Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
so wise, so glorious,
is now but dust and words in a holy book;
but the lilies still bloom
and turn their faces to the sun,
the birds still harvest
the gracious bounty of God.
We lay down our vanity
and seek the justice
of the Kingdom on this
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 Lindsay Bates.
To face the world’s darkness —
a chalice of light.
To face the world’s coldness —
a chalice of warmth.
To face the world’s terrors —
a chalice of courage.
To face the world’s turmoil —
a chalice of peace.
May its glow fill our spirits, our hearts, and our lives.
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.
Reading from the Hebrew Bible: Ecclesiastes 1: 1-11
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after 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 from the Hebrew Bible: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Prayer by Richard M. Fewkes
Source of life and death, ground of all being, Spirit of our spirits, whose we are in life and in death — Life itself is the great mystery and death a part of it. In truth we know not the one nor the other. We live and die in the mystery of being from moment to moment till at the end we merge with the universe and marry the All in One, the One in All.
We pray for ourselves this day. May we be more kind, tolerant and charitable toward one another and all with whom we share this globe of love and laughter and tears. Knowing our mortal frame, that we have no given day with certainty, may we be more ready to lend a helping hand, make someone’s life a little easier and happier by what we do or say, bequeath a kinder and fairer earth than we received, and at the last bless the giver and receiver of life for all we have and are in this world and in the world to come.
Reading from the Tao Te Ching, verses 8 and 9 (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.
Time of Stillness and Reflection In One Direction by Cliff Reed
Our lives move in one direction, but we need not fear the destination. There are worse things than journey’s end, if end it be…
Worse things, like living without purpose, living without love, living without ever having seen the gossamer in autumn.
Spirit of Life, we are grateful for the things we need for our existence – our food and drink, our shelter from the storm, the clothes on our backs; the basics that everyone on earth should have.
But, as Jesus said, “life is more than food.” Help us to receive with gratitude the things we need to live; the loving touch, the word of comfort, the vision of earth’s glory, the sense of your presence in all creation.
Above all, help us to know you in ourselves and in those we meet – though sometimes we make it hard.
Our lives move in one direction, there is no going back. May joy be ours on the journey; joy in sharing it with those who share the Way. However long the road, however hard, help us, amid the tears, always to find reasons for laughter, song, and praise as we travel together.
May it be so, Amen
Musical Interlude Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Life is Just a Bowl of All Bran
The search for a spiritual meaning in life is as old as humankind; indeed it is one of the things that marks us out as human rather than animal. And I’m at it, you’re at it, we’re all looking for ways to explore the spiritual dimension of our lives. And so was the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Although the authorship of Ecclesiastes has traditionally been ascribed to King Solomon, the style of its language, its vocabulary, and themes it holds in common with Greek philosophy suggest that it dates to the second century B.C.E. The author is only identified by the Hebrew word “Qohelet”, which appears to be a title, meaning “debater” or “arguer”. It is usually translated as “Preacher”.
And Qohelet was not a happy bunny. The whole argument of the book is summed up in the second verse of the first chapter “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The word “vanity” is a translation of the Hebrew word “hevel”, which means illusion, or emptiness, or transience (literally mist or vapour) rather than a preoccupation with the mirror. In the first few verses of the book, which was our first reading, Qohelet looks around him and sees a world which for him has no meaning. There are great cycles of life – generations come and go, the sun rises and sets and rises again, the wind blows in all directions, and water falls as rain, streams down to the sea, evaporates and the whole process starts again. Qohelet’s point is that there is no point in all this: “there is nothing new under the sun.” He sees only futility and purposelessness in humankind’s existence.
In the first two chapters, Qohelet explains why he feels so despairing. He tried various experiments to find the location of meaning. First he tried to understand wisdom and folly but concluded that “in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” So he tried the opposite approach. He gave his life over to the pursuit of physical pleasure and personal satisfaction. He drank wine, built a magnificent home with palatial grounds, accumulated precious metals, possessions, and a large staff of servants. He got some satisfaction from these things until he realised that they too were transitory in nature “So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.” He concludes that “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.”
But he soon returns to his litany “This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
The third chapter opens with the beautiful meditation on the predictable and regular cycles of life: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” And yet Qohelet is immensely frustrated by humanity’s limited viewpoint on life: “He [God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” He thinks that God treats human beings no differently to animals – there is no proof that their spirits survive after death. So he concludes that “there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot.”
In most of the rest of the book (Chapters 4 to 11), Qohelet looks at various different things to see whether they can give meaning to human life – power, riches, materialism and even stoicism. At one point he considers that following a middle way may lead to spiritual happiness: “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one without letting go of the other; for one who fears God shall succeed with both.”
But even this isn’t good enough: he is fatalistic in the extreme: “Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.”
His last words on the subject are his repeated litany “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.” The last couple of verses of the book were probably written by a later editor, who seems to have been worried that Qohelet’s investigation would lead to nihilism or denial of God. “Lest you be tempted to abandon the faith,” he says, ‘Fear God! Don’t give up the faith, don’t give up the demands of covenant! God still judges human actions. Lack of understanding is no excuse for immorality.’
Like Qohelet, I believe that our spiritual lives and our everyday lives are interwoven, and that if we allow it, our spiritual side can influence the rest. The trick is remembering this during the ordinary activities and experiences of our daily lives, so that we can grow into people whose existence on this planet is a net benefit to humankind and to the world.
I find the Quaker Advices and Queries particularly challenging in this respect. Every time I read them they “speak to my condition”, as Quakers would say, and remind me of what I should be aiming for, here and now.
No 2 advises “Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you.”
The phrase “that of God within you” refers to something which isn’t our body, our mind, or our nervous system. I suppose that the traditional term would be the soul. Others may prefer to call it the heart. For some it is a “still small voice” or a Wise One. Whatever term you use, it is that spiritual side which we all have, and which we should pay attention to; to let it grow in us and guide us.
We come to worship to enrich our daily lives and feed our spiritual selves. I often come away from participating in Unitarian worship with new insights, which are incredibly precious. And if we are awake to them, incidents in our everyday lives can also enrich us spiritually. I have had some wonderful moments of awe and thanksgiving while looking at my sleeping children. Or at a beautiful landscape. Or contemplating the intricacies of a flower. The whole of life can be sacramental, if we let it. I try to remember to give thanks when something good happens, or when I see something beautiful or uplifting.
No 7 advises “Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life,” and asks “Are you open to new Light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?”
Being aware of the spirit of God at work in our daily lives follows on from treasuring our experience of God, and making a conscious effort to take time out to appreciate the good and miraculous things that happen to us or in the world. This is quite different to Qohelet’s pessimistic approach, and much more to my taste. As is the gentle, yet challenging advice of the Tao Te Ching.
Being open to new ideas is also hard. By the time we reach maturity, most of us have fairly fixed ideas about what is right and what is wrong, about what is ethical and what is immoral. So when new ideas or possibilities come along, we need to make the effort to approach them “with discernment” and make a considered judgement.
My own quest for spiritual meaning is best achieved by taking the advice of Sidney Lovett:
“Give the best you have received from the past
To the best that you may come to know in the future.
Accept life daily not as a cup to be drained
But as a chalice to be filled with whatsoever things are honest, pure, lovely and of good report.
Making a living is best undertaken as a part of the more important business of making a life.
Every now and then take a good look at something not made with hands –
A mountain, a star, the turn of a stream.
There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all,
The assurance that you are not alone in the world.”
May it be so for us all.
Closing Words by Kendyl Gibbons
There is, finally, only one thing required of us: that is, to take life whole, the sunlight and shadows together; to live the life that is given us with courage and humour and truth.
We have such a little moment out of the vastness of time for all our wondering and loving. Therefore let there be no half-heartedness; rather, let the soul be ardent in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.
Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley