Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We gather in freedom, believing not what we want,
but what evidence proposes to the mind and conscience.
We gather to affirm both our own faith
and the right of others to hold theirs without restraint or coercion.
Confident that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,
we gather to seek her by insight and reason.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed, adapted)
We kindle this flame to begin our worship,
to signify that we, the beloved community, are
gathered once again in this sacred virtual space.
Here we celebrate our unity as members of a seamless
humankind in a seamless creation.
Here we seek peace and love and justice to dispel
the follies that divide 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,
A prayer for all who are suffering, because of war or other conflicts… by Sue Woolley and Archbishops Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell.
Spirit of Life and Love,
God of peace and justice,
Let us pray for not only the people of Ukraine,
Whose suffering fills the news,
But also for people the world over,
Who are suffering because of war,
terrorist action or other violence.
The people of Afghanistan, Algeria, Burkina Faso,
Cameroon, Chad, Colombia,
The Democratic Republic of the Congo,
Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, Mali,
Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar,
Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan,
Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia and Yemen,
To name those suffering the most at present.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk or in fear,
that you would hold and protect them.
We pray for peace.
Reading: What do Unitarians believe about God? From Unitarian? What’s That? by Cliff Reed
“God” is a very subjective word.
Unitarians recognise this and do not presume to define God for others. We believe that everyone should be free to encounter the Great Mystery for themselves “without mediator or veil.”
However, most Unitarians would use the word “God” to signify that which they believe to be of supreme worth. God is that which commands ultimate reverence and allegiance. God is the inspiration and the object of those who seek truth in a spirit of humility and openness. For some, Christian language about God as a loving, personal power – father-like as Jesus experienced – comes closest to their own belief. Increasingly, the feminine aspect of the divine is recognised too – God as Mother, the Goddess. Many 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. Some use the word “God” to signify the human ideal, the noblest visions and aspirations of humanity against which we measure ourselves. God as an inward presence – the “still, small voice” – means more to many than any external power.
Such understandings are not, of course, mutually exclusive. There are some Unitarians who avoid using the word “God” altogether. For them it has become debased or corrupted by abuse, or simply doesn’t mean anything to them. Does this sound confusing? Only if you really think that God – that which is ultimate in the universe and in our lives – can be reduced to one neat formula. Human experience suggests otherwise, and Unitarians accept this.
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 ‘Goddess’ in our religious life by Yvonne Aburrow.
When I hear the word ‘God’, I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear Spirit of Life, or the Divine, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn’t explicitly include the Goddess. In Unitarianism, women are regarded as completely equal to men, and we have embraced the Goddess to a certain extent, and use inclusive gender-neutral language wherever possible.
So, how does the Goddess differ from ‘traditional’ views of God?
- In all traditions, she is regarded as immanent in the world, not transcendent.
- She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source).
- She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
- She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
- But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
- She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
- She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass-roots level.
- She is much more than a Virgin Mother – this is an image which has been damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
- Her worship includes sacred sexuality.
Reading by Johanna Boeke from Unitarian Perspectives: God in The Unitarian Life
Goodbye, dear Lord and Father. I have loved you, but cannot hold you any longer. You are departing from me, your image is fading away. How can I call you Father when I am told that I am created in your image? Your power has kept me all these years, but now I have grown up and I must leave you.
I must redeem my connection to all of creation and affirm the lost wholeness. I too have been called to be responsible for the world, the earth, the cosmos, and myself. I too am related to the “big” words: calling, suffering, creation, and knowledge. I am part of the “Dance of Being”, in me lives the spirit of passion and compassion.
Oh, I still love you, but it’s not the same. You must leave me now, so that you can come back to me as a new being. So please, Lord Father… vanish!
Come God, mysterious presence, dynamic and driving power in the cosmos, tempting and inviting voice of love and justice …. Welcome!
Time of Stillness and Reflection Drops of God by Tess Baumberger
I invite you into a time of visualisation and reflection, as I read Tess Baumberger’s wonderful reflection on the many ways of God…
God, God is water sleeping
in high-piled clouds.
She is gentle drink of rain,
pooling lake, rounding pond,
angry flooding river.
She is frothy horse-maned geyser.
She is glacier on mountains and polar ice-cap,
and breath-taking crystalline ideas of snowflakes.
She is frost dance on trees.
and we, we are drops of God,
her tears of joy or sorrow,
ice crystals and raindrops
in the ocean of her.
God, God is air wallowing
all about us,
She is thin blue atmosphere embracing
our planet, gentle breeze.
She is wind and fiercesome gale
centrifugal force of tornado and hurricane,
flurry of dust storm.
She is breath, spirit, life.
She is thought, intellect, vision and voice.
And we, we are breaths of God,
steady and soft,
changeable and destructive.
We are her laughter and her sighs,
in the firmament of her.
God, God is fire burning,
day and night.
She is sting of passion,
heat that cooks our food.
She is fury forest fire
and flow of lava which destroys and creates, transforms.
She is home fire and house fire.
She is giving light of sun and
solemn mirror-face of moon,
and tiny hopes of stars.
And we, we are little licking flames
flickering in her heart,
in the conflagratory furnace of her.
God, God is power of earth,
in and under us.
She is steady, staying,
fertile loam, body, matter, tree.
She is crumbling limestone and shifting sand,
She is rugged boulder and water-smoothed agate,
she is gold and diamond, gemstone.
She is tectonic plates and their motion,
mountains rising over us,
rumble-snap of earthquake,
tantrum of volcano.
She is turning of our day,
root of being.
And we, we are pebbles
and sand grains,
and tiny landmarks,
in the endless terrain of her.
God, God is journal of time marching
She is waking of seasons, phases of moon,
movements of stars.
She is grandmother, mother, daughter.
She is transcending spiral of ages
whose every turn encompasses the rest,
history a mere babe balanced on her hip.
She is spinning of universes
and ancestress of infinence.
She is memory, she is presence, she is dream.
And we, we are brief instants,
flashing gold-hoped moments in the aeons of her.
God, God is.
And we, we are.
Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Feminine Divine
Some years ago, my friend Yvonne Aburrow asked this question: “Why – if the ultimate Divine source has no gender – should we celebrate gendered divinity? For centuries, the Divine has been addressed as male, understood as male; and this is profoundly damaging to the human psyche, and damaging to the Earth, our Mother.” So, today, let us explore the Divine Feminine.
Interestingly, this question came up during my OU studies, many moons ago. One of the topics I studied was ‘Feminism, Religion and Interpretation’, and the module’s author, Susan Mumm, explained, “The way in which the divine is imaged is usually predictable: imagery of a male, warrior, ruling-class god-king. Feminists argue that this has little to offer women looking for ways to connect with religion, who find the imagery alienating and excluding. Once the divine is identified as male, even subconsciously, women become less divine than men.”
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, as Cliff Reed explained in our first reading. Unitarian Universalist minister Forest 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.”
There is a lovely chapter on the feminine face of divinity in Matthew Fox’s book One River, Many Wells. In his introduction to it, he writes: “Patriarchy has so swamped our civilisations, East and West, over the past forty-five hundred years, that we have almost blotted out an entire side to Divinity: the Feminine side. This was not always the case, this ignoring of the Divine Feminine, but it has served political interests and gender interests (which can be highly political) to limit our God-language to the masculine and to exclude the feminine in our collective imagination no less than in our religious leadership. Women and male feminists have been chipping away at this distortion with the ordaining of women and with women achieving significant achievements in areas of theology and spiritual leadership.
But much still needs to be done and much needs to be learned about the wisdom of the past, when the feminine was honoured as integral to the Godhead. If Meister Eckhart is correct that ‘all the name we give to God come from an understanding of our souls’, then we clearly distort our souls, our culture, and our God by insisting on calling God masculine and avoiding the feminine. By praying to God as ‘Father’ and never as ‘Mother’. By repressing the Wisdom and Sophia traditions of the Bible in exclusive favour of the God of judgement and revenge and war. The traditions of God as female and Divinity as Mother are deep among all world religions. There is liberation in this insight and awareness. ‘The truth shall make you free’. We liberate God as we liberate ourselves. The feminine insists on being heard today. Again.”
As Yvonne pointed out in our second reading: “When I hear the word ‘God’, I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear Spirit of Life, or the Divine, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn’t explicitly include the Goddess.” This quotation was from a splendid article that appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of The Herald, journal of the Unitarian Christian Association. In it, she explores the various images of the Divine Feminine which are found in Jewish and Christian traditions. I am going to share some of these now, so that we can appreciate some of the feminine aspects of the Divine.
Firstly, there was Asherah, the ancient Hebrew Goddess. Yvonne explained, “She is the Queen of Heaven whose worship the prophet Jeremiah so vehemently opposed. She was worshipped in ancient Israel as the consort of El, and in Judah as the consort of Yahweh and Queen of Heaven (the Hebrews baked small cakes for her festival, which inspired American Unitarian Universalists to produce a course, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, which was launched in 1986.”
Better known to us, perhaps, is Hagia Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, who is often mentioned in the Apocrypha. Yvonne wrote, “In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, they distinguish between God’s Essence (transcendent and unknowable, called ousia and his Energies (immanent and recognisable), which include wisdom and are often experienced as light. Wisdom is called Sophia in Eastern Christianity and Sapientia in Western Christianity.” It is worth noting that “the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was dedicated to Her. She is both the Bride of Christ and the feminine aspect of Christ. Also, many liberal Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God.”
In the Book of Genesis, the Breath of God moves on the face of the waters, creating the world. Yvonne explained, “The word ruach appears numerous times in the Tanakh [or Hebrew Bible] and can also indicate the life-force of human beings. The Breath of God, also traditionally feminine, is called the Ruach in Hebrew, and was probably the prototype for the idea of the Holy Spirit (who is often depicted as a dove, which is another feminine symbol and an attribute of the goddess Venus.”
The Divine Presence is known as the Shekhinah in Judaism. Yvonne wrote, “The Shekhinah is believed to descend on the Sabbath eve at the lighting of the candles (usually done by the lady of the house). The Shekhinah is exiled in the physical world and trying to rejoin the Godhead. We can help reunite them in the process of Tikkun – the exercise of compassion, which helps to heal the rift between the worlds. Also, it is regarded as a holy thing to make love on the Sabbath eve, as this helps to reunite the Shekhinah and the Godhead.”
The final example of the Divine Feminine from Yvonne’s article that I would like to share is that of Mary, Mother of Jesus. Yvonne commented, “Many of Mary’s attributes and names were borrowed from Pagan goddesses. The titles Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) originally belonged to Isis; the title Queen of Heaven originally belonged to Asherah and Hera. Mary acquired the symbol of the peacock from Hera, with the eyes in its tail representing the stars of heaven. Many statues of Isis and Horus were re-used as the Madonna and Child. … Evidently people need a divine mother figure, and even if Mary is not traditionally regarded as a goddess in Christian mythology, she has been elevated to near-divine status in the hearts of many Christians. The Black Madonna represents the dark and sorrowful side of motherhood, the loss when the child is relinquished from the maternal care.”
How individual Unitarians perceive the Divine is, of course, a matter of free choice. Celia Kerr wrote in The Unitarian Life, “I find the general sensitivity in our churches to the use of gender-exclusive language very helpful, because I believe God to be neither male nor female; surely the Power of Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love has the attributes of both sexes? As one who feels excluded by language which seems to imply that God speaks only to ‘the sons of men’, I really do appreciate those who avoid its usage. This shared outlook enables me to affirm the value of women and women’s experience in society.”
The wonderful thing about the Unitarian faith (in my eyes at least) is that all this diversity of belief is accepted; and the right of any individual Unitarian to believe as he or she wishes is paramount (so long as that belief is submitted to their own reason and conscience and to the checks and balances of being part of a religious community).
I think we have seen today 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 with creation because it penetrates creation in some fashion. The immanent divine is often perceived as feminine. As Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas wrote, “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.”
If we ignore the Divine Feminine, in our worship and in our lives, I think we are cutting ourselves off from a rich source of spiritual insight and comfort. Hallie Iglehart Austen, author of The Heart of the Goddess, describes three categories around which the goddess gathers: “Creation, including birth, nurturance and the abundance of the natural world; transformation, meaning physical death and rebirth as well as the metaphorical deaths and rebirths of trance and descent to the underworld; and celebration, encompassing sexuality, sensuality and creativity. The unity of birth, growth, death and rebirth is the basis of the Goddess’s teachings. We see them daily in the cycles of night and day, waking and sleeping, creating and letting go.”
By being more open to these aspects of the Divine, we can enrich our lives. May it be so.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we be open to all aspects of the Divine,
Whether He is masculine, or She is feminine,
Or They may be beyond gender.
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