Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Welcome to this virtual space of prayer,
‘where we meet not only one with another,
but all with God’.
Through the generations we have come
to celebrate the love that is divine,
to be its human channels to each other,
and to reflect the light of hope
on to the world’s darkness.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)
We light our chalice
to celebrate our heritage of light:
the light of science and of art,
the light of story and of poem,
the light of nature and of reason,
the inner light of spirit and of truth.
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 The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina
Like Yui’s mother and daughter, it was the tsunami that had taken the [man]’s wife; their house was uprooted by the water, her body dragged through the debris, catalogued among the yukue fumei, ‘whereabouts unknown’, the missing. Now he was living at his son’s house, far inland, where the sea was something you only saw in pictures.
‘So,’ the voice began,… ‘there’s this phone box in a garden, on a hill in the middle of nowhere. The phone isn’t connected to anything, but your voice is carried away with the wind. I’ll say, Hi, Yoko, how are you? And I feel myself becoming the person I was before, my wife listening to me from the kitchen, busy preparing breakfast or dinner, me grumbling that the coffee’s burned my tongue.
‘Yesterday evening, I was reading my grandson the story of Peter Pan, the little flying boy who loses his shadow and the girl who sews it back onto the soles of his feet. And, you know, I think that’s what we’re doing when we go up that hill to Suzuki-san’s garden: we’re trying to get our shadows back.’
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.
Reading from The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina
It struck Yui that the function of the telephone, rather than to channel and guide voices into a single ear, was to broadcast them out onto the wind. She wondered if, perhaps, the dead people we remembered in life here, weren’t in fact holding hands over there, if they had ended up getting to know each other, making new memories that the living were completely unaware of.
How could the feeling of lightness here be explained otherwise? Death, in this place, felt like a beautiful thing. As she walked around the garden, Yui imagined those people’s spirits being called out in a register; she thought of them sitting at school desks, raising their hands and making friends. Perhaps her little girl was playing with Fujita-san’s wife, perhaps they were singing together. A world was emerging where it wasn’t just the survivors who took care of each other, but where the dead also loved one another and carried on, getting older and eventually dying. There must be an expiry date on the soul like there is on the body…
Was her little girl still walking somewhere, helped up by somebody else’s hands?
Prayer by Earl Holt
O God of time and eternity, help us look to the past with gratitude and to the future with hope. We remember this day those who have gone before us here, who laboured not for themselves alone but with a vision of building for the future a world better than they had known. Inspire in us also a like vision, that we too may labour for things beyond ourselves, that our lives may be dedicated to high purposes and grand horizons. Make us unafraid of hopes and dreams; release us from cynicism and despair. Teach us to be realistic about our limitations but never to lose hope in our potential to transcend them.
Help us realize the significance of these moments together, that they may open our eyes to the blessings of the past and the promise of the future. Grant us courage for today and tomorrow. Amen.
Reading from Our Story by Ernest Baker, from With Heart and Mind
This is the time of the Jewish Passover, when, as the Chief Rabbi reminded The Times readers, faithful followers in probably one of the most long-standing of human rituals, retell the story of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, and vow to each other: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’
We need a story to tell us who we are. And we need the handing on of memory across the generations.
Or do we? The French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard has defined post-modernism as ‘the death of metanarrative’. That is, we don’t any longer have, don’t need, the ‘big’ stories any more – the stories ‘that tell us who we are, where we came from, and what we are called upon to do’. Do not many of us reckon this is so? No need, then, to bother with Unitarian history, for example.
Like the Chief Rabbi, I believe this is mistaken; to echo his words, ‘without memory there is no identity, and without identity, we are cast adrift in a sea of chance, without compass, map or destination.’
I am proud to recall our forebears in the faith: Joseph Priestley, surveying the ruins of his house and laboratory; William and Elizabeth Gaskell, quietly helping their servant-lass ‘in trouble’; Francis David proclaiming religious tolerance.
‘Next year in Rakow!’ Where? Don’t you know? Rakow is a village in Poland, once the centre of the Polish Brethren, a group of anti-Trinitarians, from which came the first Unitarian ‘catechism’ in 1605.
Time of Stillness and Reflection by Ernest Baker (adapted)
Eternal Spirit of Life and Love,
who are we really? What is our story?
As we reflect on our history,
we can see some of the things, some of the events,
some of the people, that have made us as we are.
We give thanks that we are not finally bound so,
there is a new ‘us’ possible,
change can happen,
though the ‘us’ is still us,
the same, yet different,
given, yes, but malleable, yes…
May we have faith to change,
to bring head, heart and hand in unison –
well, a little more, at least!
May we have hope in the future selves,
the glorious possibilities of the rest of our lives,
May we have love, above all, love,
to give, to take, to share,
partaking of You.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Honouring the Past and Building Anew
Two experiences last weekend have reminded me of three things: the importance of honouring and remembering the past; the courage needed to build anew in our lives, after sorrow and grief have entered them, torn them apart; and the joy of true belonging in a group of human beings.
The first experience was staying overnight with Immediate Past President Anne Mills, and the discovery that we are both avid readers. While she was showing me around her library (the third bedroom in her house, which has floor to ceiling and wall to wall bookcases in it) I noticed a book on one shelf, called The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Intrigued, I took it down and began to look through it. And was immediately captivated. It is a fictional tale, yet based on a true story, of a phone box set in beautiful gardens in the Iwate Prefecture in the north-east of Japan. As the author, Laura Imai Messina, explains, “This story was inspired by a real place… One day, a man installed a telephone box in the garden of his house at the foot of Kujira-yama, the Mountain of the Whale, just next to the city of Otsuchi, one of the places worst hit by the tsunami of 11th March 2011. Inside, there is an old black telephone, disconnected, that carries voices into the wind. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage there every year.”
It reminded me that, as Rev Ant Howe once said, the community of the grieving is the largest community in the world. And that it is no bad thing to honour the dead, to speak their names, to keep them in our minds and hearts. The book tells the story of how Yui, who lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami, and Takeshi, a man who lost his wife to cancer, and whose little daughter had retreated into silence, meet one another at the phone box and are eventually healed. Somehow, Yui finds the courage to build her life anew, after being lost in her grief for her mother and daughter.
The second experience came the following day, last Sunday. I had been invited to lead the annual Peace Service at Cross Street Chapel in Manchester, and their minister, Rev Cody Coyne, had organised a Peace Walk around that part of Manchester after the service. Half a dozen of us, including Rev Ann Peart, the Unitarian historian, spent an hour or so walking the streets of Manchester, stopping every once in a while to hear about the history and connections (Unitarian and peace and feminist) of particular spaces and buildings. And I was fascinated to learn about the richness and depth of the connection between Unitarians and the history of Manchester, including the foundations of feminism and the women’s suffrage movement, the social justice work undertaken (particularly in the 19th century) and the strong and vital peace witness there.
Which reminded me how important it is to know about and honour the achievements of past generations. To maintain our connection with them, our knowledge of what they achieved, so that we can build upon what they did and make our world a better, more just, happier one.
Ernest Baker reminds us in our final reading, “We need a story to tell us who we are. And we need the handing on of memory across the generations.” That walk around Manchester reconnected all of us with the proud heritage of Unitarianism in the North-west. But as Ernest also comments, “As we reflect on our history, we can see some of the things, some of the events, some of the people, that have made us as we are. We give thanks that we are not finally bound so, there is a new ‘us’ possible, change can happen, though the ‘us’ is still us, the same, yet different, given, yes, but malleable, yes.”
In other words, it is equally important that we do not rest on the laurels of our forebears’ achievements but are instead inspired by them to continue to work for the greater good of our society – not just Unitarians, but everyone. We need to put our values into action. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew,
‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”’
Not that I believe that those who fall short in this life are destined to eternal hellfire, but the point is, it is up to us to do the best we can for other people, here and now.
The third thing which the Peace Walk with my fellow Unitarians reminded me of, was the sense of joy and peace that comes when we feel we truly belong in a group of people. All human beings need to belong somewhere, to feel at home. We are social animals. Some of us may remember the tragic video footage of the orphans in Romania in the closing years of the last century, who had withdrawn into themselves because they did not belong anywhere.
I find the word “home” fascinating. If we understand it in the bricks-and-mortar sense of “the place where we live”, it can be very far from a real home. There are far too many dysfunctional families for that. And the scars of childhood (whether physical, mental or psychological) are far too frequently felt by far too many people for me to believe that “home” means “the environment in which you were brought up.”
For me, “home” is more nearly being in the company of loved others, in front of whom and with whom I can be myself – nothing to do with bricks and mortar. It’s more about feeling at home, at peace, seen and heard for who we truly are. One of my favourite books by Celtic poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, is Eternal Echoes: Exploring our hunger to belong. In it, he wrote about what I believe is the truest sense of home – a place where we belong. He has much to say about longing and belonging, and about “home” as a place of sanctuary and belonging, where we can feel safe and grow. He wrote, “The word home has a wonderful resonance. Home is where you belong. It is your shelter and place of rest, the place where you can be yourself.”
I find it fascinating how much influence a particular place can have on us. Sometimes, it is only when we see people “on their native heath”, that we see them whole. And it is something I sense in myself too – for example, as soon as I come within a couple of miles of the Nightingale Centre and Great Hucklow, I can feel a deep peace begin to settle within me. It is very much my spiritual home, the place where I feel at rest.
But not the only one – I get something of the same sense from walking in Salcey Forest and from visiting Dolgoch Falls in mid-Wales. Our good experiences in particular places in our past can lead us to feeling that they are places where we are truly at home, truly at rest. And thus does the past influence the future, in another way.
I will finish with the Heritage Prayer by John Sturges, former minister of John Pounds Unitarian Church in Portsmouth, quoted by Martin Whitell in With Heart and Mind 2
We would be worthy custodians
of all that we have received from the past,
but we would acknowledge that its value
lies in the use we make of it in the present.
Richly have our lives been blessed
in the things granted to us from our past.
Richly have our lives been blessed
in the opportunities conferred on us in this present hour.
May it be so.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we honour our past, and build on it,
to secure a good future for ourselves and others.
May we find a place which we can call “home”,
where we are at peace and at rest.
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