Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We are here to love –
to love each other,
to love our frail, wounded selves,
to love our broken world,
and to love its suffering people.
Let us worship so that
love will flow.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point).
words by Gordon B. McKeeman
“Let there be light!”
Let it shine in dark places,
in moments of pain,
in times of grief,
in the darkness of hatred,
where there is discouragement and despair.
Wherever darkness is to be put to flight,
“Let there be light!”
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, Amen
Reading Benevolence from Inner Beauty, published by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University
Benevolence is silent good will. It is like the sun shining on hard ground, softening the earth, melting the ice, but with no design or intention to heal. It is a state of naturalness, which is why it works because the ground feels no debt to the sun. In the same way, to be on the receiving end of benevolence is to be receiving something for which there is no return. Not even a pressure to respond – which is why one does, so easily.
Benevolence is a state of being, reliant on itself alone. It has nothing to do with feelings of mercy or preference, sudden stabs of love, it just is. It offers nothing specific, but everyone is drawn to it. It answers no questions, but it enables you to think. It teaches nothing, but because of it you can learn.
To be benevolent is to have forged a link so strong with an unbroken source of energy, that even the interruptions of life cannot block that constant refuelling. However dry life is, the tide keeps turning again and again, always. And in the moments just before turning, when life has taken you to the limits, you just know that you’re on the brink of a great in-flow, and so you stay quiet, acknowledging temporary emptiness – only as a prelude. Only if you hurt someone, does the tide stop turning and you are grounded, and have to fight.
To have become benevolent is the best help you can be to anyone, because benevolence has no shape, any more than sunlight has, but it can filter into the quiet corners of panic in a person’s mind and lighten the burden.
It is the least intrusive virtue and yet it is welcomed everywhere.
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 Rising Strong by Brené Brown
After a difficult encounter with a room-mate at a conference, Brené Brown tells the story of taking her issues to her counsellor, who responded, “I do, however, think that in general people are doing the best they can.” So Brené began to do some research into this question of assuming good intent, asking more than forty people the simple question: Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?…
She reports, “clear patterns and themes emerged… First, those who said they believe that people are doing the best they can consistently qualified their answers: ‘I know it sounds naïve…’ or ‘You can’t be sure, but I think so…’ or ‘I know it sounds weird…’ They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.
Those who believe that people are not doing the best they can were unequivocal and passionate in their responses. I never once heard, ‘I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.’ It was always some version of an emphatic, ‘No! Absolutely not! No way!’”
Prayer Three Things by Jan Taddeo (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
The storm outside echoes the
storm raging within my soul.
So many people in need…
so much pain, so much grief.
Too many causes and campaigns
fill my mailboxes, sap my energy,
beg for my money.
Three things I must do…only three things?
You’ve got to be kidding—which three do I choose?
Books and letters, magnets and movies
implore me to dance as if no one is watching
learn seven habits and make four agreements
give generously, vote often, express myself!
Yet hundreds, thousands, millions live with hunger
and thirst, in poverty, enduring violence, and disease.
Did Mother Teresa, Martin and Gandhi cry out
with despair from the darkness of overwhelm?
What three things did they choose?
Three things. Three things we must do.
Is it to act in kindness, serve justice, love God and your
neighbour even as you love yourself.
But where do I start?
So much thoughtlessness,
hatred and fear.
Too little justice, too much selfishness.
Where is God? Who is my neighbour?
Three things…seven principles, ten commandments, twelve steps…
all number of things speak to us; and yet,
we must choose.
We must choose to do something, so three things
may be the right number…not too few, not too many.
But which three things shall I do? Will you do?
Here’s an adage I’ve always liked:
Don’t just do something, stand there.
Stand in the surf, or sit on a rock, or lay your
body across the earthy loam…and be quiet.
Very quiet. [silence for count of 20]
Do you hear it? That still small voice, the
echo of your soul, reverberating with the call
to your own true self to emerge.
Then the calm within becomes the calm without.
The storm blows over, the sun recovers its position of strength,
And that glorious symbol of hope and unity emerges across the sky.
At the end of this rainbow, a treasure…
the three things you must do:
Go outside yourself and know the needs of the world.
Go within and discover your Life-given gifts.
Then arch yourself like a rainbow bridge between the two and
create a more beautiful world.
May it be so, Amen
Reading Standing on the Side of Love by Fred Small (excerpt)
I want to be standing on the side of love.
I’m talking about faith in action… I’m talking about intentionality. Understanding that our practice will be imperfect as each of us is imperfect, what is our purpose? What is our aspiration? What is our commitment?
To side with love…
When a child on a playground sticks up for another who is teased or bullied or left out because they’re different, that child is siding with love.
Siding with love affirms the full humanity of all people. It honours the inherent worth and dignity, the spark of the divine in each and every person.
Siding with love means treating each other well, whether ally or adversary. “Love is patient;” wrote the Apostle Paul, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”
Siding with love means being more committed to being reconciled than to being right. Love “does not insist on its own way…. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
A religious person, Rabbi Abraham Heschel taught us, is one “whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”
His friend Martin Luther King Jr. added, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
So when someone asks us what Unitarians believe, or why we’re speaking out on gay rights or immigrant rights or disability rights or human rights, or why we bother to go to church on a Sunday morning, let’s tell ‘em: We are siding with love.
Time of Stillness and Reflection by Laura Horton-Ludwig (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love, God of many names,
we are here because we believe what we do matters.
We are here because we believe how we live our life matters.
That with every act of kindness or meanness,
courage or fear,
love or hate,
we are weaving the fabric of the universe that holds us all.
We are here because we need encouragement.
Because we need strength.
Because so often, we get distracted.
We get in a rush,
we don’t think,
we choose the easy way
when the harder path is what our spirits truly long for.
Let us ponder these things in the silence… [silence]
Spirit of Life and Love,
We are here
because none of us is perfect,
but together we inspire one another.
To try again.
To take another step.
We are here because we have felt the stirrings of love and grace
in our hearts and hands and we crave more of that,
for ourselves and not only for ourselves: for everyone!
We are here because how we live matters.
May it be so, Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
My bedroom at home is the upper storey of a 1970s extension to our house, which was built long before we lived there. And part of the fashion of the period was to have a flat roof.
Last Thursday morning, I was woken up at about 4.15 by torrential rain beating on the roof and the bedroom window. It was very loud, and unrelenting. I snuggled down under my duvet and put in some earplugs.
The first thought that crossed my mind was “Thank goodness we went to Stowe Gardens yesterday, when the sun was shining, and the sky was a brilliant, vivid blue.” My husband and I are National Trust members, and we love visiting the Gardens at all seasons of the year. Yesterday, we saw carpets of snowdrops, bright spots of white against the grass, and heard a flock of raucous Canada geese having a fierce discussion about something or other. It was a gorgeous day, for which I am truly thankful.
Then I suddenly thought, Oh My God, what must it be like to be out in this? With no sound roof over my head, no warm, dry duvet to snuggle under… Then I recalled a childhood memory of having a small taste of what it must be like to be soaking wet and freezing cold. Admittedly from a very privileged perspective. When I was a child, my sister and I used to spend every weekend at the local riding stables, catching, caring for, and finally riding our ponies. Yes, we were privileged children.
But I can remember my feet feeling like lumps of ice inside my rubber boots, and my hands being so cold that they no longer belonged to me. Then, when we went home, the exquisite pleasure and acute discomfort of stepping into a warm bath… And leaping straight out again, convinced I had run it far too hot and it was burning me. Because the contrast between the temperature of the water and my frozen hands and feet was so great. Then, finally, immersing myself, slowly, carefully, and thawing out in a couple of ecstatic, painful minutes.
The question I (we) are facing this morning is “How can we close the gap between what we affirm as our values, and how we act in the world?” How do we become a benevolent force in the world? Because if you’re anything like me, or like Jan Taddeo in the prayer I shared earlier, you find it only too easy to drown in the multitude of pleas for help, for action, and end up doing… nothing.
Because it’s all too difficult to get our heads round. As Jan Taddeo says, so poignantly, “So many people in need… so much pain, so much grief. Too many causes and campaigns fill my mailboxes, sap my energy, beg for my money.” Particularly at this time of year perhaps, when it is cold and wet outside, and the contrast between our own privileged lives and those of the homeless are at their starkest.
The second Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association reads, “We affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Our own British Unitarian Object reads, “The Object of the Assembly is to promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.” The service of humanity. Yes.
How do we serve humanity by affirming and promoting justice, equity and compassion in our human relations? This is not an abstract question; it is the same as asking “How do we live our faith?” The website of Northampton Unitarians, my home congregation, states clearly, “We affirm the universal values of love and compassion, peace, truth and justice.” But what are we, what are Unitarians doing to turn that affirmation into action? How are we demonstrating love, compassion, peace, truth and justice in the world? In our small part of the world?
I think that the key word in the UUA’s second principle is compassion. Which Karen Armstrong writes about in her second volume of autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, writing, “Compassion does not of course mean to feel pity or condescension, but to feel with. … It is not enough to understand other people’s beliefs, rituals and ethical practices intellectually. You have to feel them too and make an imaginative though disciplined identification.”
As you might know, she went on to set up the Charter for Compassion, which among other things, says, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creature, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.” It strikes me how similar these words are to the second UUA principle, which affirms and promotes “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Interesting, huh?
I believe that we need to take Jan Taddeo’s advice and do three things: “Go outside ourselves and know the needs of the world. Go within and discover our Life-given gifts. Then arch ourselves like a rainbow bridge between the two and create a more beautiful world.”
Let’s not just talk about affirming and promoting justice, equity and compassion. Let’s not just talk about being a benevolent presence in the world. Let’s do something about it. Let’s start now. Choose one cause and get behind it, support it, live our values. I believe that the best way to do this is by taking the words of the Brahma Kumaris to heart and choosing to live from a benevolent place in our hearts, rather than standing in judgement.
Which is, of course, the point of Brené Brown’s story about asking people the question, “Do you believe that people are doing the best they can?” It is not, perhaps, a belief which comes naturally to many of us. It is so much easier to be self-righteous, to believe that others are falling short. Whereas in fact, if we instead choose to exercise our benevolence, if we instead choose to believe that people are doing the best they can with the tools they have at this present time, we will surely become more compassionate people.
As Fred Small explains in our final reading, making the choice to believe that people are doing the best they can, the choice to act benevolently is about, “standing on the side of love. I’m talking about faith in action… I’m talking about intentionality. Understanding that our practice will be imperfect as each of us is imperfect, what is our purpose? What is our aspiration? What is our commitment?”
He continues, “Siding with love means treating each other well, whether ally or adversary. ‘Love is patient;’ wrote the Apostle Paul, ‘love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.’ Siding with love means being more committed to being reconciled than to being right. Love ‘does not insist on its own way…. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’
Living benevolently is all about standing on the side of love. It means choosing to interpret people’s actions and words generously, so that we don’t jump to the instant conclusion that they are doing something we don’t agree with on purpose. It’s about taking the trouble to understand people’s motivations, about having the compassion to walk a mile in their shoes before judging them.
I’d like to finish with some words by bell hooks, the American cultural critic and writer, who explains how important love should be in our lives:
“Individuals who choose to love can and do alter our lives in ways that honour the primacy of a love ethic. We do this by choosing to work with individuals we admire and respect; by committing to give our all to relationships; by embracing a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on the planet.
Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions…. Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.”
May it be so, Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we choose benevolence over judgement,
Compassion and love over negativity.
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, Amen
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley