rectitude of conduct, straightforwardness and sincere kindliness unto all the peoples and kindreds of the world, be they friends or strangers. So intense must be the spirit of love and loving-kindness, that the stranger may find himself a friend, the enemy a true brother, no difference whatsoever existing between them.
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 by ‘Abdu’l-Baha
Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the interrelationships, the rules that govern us all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever … Even as the human body in this world, which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together. Become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that cooperation, mutual aid, and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.
Prayer from Carnival of Lamps by Cliff Reed
God of our hearts,
whose will is for oneness and unity
among your foolish and disputatious children,
we confess our weakness for the things that divide us.
We would renounce the evils of hatred, injustice, and war,
the bloody idolatries of racism, nationalism, and bad religion,
the prejudices of gender, caste, and sexuality:
help us to do so.
So may we build communities, countries,
and continents where to be human means more
than the false loyalties that corrupt the soul
and which lay waste the earth.
We are One, as you are One, in our infinite variety.
Help us to know it and to live accordingly.
Reading from Beliefs of a Unitarian by Alfred Hall
Unitarianism rightly understood is the Religion of the Larger Affirmation. For years the writer has felt that he has been kept outside other religious communions, not because he has believed too little, but because he has believed too much. Instead of believing that God spoke to only a few people in days gone past, Unitarians hold that he speaks to all his children, even to the worst. Instead of asserting that only a few will be saved, they teach that no one will be finally lost to God. Instead of perceiving God incarnated in one man only, they reverence the divinity in all. Instead of looking up to Jesus as the only Saviour of the world, they regard him and all good people as saviours. Instead of accepting a few miracles recorded in the Bible, they reverence the great ‘miracle’ of Creation and of all life. Instead of finding God’s presence mysteriously introduced into a sacrament, they find him revealed as a real presence throughout the universe. Instead of saying that the Bible alone contains the word of God, they hold that every true and uplifting word is inspired by him. … Unitarianism is not a system of creeds or beliefs. It is more than anything else an attitude of mind. It is a fresh way of looking at life and religion.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Reflection (words by W. Waldemar W. Argow, adapted)
Ancient as the home is the temple; ancient as the workbench is the altar.
Ancient as the sword is the sacrificial fire; ancient as the soldier is the priest.
Older than written language is spoken prayer; older than painting is the thought of a nameless one.
Religion is the first and last – the universal language of the human heart.
Differing words describe the outward appearance of things; diverse symbols represent that which stands beyond and within.
Yet every person’s hunger is the same, and heart communicates with heart.
Ever the vision leads on with many gods or with one, with a holy land washed by ocean waters, or a holy land within the heart.
In temperament we differ, yet we are dedicated to one august destiny; creeds divide us, but we share a common quest.
Let us ponder these things in the silence… [silence]
Because we are human, we shall ever build our altars; because each has a holy yearning, we offer everywhere our prayers and anthems.
For an eternal verity abides beneath diversities; we are children of one great love, united in our one eternal family
Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Address World Religion Day
Today, the third Sunday in January, is World Religion Day. According to Wikipedia, it is “an observance that was initiated in 1950 by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States… [It] has come to be celebrated internationally by followers of the Bahá’í faith…. Its origins lie in the Bahá’í principles of the oneness of religion and of progressive revelation, which describe religion as evolving continuously throughout the history of humanity. The purpose of World Religion Day is to highlight the ideas that the spiritual principles underlying the world’s religions are harmonious, and that religions play a significant role in unifying humanity.”
I have been fascinated by the Bahá’í faith for quite a while. The first Bahá’í I ever knew was my former running coach, Ken. Now 85, he became a Bahá’í more than 35 years ago, and it revolutionised his life. He gave up smoking, gave up drinking, and started running. When I first met him, he worked for the United Nations Association, whose purpose is to “campaign and educate to promote the principles of the UN Charter and to support the work of the UN and its agencies.” It is arguably the perfect job for a Bahá’í, with its internationalist and humanitarian ideals.
It is the Bahá’í belief in universal friendship and in humankind moving towards global harmony that really interests me. On the face of it, it seems to be hopelessly idealistic, but if enough people believe in it, and are prepared to spend their lives working towards that ideal, then who knows what may be possible. As Abdu’l-Bahá said in my second reading, “cooperation, mutual aid, and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.”
The central theme of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings is that humanity is a single race which should now be united in one global society. He saw world unity as the final stage in the evolution of the human race. We started off in small family groups, then tribes, then city states, and then nations. The next step is to become a single human family – citizens of Earth. The Bahá’ís promote this with all their hearts; listen to this official statement from August 2001: “We are a single people, inhabiting the planet Earth, one human family bound together in a common destiny, a single entity created from one same substance, obligated to ‘be even as one soul’.”
This emphasis on the unity of humankind is also very evident on the International website of the Bahá’ís. Right on the front page is the following statement: “Bahá’u’lláh’s essential message is of unity. He taught the oneness of God, the oneness of the human family, and the oneness of religion.”
A major contribution towards this amity would be for people to stop fighting each other on religious grounds. If you look around the world today, most of the wars going on have religious belief at their hearts. The Bahá’ís believe that this is a huge mistake. They even say that all religions are one. But by saying that, they do not mean that that the various religious creeds and organisations are the same. Instead, they believe that there is only one religion, and that all the Messengers of God have progressively revealed its nature. So Bahá’ís revere the teachings of the prophets of other religions, such as Abraham, Moses, Muhammad and Jesus. They believe that together, the world’s great religions are expressions of a single unfolding Divine plan, “the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.”
On their International website, the Bahá’ís speak of a new vision for humanity’s future. Let me share a bit from it:
“One of the most distinctive aspects of the worldwide Bahá’í community is the hopeful and yet pragmatic way in which its members face the future. Far from fearing it, Bahá’ís the world over are dedicated to creating a new and peaceful world civilisation based on principles of justice, prosperity, and continuing advancement. This vision reflects not only an appreciation for humanity’s historic longing for peace and collective well-being, but also our understanding that humanity as a whole has now reached a new level of maturity. That it is possible to create societies founded upon cooperation, trust, and genuine concern for others is at the heart of Bahá’í belief and action. Indeed, Bahá’ís believe that humanity is on the verge of an evolutionary leap that will carry humankind to a future where ‘world peace is not only possible but inevitable.’”
This is not just pretty words, idealistic yet impractical. The whole Bahá’í community believes in faith in action; in applying the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the gradual process of building a new civilisation. Their approach is both spiritual and practical; again I quote from the International website, “While pragmatic approaches to problem solving play a key role in development initiatives, tapping the spiritual roots of human motivation provides the essential impulse that ensures genuine social advancement. Individual and community development, Bahá’ís believe, require both the ‘light’ of spiritual awareness and the ‘lamp’ of material resources. Material advancement is not viewed as an end in itself, but rather as a vehicle for moral, spiritual and social progress. Meaningful social change does not simply result from the acquisition of technical skills, but more importantly from the development of qualities and attitudes that foster cooperative and creative patterns of human interaction.”
The inclusive, tolerant approach of Bahá’ís is very attractive to me as a Unitarian. If we are, truly, Alfred Hall’s “Religion of the Larger Affirmation”, we surely have much in common with them. But it is not quite that simple. As American Unitarian minister Jack Mendelsohn points out in his book, Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age, “It is very attractive for us to think of ourselves as a bridge for the world’s religions. After all, we have no exclusionary myths to defend, no creeds to enforce. We are open to all that is ethically best in the world’s religions, and through freedom, reason and tolerance, we feel prepared to touch each of the great faiths sympathetically and draw together their moral teachings. It is a grave mistake, however, to view this as a superficial task.”
What he is saying is that in our protected, relatively free, benevolent societies, it is very easy to talk fine and large about uniting peoples and religions. But we need to truly understand the societies in which the rest of the peoples of the world live, which we cannot do unless we are prepared to “walk a mile in their shoes”.
The Bahá’í position is an interesting mixture of ‘inclusive’ and ‘pluralist’. ‘Inclusive’ is a word much bandied around by Unitarians. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming. However, in the Great Course Cultural Literacy for Religion, Mark Bergson of Hamline University, writes, “Inclusivism states that while one’s own tradition is the only one that contains complete truth, salvation is still available to those who are outside the tradition. The grace of God is extended to all human beings, and the saving work of grace can be accomplished even if the individual is not a member of their faith.”
If we take that definition of inclusivism to be correct, Unitarians are not inclusive; we are pluralist. Bergson says of pluralism, “If we truly want to respect and appreciate other traditions, we must maintain their distinctiveness and not try to blur the differences. [This] approach begins with the notion that ultimate reality – God, the divine – is beyond our ability to completely grasp. We must acknowledge that, as limited human beings, we can never understand divine reality in its entirety… no religion possesses truth in its entirety. Each tradition possesses its powerful truths, but also its blind spots. The more religious traditions we welcome into the conversation, the more illumination there will be.”
If this is what we aspire to, it is important for Unitarians to be involved in inter-faith activities in their communities. We should welcome the opportunity to engage with other faith traditions and learn more about how they perceive religious truths, both to enrich our own knowledge, and to move into a place of understanding and compassion (in its broadest sense) about people who believe differently to us.
Spiritual seeking is perhaps the most universal hunger in the world. Humankind’s deepest spiritual need is for a new understanding of what it means to be human in our complex world today. This understanding must be without illusion, so that we can respect our limitations within the greater universe and see clearly how we can live sane, compassionate and productive lives within that universe. We need to accept that we are part of the whole world order; as Jack Mendelsohn writes, we are “creatures who emerged from primordial earth, subject to destructive impulses that can be elaborated by the intricate cunning of a remarkable brain; but also creatures with transforming capabilities of thought, imagination, self-awareness, and caring cooperation.”
We also need to understand that all human beings are part of the same moral order, which knows no boundaries of sect or creed, and learn to work together to make the world a saner, happier, more peaceful place in which to live and bring up our children. It could take the rest of our lives, but it is so worth doing.
So let us celebrate World Religion Day, and work towards making Bahá’u’lláh’s words: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” a reality rather than an ideal.
May it be so.
Closing Words by Jean M. Rickard
We have a calling in this world:
We are called to honour diversity,
To respect differences with dignity,
And to challenge those who would forbid it.
We are people of a wide path.
Let us be wide in affection
And go our way in peace. Amen.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley