Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Kenneth L. Patton, from Songs for Living (adapted)
Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips.
Let us feast our eyes upon the mystery and the revelation
in the faces of our brothers and sisters.
Let us live a thousand lives as we walk in the crowds of people.
Let us know that all lives flow into a great common life,
if we will only open ourselves to our companions.
Let us worship, not in bowing down, not with closed eyes and stopped ears,
but with the opening of all the windows of our beings,
with the full outstretching of our spirits.
Let us worship, and let us learn to love.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)
We light our chalice candle,
invoking the divine light
that shines in stars and suns and the bright eyes of a child.
We light our chalice candle,
to invoke the warmth
that wakens the divine life in cold earth and cold hearts.
We light our chalice candle,
so we can see the divine beauty in a flower
and the human beauty in courageous 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 Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques by James Hynes
We know the people in our lives by what they look like, what they say, what they do, and what other people tell us about them – that is, by report. When we add this fourth way of knowing, we can expand our experience of real people beyond personal relationships to include all the real people we’ve ever heard about, from a friend of a friend to a movie star to a figure from history.
Both the people we know personally and those we know about by report are equally real, and because of that, people in both groups share a certain impenetrable mystery. We can’t know what they’re thinking. We have no direct access to the consciousness of other living people.
To understand this idea, consider the fleeting and digressive nature of your own inner life. Then, consider how impossible it would be to express that inner life to another person. Remember, too, that every other person in the world is experiencing the same kind of inner life, all the time. You quickly realise that each of us is alone in the universe inside our heads, surrounded by many other universes with which we can communicate only indirectly.
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 A trouble shared by Joy Croft, from With Heart and Mind
There is a story told in China of a woman whose only child fell ill and, despite her tireless nursing, died. Grief stricken, clutching the poor dead thing to her breast, she sought out the wise woman of the village. ‘Please, bring my baby back to life – I’ll give you anything, do anything.’
‘Of course,’ replied the old woman, ‘nothing’s simpler. Only, you must bring me one vital ingredient for the spell: just one grain of rice, but it must come from a house that has never known sorrow.’
The bereft mother roamed the world over. She imagined her task would be easy; the world seemed such a bright and care-less place against her own forlorn darkness. Knocking on door after door, however, she learned there was no house in all the wide world – no family, no human heart – which had not at some time suffered loss and experienced sorrow.
So she never found her miracle grain of rice, but I like to think (although the old tale does not say so) that, on every doorstep she gained gifts of comfort and sometimes of hope from those she met there, who themselves had loved and lost.
In time, I imagine, she was able to give these gifts as well as to receive them. I like to think that, although her beloved child never came back to her, she was never again so alone, finding herself linked by sure bonds of deep sympathy to all who, like her, have had the courage to risk themselves in love.
Prayer by Joy Croft, from With Heart and Mind (adapted)
Grief is the price we pay for loving,
the more we love, the greater the grief.
Knowing we are mortal, that all life is mortal,
we know this must be so,
Knowing it, resenting and resisting it,
nonetheless, we pray:
Life Spirit, keep love alive in us,
Love of our loved ones, though there must be an end,
letting only memories survive,
Love of our work, well chosen and well done,
though strength and skill and even vision
fade with time and age,
Love of beauty, as ephemeral as gossamer,
` as sunset, as a song.
Though we may curl, cold, comfortless,
certain life’s not worth the candle or the cost –
hold our hearts open in us,
still willing to be touched and changed.
Teach us love’s lasting imprint on our souls
is life ongoing, immortality.
Reading The Bridge by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place
Jesus said, “This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build a house on it.”
We are passers-by. On our journey we cross the bridge, and though we may linger, we cannot stay.
The bridge carries many passengers. We are not alone with those of our own faith or race or nation. It is an ever-changing cavalcade that crosses over.
Each of us is engaged on our own journey. No two are quite the same. Yet the bridge has but one beginning and one end, and these we share.
The bridge is graceful, bathed in the light of sun and moon and stars. From its wide span we see a rich landscape. There is no need to rush – and miss the beauty of the moment.
The bridge is not ours. Others will follow. We must leave it clean, uncluttered and strong for them.
The bridge is wide enough for us all. We must travel as fellow pilgrims – sharing our tales, helping each other, admiring the view.
We are passers-by. We cannot live on this bridge forever. Even if we try to build houses here, we must still move on and leave them.
Let us accept the journey in faith and hope; travel together in peace and joy; and know that – for all our differences – we are but one company.
Time of Stillness and Reflection The Great Multitude by Francis Terry (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
We close our eyes and are in the midst of a multitude; all to whom our hearts can reach out, all into whose lives our imaginations can enter. We remember those near to us, whom we know best: and at the same time we acknowledge with awe how much there is in each of them which is beyond our understanding. We think of men, women and children throughout the earth, of whom we have no personal knowledge, but who are involved in events which we hear of in the news, and those everywhere who make up the ordinary daily flow of human experience. We are aware of them as a great mass of varied joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, of every sort of personal relationship, and our hearts begin to respond in sympathy – but how faintly compared with the depth and reality of each person involved.
We look back to the past, to our parents, to the people of their generation, and to the generations before them, from whom we have sprung, and who shaped the world which we inherit, with its advantages and problems. We acknowledge our debts, and the responsibility of our inheritance, and we can look back to them in memory and imagination: and yet how little that is compared with the detailed reality of what they did and endured.
We look forward to future generations; to those who will benefit by what we do well, and suffer from what we do badly. We cannot see their faces, or imagine what sort of people they will be. Our hearts are too little for this great ocean of humanity which surrounds us. And yet we can feel our narrowness, and reach out beyond it.
And so we cry to you, the Universal Spirit, to whom all hearts are open. In you we live, and move, and have our being. Take us more fully into your Universal love and concern. Strengthen us, bring us to unity, and bring us together into larger life. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Mystery of Humankind
The 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, once wrote, “The depths of the human heart are unfathomable.” And that is so true. However well we know someone (or believe we know someone), we cannot know for certain what is in their mind, let alone in their heart.
In the coursebook for the Great Course, Writing Great Fiction, Storytelling Tips and Techniques, Professor James Hynes comments that real people are much more complex than the most complicated fictional character. As we heard in our first reading, he wrote, “We know the people in our lives by what they look like, what they say, what they do, and what other people tell us about them… Consider the fleeting and digressive nature of your own inner life. Then, consider how impossible it would be to express that inner life to another person. Remember, too, that every other person in the world is experiencing the same kind of inner life, all the time. You quickly realize that each of us is alone in the universe inside our heads, surrounded by many other universes with which we can communicate only indirectly.”
“Each of us is alone in the universe inside our heads.” That is quite a sobering thought. Aside from the rare people who have the power of telepathy, it is simply not possible for the vast majority of us to know what another person is thinking, let alone what they are feeling. However close we are to them, however well we think we know them. Human beings are enormously complex, each containing a complete private universe.
The mother in the story which Joy Croft shared, which we heard as our second reading, learns this the hard way. But during her attempts to find “a house that has never known sorrow”, she slowly begins to realise that the great bond which holds humankind together, in spite of the fact that each of us is ultimately unknowable to anyone else, is shared sorrow, shared empathy, shared compassion.
As Francis Terry said, in the words of our Time of Stillness and Reflection, we must “acknowledge with awe how much there is in each [person] which is beyond our understanding. We think of men, women and children throughout the earth, of whom we have no personal knowledge, but who are involved in events which we hear of in the news, and those everywhere who make up the ordinary daily flow of human experience. We are aware of them as a great mass of varied joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, of every sort of personal relationship, and our hearts begin to respond in sympathy – but how faintly compared with the depth and reality of each person involved.”
Yet I believe that, by using our powers of empathy and compassion, by truly listening to the other person, without our own agenda getting in the way, by observing their body language (that great non-verbal aspect of communication), we can make an educated guess about what they are thinking, what they are feeling. Imperfect though this process may be.
And it is up to us to do this hard work, to not judge others purely by “what they look like, what they say, what they do, and what other people tell us about them.” Because this will inevitably be a superficial judgement. It is only when we listen to others with compassion in our hearts, that we might begin to fathom the mystery that is at the heart of every other person we encounter in the world.
There is a wonderful story, which was circulated on the internet a while ago, which illustrated the vital importance of showing compassion for other people. It’s called The Wooden Bowl:
“A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth.
The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. ‘We must do something about Father,’ said the son. ‘I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.’
So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in Grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.
The four-year-old watched it all in silence.
One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, ‘What are you making?’
Just as sweetly, the boy responded, ‘Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up.’ The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done.
That evening the husband took Grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.”
Sometimes, we need a reminder of the importance of compassion. In the story I just shared, the parents are made to see their lack of compassion through the innocent actions and words of their son. I have said that it is not possible for us to know what another person is thinking or feeling – we are all mysteries to one another. But it is possible to use our compassion to sense it.
As Unitarians, our beliefs and values chime in closely with the principle of compassion. Let me share an extract from the old leaflet, A Faith Worth Thinking About:
“We affirm that people should enjoy individual liberty and private judgement in spiritual matters; that respect for integrity is preferable to the pressure to conform; and that our beliefs may change in the light of new understanding and insight.”
“Unitarians find their bond of unity in shared values, such as … mutual respect and good will in personal relations; constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others; peace, compassion, justice and democracy in human affairs.”
We are a Unitarian community. If we are to embrace the path of compassion, we need to start here, where we are. Let us ask ourselves the questions
- Have I shown mutual respect and goodwill to my friends and neighbours?
- Have I practiced constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others?
- Am I doing as I would be done by?
I believe that there is little point in giving money to charities to help with environmental and man-made disasters, if we are not following the Golden Rule in our everyday lives, and treating the people we meet and interact with every day with respect and benevolence and compassion.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we should not give money to charity or act charitably in the wider world; far from it. But until we get our local, everyday lives right, our heads and hearts will not be in the right place to make a beneficial difference in the wider world.
Every human being is a mystery to every other human being. What matters is that we try to “assume positive intent” on the part of the people we interact with every day, on the part of the people we read about, hear about, in the news. That is, we try to cut other people some slack, to believe that they are doing the best they can, in their own unique situation. If we encounter others with this assumption in our minds, then we will find it easier to penetrate their mystery, using compassion and empathy, rather than judging them to be wanting, right off the bat.
I’m not saying this is easy, nor simple – it is far easier to move right into judgement. Us and Them. Right and Wrong. Especially when the person concerned is doing or saying something we disagree with. Particularly, perhaps, when we don’t know them personally, and are so less likely to know them, in the true sense of that word, at all. Of course, there will be times when we have to condemn the actions of another, if they are harming someone or something – I’m not saying we should be inactive in the face of injustice and cruelty. Nevertheless, in our day to day encounters with ordinary people, I think it may be helpful to remember that every person is at the centre of their own story, that every person is ultimately unknowable by us, a mystery to us.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we respect the mystery that is every human being,
And strive to use empathy and compassion,
Rather than judgement in our dealings.
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