Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening 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.
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 Albert Schweitzer.
At times, our own light goes out,
and is rekindled by a spark from another person.
Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude
of those who have lighted the flame within us.
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 has not yet gone away,
And the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
And help 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,
And once again, we pray for the people of Ukraine, using some words by Wade Miller-Knight
Spirit of love within us, and in all people, We pray for the people of Ukraine,
Especially for those fleeing their homes, and those made homeless.
For those defending their homeland against unprovoked aggression,
including those who engage in active non-violent resistance.
And for all who are able to give humanitarian help.
We thank you, Spirit, for the light of Your love
that shines most brightly in Poland,
whose government has pledged to allow unlimited numbers of Ukrainian refugees in, and provide them with food, medical care, and temporary accommodation,
this light that shines also in Ukraine’s other neighbours willingly receiving refugees: Slovakia, Moldova, Hungary, and Romania; and also in Germany.
God bless them all.
We pray with compassion also for the people of Russia, Donetsk and Luhansk,
and for the good of all people who pray under onion domes
and try to love the one God of us all.
We pray that any gains made by the force of coarse and cruel evil be short-lived.
May the pain and sorrow, loss and grief pass.
And may the enduring strength of Good soon prevail, in Ukraine, in Russia, and everywhere.
Reading from Challenge of A Liberal Faith by George Marshall. Words by Edith Hunter
Many of us religious liberals have not given sufficient thought to what we believe. We recite no dogmatic creed. We have no finished faith, once revealed and now neatly packaged and sealed.
Are we in danger then of going to the opposite extreme – of being hopelessly vague about what we believe?
Perhaps we should realise that our need is not to “find something to believe” – but rather to discover what our lives indicate that we believe right now. This is the place to start.
What did we enjoy most in the day just past? How did we spend our time? How do we wish we might have spent it? How do we feel about ourselves at the end of the day? Do we like the kind of person we are? What do we worry about? What are we afraid of? What do we hope for? Whose lives did our lives touch during the day? Was it for better or for worse? How do we feel about our parents, partner, children, neighbours, the school, the town? Are we aware of the natural universe? Do the arts influence us and feed our spirits?
To bring our attitudes, our convictions, our practices, out into the open and to look at them systematically, is to find out what we actually believe.
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 Other Side of the Pond by Jan Carlsson-Bull
Once a body of belief begins to crack, once what is held to be historic gospel begins to erode, once any of us becomes privy to another story, another history, another reality, we cling to the familiar only out of a need to be reassured, only out of a penchant to take our cues from loved and respected teachers and preachers and parents and grandparents and touted authorities on this and that, because climbing into a boat guaranteed to rock is just way too scary.
But conversations matter. Stories new to us but ancient to others matter. Histories written or recalled across generations from a different lineage matter. A religion that holds faith and doubt in reverent balance matters as we consider in the chalice of religious community what happened and what didn’t. A religion that holds faith and doubt in reverent balance and the search for truth in the highest esteem matters mightily as we ponder the formation of heroes and history.
Prayer by John H. Robinson Jr.
Thou who are the heart of being, we come together but often feel alone. We come for fellowship but we hold back.
We are certain — in our uncertainty. We are sure of ourselves — in our utter doubt. We are full of answers, but not to our real questions.
We are wounded but afraid of the health that is in us, frightened of what we must do to become healthy. We come too broken, too hurt, and too masked even to know our own hurt and fear.
We come as landlords who do not want to pay for the upkeep, as tenants who do not want to pay the rent, as heirs who do not want to be grateful.
Take all our contradictions and weave of us a whole, even despite ourselves. Thou creative power, whom we know but deny, whose we always are, even in our denial, Thou. Amen.
Reading Cherish Your Doubts by Robert T. Weston
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief. Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false. Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is the testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing: for truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands. But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock. They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: it is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Linda J. Hoddy, adapted)
Enter with me that still place within, the centre, where we find not only our inmost selves, but also our connection to the farthest reaches of the universe.
Here we confront our aspirations and our failings.
Though we seek always for our lives to be full of goodness, we sometimes lack courage to right the injustices that confront us.
Though we seek always to be generous, sometimes our fears cause us to be greedy.
Though we seek always to walk the moral high ground, sometimes we judge others too quickly and too harshly.
Though we seek always to understand the larger mysteries, sometimes doubt causes us to lose faith in our purpose.
Let us consider these things in the silence… [silence]
Here, in this space made sacred by our shared lives and our shared yearnings, may we find new courage, new generosity of spirit, forgiveness given and received, and rededication to the higher purposes of our lives.
May it be so, Amen
Musical Interlude Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Cherish Your Doubts
We live in a very strange world. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” I wholeheartedly agree. But in our world today, in both politics, and mainstream religion, it seems to be certainty that is prized. To doubt or question is seen as somehow bad, or incorrect. I find this quite ironic, particularly in the religious sphere. Many mainstream religions, in both Christianity and (for example) Islam, insist that their followers believe X, Y, and Z, otherwise they are not deemed to be “proper” Christians / Muslims / fill in the blank yourself.
The reason why I find it odd, is that the classic definition of faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, to quote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Frederick Buechner writes: “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.”
We can never prove that God exists (or doesn’t exist), but we can have faith that He (or She or It) 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. So today I’m going to advocate that we should cherish our doubts, keep asking questions, for this is how we grow and mature in faith.
Some of you will know that although I am a “birthright” Unitarian (on my father’s side) I did not attend a Unitarian church in my childhood. It was not until my late teens that I discovered Unitarianism, having examined the beliefs and creeds of mainstream Christianity, and been unable to accept them unquestioningly. Discovering Unitarianism was like coming home – I realised that this was where I belonged – a place in which my questions and doubts could be answered, or if not answered, wholeheartedly accepted. It was a wonderful feeling, and I still appreciate how lucky I am to have found this denomination of ours.
And yet, it is not an easy way to live. If you want answers, fair and square, set down in black and white with no contradictions, Unitarianism is not the place for you. Some people may find the lack of a creed, a denomination-wide accepted set of beliefs, daunting. Not me – I love the fact that Unitarians do not claim to have all the answers – every Unitarian I’ve ever known has been a spiritual seeker, just like me. We are all on the same journey, “seekers and sharers, fellow pilgrims on the path” (to quote Cliff Reed).
Outsiders may find it difficult to understand how the denomination holds together, placing, as it does, so much importance on the freedom of individual belief based on reason and conscience. Cliff Reed explains this in Unitarian? What’s That?: “The Unitarian answer is that shared values and a shared religious approach are a surer basis for unity than theological propositions. Because no human being and no human institution can have a monopoly on truth, it is safer to admit that from the outset. … The values underpinning the Unitarian movement have to do with mutual caring and mutual respect. They involve a readiness to extend to each other a positive, involved and constructive tolerance. … They are the values of a community that is open to truth from many sources; a community of the spirit that cherishes reason and acknowledges honest doubt; a community where the only theological test is that required by one’s own conscience.”
Another way of putting it is to say that we all have the same attitude to religion and spirituality. All of us believe profoundly in the necessity of personal freedom of religious belief – the freedom to grow, and to act in accordance with our beliefs, to work out our own answers, to be able to share our doubts and questions. Forrest Church, late minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, summarises it very neatly in his book, Born Again Unitarian Universalism: “We value one another’s thinking. We respect one another’s search. We honour it even when it differs from our own. We resist imposing our perception of truth upon one another. Embracing a kind of theological pluralism, we affirm the human importance of our joint quest for meaning in life without insisting upon the ultimacy of any single set of theological criteria … At our best, we move … to a fundamental trust in our own and one another’s inherent ability to make life meaningful.”
We share a devotion to spiritual freedom and find that the insights of others can enrich our own beliefs. What could be better?
We 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 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 with which we disagree. Some of the recent posts in Unitarian groups on Facebook have grieved me enormously, because post-ers have not respected each other’s right to seek truth and meaning for themselves. And that is sad.
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 your own life experience. 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 should be 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 it can be very hard work. Nothing is set in stone, and each individual is responsible for keeping his or her 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.”
One of the most oft-quoted Unitarian aphorisms is, “We need not think alike to love alike” by our Transylvanian founding father Francis David. Our fierce defence of freedom of belief, within the denomination, and in the wider world, boils down to our belief in this one phrase, “We need not think alike to love alike.” And this inevitably includes holding space for doubts and questions.
For us, being Unitarian means having 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 attitude 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. I leave you with the words of American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we respect the diversity in our beliefs,
May we hold a safe and sacred space for us all,
In which we may discover what gives
Our lives truth and meaning.
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