Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words from Quaker Advices and Queries, no. 5.
Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible … and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point (words by Vernon Marshall)
May this chalice remind us of the shared cup of fellowship.
May its light remind us of the light of wisdom.
May the warmth of its glow remind us of the warmth of God’s everlasting love.
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,
Victims of violence and war,
Suffering in any way,
Reading from Wisdom: the Interval between the Notes by Michael D. McKinney, editor of Foundations: Ideas to Build Your Life On.
Wisdom requires a higher perspective. It requires a deeper understanding of the commonplace. Early church theologian Thomas Aquinas thought that only God truly possesses such a perspective so to be wise one would align themselves with God so as to be touched by divine wisdom. He remarked in Summa Theologica, “Wisdom differs from mere science in looking at things from a greater height.”
When life is viewed from a higher perspective, above the self, we can see that wisdom is not in the details; it’s in the space between them—the interstices. It’s in the story, the overview, the universal. Wisdom is not in the fabric, it’s in the holes. It’s what is going on between the events. Psychologist William James reminds us that, “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
To gain wisdom we must look at the spaces between events. Only then does a meaningful, complete picture emerge. Wisdom is a quality of mind, a way of looking at life. It is to see life both horizontally and vertically. As we look deeper we see that all life is connected to everything else and that in turn causes us to take in more—to see wider. Wisdom requires that we arrange what we observe and know and create meaning from it; integrative thinking that guides and directs our life.
Wisdom changes how we look at things; how we look at the mundane, the common, the daily. It is of course, easier to obtain in the general and harder as we move to the more specific. Without a great deal of meditation—that deep, reflective thinking that we so rarely seem to find time to engage in—it is more difficult to apply general principles to specific situations than it is to apply those same principles to general issues.
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, Proverbs, 1: 1-7; 3: 13-18.
The Bible, (both the Hebrew and the Christian parts) is a rich source of wisdom. Think of all the teachings of the Hebrew prophets or of Jesus and the apostles. So choosing a particular example for a reading in a service about wisdom was tricky. But the whole Book of Proverbs is a collection of sound advice and wisdom, allegedly written by Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. The two brief extracts I have chosen explain what the collection is about, and exhort the reader to follow the path of wisdom.
* For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young – Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
* Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.
Prayer by Sue Ayer
Spirit of life and love, we have gathered here in search of answers to hard questions. We have come in search of understanding, in search of community. We have come in search of hope and healing.
Let this be a place not only of searching, but of discovery. Let this be a place not only of learning, but of wisdom. Let this be a place not only of meeting, but of connection. And let this be a place where healing fosters giving and hope fosters service.
This is our prayer: that we may create here a circle of love, ever expanding, ever growing, as we seek to know you, the source of our being. Amen and blessed be.
Reading from Beliefs of a Unitarian by Alfred Hall (adapted to be more inclusive)
We limit not God’s truth: the loftiest thought and experience of humankind and the universe itself are revelations of God. We see the writing of God everywhere in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. If we read any inspiring utterance of poet or prophet, we regard it as a word of God. The proof that a word is God’s word is not that it is found in the Bible; it might occur in another sacred book or in some modern writer. … The test we apply is this. Does this word appeal to the mind as true? Does it purify and uplift the affections? Does it ennoble our thought and life? If it does any of these things, then it is a word of God to us. … Unitarians regard the Bible with the highest reverence, but they do not confine inspiration to its pages or consider all its words divine. They hold that the work of all faithful workers, artists, architects, sculptors, engineers, musicians, poets and others, which makes for the progress of the race, is under divine inspiration.
God has never left himself without a witness, but has sent to every age and every nation his spokespeople, to direct the people to nobler ways of life. … Unitarians believe that God has inspired the saints and prophets of religions other than Christianity, especially the great religious teachers of the East. The sacred writings of non-Christian religions in the Mediterranean world, India and the Far East contain thoughts and sentiments which cannot be neglected in any universal religion of the future if, as some think, humanity is moving towards such a religion.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Frederick E. Gillis)
From many places and conditions of the spirit we come
seeking a centre for our lives,
a sense of wholeness —
From dry places where the words and knowledge seem broken
into brittle fragments that do not cohere —
From overfilled places where information abounds,
but there is no real understanding —
From hard places where feelings are dulled,
and lonely, hollow places where meanings seem empty.
In this caring and supportive community,
at this time of quiet reflection,
we come to be emptied —
and filled with the spirit that flows in and among us
and throughout the world.
Empty us of the clatter and confusion,
the information we thought was all-sufficient.
Quiet our minds, centre our spirits, ground our being.
Enable us to find that power that already lies within us —
power for love, for creativity, for hope.
Open our eyes to the possibilities of love and sustenance
that already surround and uphold us.
Help us to see in everything a miracle,
for life is at each moment a wonder,
a gift of opportunity.
May our hearts be open to compassion,
our minds open to wisdom,
our spirits open to grace. Amen.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Many Sources of Wisdom
The other day I found a lovely quotation by a man called Martin Fischer, “Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.” Today I’m going to look at what we mean by “wisdom”; at the Bible as a traditional and contemporary source of wisdom; and share my own approach to the many sources of wisdom.
What do we mean by “wisdom”? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines wisdom as “possession of experience and knowledge together with the power of applying them critically or practically.” Michael D. McKinney, whose words we heard as our first reading, wrote, “Wisdom is a quality of mind, a way of looking at life. It is to see life both horizontally and vertically. As we look deeper we see that all life is connected to everything else, and that in turn causes us to take in more – to see wider. Wisdom requires that we arrange what we observe and know and create meaning from it; integrative thinking that guides and directs our life.”
I find this way of looking at wisdom a very spiritual one, looking at life with the whole of ourselves, with our hearts as well as our heads.
Let us think for a moment about the Bible as a source of wisdom. I think it is a fabulous source of wisdom, if read with discernment. When I started the Worship Studies Course way back in March 2006, my knowledge of the Bible was very superficial – I knew most of the dear old stories that we learn at our mothers’ knees, and was reasonably familiar with the four Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). And I knew that an awful lot of good advice was squirreled away in it – advice by which countless Jews and Christians had lived their lives. But my actual knowledge of the Hebrew Bible was, as I say, limited to the famous stories – Daniel in the Lion’s Den; Moses and the Ten Commandments; Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours and so on – you can fill in the rest.
I reconnected with the Bible during the Worship Studies Course in 2006 and have carried on studying it since – it is a goldmine of good advice, fascinating stories and timeless wisdom. Since becoming a minister, I have found that reading a passage from the Bible as part of my morning Time of Stillness and Reflection is very important to me.
My exciting experience of revelation and discovery must be like that experienced by people in the 16th century CE when the first Bibles became widely available in English due to the spread of printing (up until then the Church had made sure that they were only written in Latin and were hence ‘closed books’ to all but the highly educated). Before these brave pioneers (William Tyndale in 1526 and Miles Coverdale in 1535) published their translations of the New Testament and the entire Bible, only those with Latin (in effect the clergy) could read the Bible, and the common people had to believe what they were told. Why do I say, “brave pioneers”? Well, the Church was desperately afraid that if people could read the Bible for themselves, they might distort or misinterpret its message (thinking for themselves, shock, horror!) So poor Tyndale was burned at the stake for heresy in 1536.
Then in 1539, King Henry VIII ordered that copies of a new translation, The Great Bible, be placed in every church. This was the first “authorised version”. The revolution had begun. After a brief period of suppression during Queen Mary’s reign, bishops of the Church of England produced The Bishops Bible in 1568, which was followed most famously over four hundred years ago by The King James Bible in 1611, which is now known as “the Authorised Version”. It went on to influence so much of English literature and is the edition whose language most people are most familiar with, even today.
The spread of printing enabled more books to be published in the vernacular, which in turn led to a sort of virtuous circle: the more books that were available, the more people were likely to be able to learn to read, and hence educate themselves. Unitarianism is a most unusual faith, in that it evolved simultaneously in many countries at about the same time. To quote Alfred Hall: “men living in different lands, under different conditions, with different experiences, aided only by their own earnest study of the Bible and their spiritual endeavours, arrived at the Unitarian position. Thus it had an independent origin in the minds of various individuals and communities in England, America, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Poland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia and other countries in the West.” In other words, people were studying their Bibles, and finding no evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity (which had only been accepted as orthodox Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE). So they rejected it, going back to their Bibles to find out what Christianity had been like in the earliest days.
This address is not about Unitarian history. But it is worth realising that our progressive, questioning faith is built upon the blood of some brave men, who died in defence of their beliefs that the doctrine of the Trinity was a mistake – for example, Michael Servetus in 1553 (who was burnt at the stake in Geneva as a heretic; Francis David, the pioneer of Unitarianism in Transylvania who insisted that prayer could only be offered through God and not through Jesus, and who died in prison in 1579; and our own John Biddle in 1662. And of course it has only been legal to profess Unitarian opinions in this country for the past 200 years or so.
So the Bible had a vital role to play in Unitarian thinking and history, from the movement’s earliest days. Today, the Bible is just one of the many sources of wisdom available to us and used by us in our spiritual quests. Cliff Reed, in Unitarian? What’s That? puts it like this, “Unitarians see the Bible as the record of a people’s long struggle to understand themselves, their world and their God. In it the writers describe and interpret the spiritual dimension of their existence and their history. … Where we find in scripture a source of sustaining and abiding truth, it can be said to be a source of divine wisdom.”
Alex Bradley, Unitarian minister at Knutsford, points out that the importance of the Bible to English-speaking Unitarians cannot be underestimated, specifically, “The beauty of the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version. To make use of, and reference to, a literary tradition … is not necessarily to accept it uncritically. We can admire its aesthetic qualities, the truths it embodies, and leave out the rest. … Our Western culture, for good or ill, has been shaped by this collection of writings we call ‘the Bible’ and to ignore it is rather akin to ignoring the presence of the elephant in the drawing room.” Yes, the Bible is one of many sources of wisdom.
I would agree with that assessment. But we need to remember that there are so many sources of wisdom. For me, the chief importance of the Bible is in the truths it can tell us about God, and about our own place in the universe. In that respect, it is no more and no less important than any other source of wisdom. I love Alfred Hall’s explanation of the place of the Bible in the Unitarian faith, which was my third reading, and I’d like to repeat some of it, as to me he has summed up exactly the right approach to sources of wisdom, “We limit not God’s truth: the loftiest thought and experience of humankind and the universe itself are revelations of God. We see the writing of God everywhere, in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. If we read any inspiring utterance of poet or prophet, we regard it as a word of God … The test we apply is this. Does this word appeal to the mind as true? Does it purify and uplift the affections? Does it ennoble our thought and life? If it does any of these things, then it is a word of God to us.”
I find this inclusive approach to wisdom very reassuring. It means that if we read a passage from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita or the teachings of the Buddha, or the Sikhs’ Guru Granth Sahib, or a poem, or a passage in a novel, and it “speaks to our condition”, as the Quakers say, then we are free to take it on board and integrate it into our thinking and our lives. But our Unitarian faith requires us to subject all our beliefs to the tests of reason and conscience. This proviso is important, otherwise free thinking could all too easily become loose thinking, which is not the path to wisdom.
Again, Cliff Reed explains it clearly in Unitarian? What’s That? “Unitarians believe that the seat of religious authority lies within oneself. This is not an arrogant claim. All people develop their own belief-system, whether they articulate it or not. All people choose what to accept or reject from the propositions on offer. The Unitarian approach is, therefore, to recognise that each person is his or her own final authority in matters of faith. Our liberal religious ethos grants full individual freedom in this regard. However, we also see the necessity of religious community, of exposure to the beliefs, doubts and insights of others. This provides the necessary checks and balances that prevent belief descending into self-indulgence, fantasy, and a blinkered self-centredness.”
What are your sources of wisdom?
Closing Words by Sara Campbell
We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.
Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and,
renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley