Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point).
words by words by Sarah Lammert (adapted)
The element of fire represents passion,
veracity, authenticity, and vitality.
If the chalice is the supporting structure of Unitarianism,
then we are the flame.
We are the flame, fanned strong by our passion for freedom,
our yearning for truth-telling,
our daring to be authentic with one another,
and the vitality we sustain in our meeting together.
In all of this there is 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, Amen
Story: from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
“Real isn’t how you are made”, said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” the Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.
But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
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 Cleanliness from Inner Beauty, published by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University
Cleanliness of spirit means coming close, without fear, to accept a penetrating gaze knowing you’ve nothing to hide. It comes with a happy mind and constant checking.
Happiness in the mind is based on serenity. Not reacting suddenly to mood or circumstance, neither flinching at adversity, nor jumping for joy. A pliancy in which it just moves with the times, quiet but alert. It is also based on fulfilment of the senses – when the eyes are seeing the unseen and the ears hearing the unheard, piercing the subtleties of life, there is happiness. When reactions are based not on the incoming messages, on what is second hand, but on the deep original knowledge that is first hand – there is happiness. There is happiness when the mind meets life freshly, doesn’t fall into patterns or expect too much, but recognises its own value simply because it is a marvellous piece of machinery. There is happiness when the mind is nurtured.
This nurturing is a constant checking, a vigilance against imposters. When a mind is working deeply, it is alert. But sometimes, in its silence, it misses the superficial threats, the endless flow of thoughts from other minds to which it is exposed constantly. It can imagine these thoughts are its own and instead of straightforwardly expelling them, it tries to train them into quietness. This is called working with dirt. Anything that lands on the mind from outside and slips into its reactions is a pollution of the spirit. Be alert to this challenge. It is called life.
So what is cleanliness? It is maintaining absolutely who you are, reacting from the core of you, disentangling irrelevance, moving forward in a straight line. And if anyone scrutinises, they see only honest hard work, which doesn’t mind being watched, because it knows that perfection is on the horizon. A way off, but still there.
Prayer by Lucy Harris
Creative Spirit, who gives us the power
to set our own meaning to our lives:
Help us to look afresh at our fears and failings
in such a way that we can instead
take the bold step of trusting.
Trusting ourselves to be true to our uniqueness
in a way that is good for us,
and fulfilling of our role in the universe.
Trusting others that there will be that of good and security
that will give our lives clarity and meaning.
Trusting You that there is form and pattern
within which we can move and learn according to our nature.
And all of this, so that we add into the sum
of all inclusion, connection, and love, and hence
oneness in the world. Amen
Reading Standing still by Eila Forrester, from Celebrations
On this desolate day, on this deserted shore,
the empty sea engulfs me.
I stand: only the echo of crunching pebbles, only the lonely cry of a curlew
somewhere inland, to disturb the quiet.
I need this emptiness, this expanse of sea, to refresh my soul.
I stand and stare without thought, letting the sea and the wide grey sky absorb me.
Why do we build lives so full of fret and anxiety that the innermost parts of the soul’s core are choked with busy-ness?
I had almost got to the point when I did not notice the hand I love touch mine, to the point when I asked, but did not hear, how my friends lived their lives.
– Until I stopped by this shore.
I have resolved so often before to stand still.
What is the point of my resolving yet again?
I who believe in inward things, neglect my own inwardness.
How can I offer peace to others if my own soul knows none?
But I will not feel guilt or self blame.
I will not destroy this moment.
I know now that here, on a grey day, there is an emptying and a renewal.
I know that this moment has come before: startled by the flame of a flower
caught by a line in a poem my soul’s refreshment comes.
I know now that this is prayer.
Stand still and hold it.
Time of Stillness and Reflection For Ourselves by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth (adapted)
We pause to be conscious of that which
makes each of us unique –
the colour of our eyes and hair and skin;
our height and build; the face that is ours
alone; the inner self that no one knows;
our heritage of genes and family, of culture
and of faith, with which we build
our own special lives;
the abilities and disabilities that give us our
potential to grow and create as no-one else can;
the place where we live – the town or city,
the village, coast or countryside – that helps
to make us who we are;
our interests and hobbies; our taste in music,
books, or fashion; our likes and dislikes – all
the things that make us distinct.
Let us give thanks for who we are:
as individuals, each one unique;
as humankind, in which our individuality
contributes to the whole.
Let us respect and celebrate our own uniqueness
and each other’s too.
May it be so, Amen
Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
I’d like to begin this address by repeating the final paragraph of our second reading, by the Brahma Kumaris: “So what is cleanliness? It is maintaining absolutely who you are, reacting from the core of you, disentangling irrelevance, moving forward in a straight line. And if anyone scrutinises, they see only honest hard work, which doesn’t mind being watched, because it knows that perfection is on the horizon. A way off, but still there.”
Which sounds like a far off goal, for most of us. Certainly it is for me. To live authentically, in synchronicity with our own values, is something we can aspire to, but I’m not sure many of us achieve it, 100 per cent (or even 50 per cent) of the time.
And, to be absolutely honest, it feels to me like quite a cold, perfectionist way of living. This “maintaining absolutely who you are, reacting from the core of you, disentangling irrelevance, moving forward in a straight line.” I believe instead that truly authentic living is taking the rough with the smooth, allowing ourselves to be perfectly imperfect, at least some of the time.
I have come to understand that if we spend our whole lives trying to achieve perfection, we will inevitably fail. Because no-one is perfect. We all have off days, when we fall short of the best people we can be. And that’s okay, that’s forgivable. It is, above all, human to fall short sometimes.
If I am honest, I have put this service together as much for me as for you. For much of my life, I have been a very judgemental person, summing up situations and people almost instantly. And I have very often been wrong. And one of the people I have been most wrong about (because most harsh and judgemental about) is myself.
I love the words of Francis de Sales, a Catholic bishop in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, who wrote, “When it comes to being gentle, start with yourself. Don’t get upset with your imperfections. … It’s a great mistake – because it leads nowhere – to get angry because you are angry, upset at being upset, disappointed because you are disappointed. … You cannot correct a mistake by repeating it.”
“It is a great mistake, because it leads nowhere. You cannot correct a mistake by repeating it.” Oh.
The first time I read those words, a few years ago, I was working through a period of fierce self-hatred. There were issues in my life that I wasn’t happy with – which have since, I am glad to say, been largely resolved – and I hated myself for how I was reacting to the situation.
Now “hate” is a very strong word. And I am learning that it is one to avoid if possible. Because as soon as we begin to hate, all rationality goes out of the window. Emotions take over, and who knows where they may lead? Or rather, we know only too well where the emotion of hatred may lead – to racism, sexism, homophobia, and any number of other -isms, none of which do us or the victim of them any good. Even, or perhaps even especially, if that victim is ourselves.
So I read those words of Francis de Sales and realised that all I was doing was to pile anger on top of anger, upset on top of upset, and disappointment on top of disappointment, rather than trying to gently, rationally explore how *not to* repeat my mistakes. Which process is, I guess, what the Brahma Kumaris were talking about. And learning how, instead, to move on, and heal, and heal others.
I saw a quote by the Buddha on Facebook the other day, which illustrates this very nicely: “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
“Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Just roll that around in your mind for a moment and consider the implications of it. [pause] It means that when we feel negative emotions and let them eat us up inside (because this is not only true of anger) it is WE who are suffering, not the person against whom they are directed. For me, realising this was quite a revelation, which cast new light on my life.
Unfortunately, there is one passage in the Christian Gospels, which seems to say that Christians should strive for perfection, when Jesus is reported as telling the people listening to his Sermon on the Mount “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It comes at the end of a long section of the Sermon in Matthew’s gospel, when he is citing the Jewish Law, and saying the law says do this, but I say do this as well. And I truly believe that what he was actually asking people was to be the very best people they could be. But those two words “Be perfect” have set up Christians down the centuries for failure.
Further on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also bids us to be wary of judging others if our own copybook is less than spotless: He warns the assembled crowd against judgement, which surely includes self-judgement. Let me share the passage, which I’m sure will be familiar to most of you. He says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye. You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye. … In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” This of course is known as the Golden Rule, and there are parallels to it in almost every religion.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Speaking as a Unitarian, I do not believe that there will be a final Day of Judgement, when some almighty supreme being will divide us all into sheep and goats, saved and sinners. And yet it is so difficult for many of us, and I would certainly include myself here, to *stop* sitting in judgement, on ourselves and others. And by and large, where does it get us, in terms of a happier, more peaceful, more compassionate world? That’s right, it gets us nowhere.
One of my favourite theologians, Richard Rohr, has a different take on the Christian gospels, which I rather like. He refers to “the spirituality of imperfection”, which “undermines the egoic use of religion for the purposes of self-esteem. Quite simply, (he writes) both Francis [of Assisi] and Therese of Lisieux recognized that you come to God not by being strong, but by being weak; not by being right, but through your mistakes; not by self-admiration, but by self-forgetfulness. Surprise of surprises! But it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, because both Jesus and Paul taught it rather clearly. Yet it was just too obvious, simple, and counter-intuitive to be true. This teaching utterly levels the playing field of holiness, so all losers can win – which is everybody, if we are honest.”
“You come to God not by being strong, but by being weak; not by being right, but through your mistakes; not by self-admiration, but by self-forgetfulness.” He is darn right when he says that this is counter-intuitive. But it is an insight that is widely shared by spiritual teachers of all faiths.
Which is why I love Eila Forrester’s poem, which was our final reading, so much. She writes about the cyclical nature of human life. Sometimes we are able to be our best selves; at other times, we fall short. And that is okay. Of course, we do need to do the shadow work – to look at the log in our own eyes, the flaws in our own characters, the old angers and grudges that we’ve been holding onto all these years, and we’ll then be able to be more compassionate towards others. Because once we’ve seen ourselves whole, and realised that actually, there are good bits as well as bad bits, we will be able to accept that they, like us, are imperfect beings. That they, like us, are worthy of love and respect in spite of their imperfections. Or even because of their imperfections.
It’s not an easy path – it is far easier to hold on to old grievances, and to plod along, feeling self-righteous and victimised, because of how mean other people are (or were) to us. It’s much harder to realise that hey, we are just as mean to other people sometimes, and that our job in life is to look at ourselves whole, and to accept ourselves whole, even the bits we’ve been denying for all these years. And I’m not saying that we’ll be able to manage it consistently – we are, after all, imperfect. And that is okay. Just so long as we are trying to live authentically, with all of ourselves.
To sum up what I have been trying to say, I believe that while spiritual cleanliness, as described by the Brahma Kumaris, is an incredibly worthwhile way of being, to which we should aspire, I see it as a reminder, rather than a goal. Because we are all human, all imperfect, and we should absolutely not beat ourselves up every time we fall short of our best selves. Instead, we should pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start again.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we strive to be our best selves,
but forgive ourselves and each other for falling short.
May we learn to live with our imperfections.
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