Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We gather to share
in the spirit of freedom,
in the spirit of honesty.
We gather to focus
our love in prayer,
to send it to those
who suffer and grieve –
in our own community
and in the wider world.
We gather to strengthen
the good that is in us,
that goodness may be
stronger on the earth.
We gather to worship.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) 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,
Suffering in any way, Amen
Reading from The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski
It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”
I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.
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 Reverence for Life by Feargus O’Connor, from With Heart and Mind 2
Let us pay tribute to those inspirational human voices over the centuries which have boldly spoken out for compassion for all our fellow creatures. Some have been religious, inspired by living faith traditions; others, freethinkers who, animated by humane feelings and a spirit of loving kindness, have striven to create a kinder and more compassionate world for all sentient beings who share this planet with us….
A modern religious thinker who has embraced this essentially religious ethic was the humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Albert Schweitzer. He argued that any religion or philosophy not based on a respect for life was not a true and authentic one. ‘Today it is considered an exaggeration to proclaim constant respect for every form of life as being the serious demand of a rational ethic’, Schweitzer wrote. ‘But the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognised that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics, [which] in its unqualified form extended responsibility to everything that has life. The time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.’
Each of us can express that compassion in life-affirming actions.
Prayer Incarnations by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
in humility, but not in shame,
we bow before you,
One whom we cannot name,
lest names divide.
because we wonder at your transcendent immensity,
at your loving ideal immanent in ourselves.
But not in shame,
for it is not disgrace to be human,
whatever the follies and failing of each of us.
You have bent into our humanity
to dwell here.
not just into one of us – once upon a time –
but always, eternally, into all of us.
May we live with the knowledge
of who we are
– frail, imperfect, transient;
– eternal power
incarnate for a moment
Let us use that moment well.
Reading Called to Care by Celia Midgley, from With Heart and Mind (adapted)
How often do we hear the words, ‘I don’t care’ – uttered with a shrug of indifference, or even anger? I heard them again this morning. ‘I don’t care about…’, the man began, and I half stopped listening as he launched into his own concerns, the things he did care about. His vehemence silenced his hearers. It was not that he did not have a point. It was his lack of caring for another’s.
It is easy to say that we do not care. It is a way of not engaging with others. It is the way of the bully, of the demagogue. It wins the plaudits of the crowd. But it succeeds by sweeping aside others’ viewpoints and sensitivities.
We are called to care. Care about everything, the small and the great. Care about tiny plants and creatures, about large trees and rivers, about buildings and cities. Care about people we pass on the street, make way for them. Care about those we may never meet but who, like us, inhabit this world.
Caring is the more difficult path. It compels us to review constantly all that we say and do. It slows us down. But it helps us to balance our lives, and to take tentative steps towards peace.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Celia Midgley)
Loving God, help us to love
our neighbour as ourselves.
Create in us a tender heart for all that lives,
for all that may grow.
Make us aware of the fragility
and potential of human beings.
Let our passion ever be tempered with kindness,
our lives with humility,
and however hard the path,
may caring be our calling.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Ascent of Man
Fifty years ago last Friday, the first episode of Jacob Bronowski’s ground-breaking series, The Ascent of Man, was televised by the BBC. I can dimly remember watching it and wondering at how far we had come as a human race. The thirteen episodes followed the development of humankind through our understanding of science. The first five programmes dealt with our evolution from the earliest stages of human life to the height of the Middle Ages. Episodes six onwards covered the beginnings of modern science, from Galileo’s discovery of the heliocentric universe, through the laws of Newton and Einstein, the effects of science and technology as seen in the Industrial Revolution, and on Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories on the origin of species, and developments in modern chemistry, biology and physics.
In episodes 11 and 12 in particular, Bronowski shared his misgivings about what people do with their imperfect knowledge of science, which can lead to dreadful, or at best ambiguous, outcomes – the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and modern developments in genetics, such as cloning. It was a fascinating series, and the book which came from it is well worth reading.
I wonder what Bronowski would have made of the developments in our world in the fifty years since the programme was broadcast – the many ways in which we have raped and pillaged the natural world in the name of human progress, let alone the many examples of “man’s inhumanity to man”, to quote Robert Burns. Sadly, we will never know, as he died the following year. Interestingly, the series was commissioned by David Attenborough, who has been a staunch speaker on the high costs of human progress in terms of the rest of the world with whom we share this planet.
In our second reading, Feargus O’Connor quotes the words of the theologian, musicologist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician, Albert Schweitzer, who wrote, “But the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognised that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics, [which] in its unqualified form extended responsibility to everything that has life. The time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
Let me rephrase that last sentence: “Until we extend the circle of our compassion to all living things, we will not ourselves find peace.” A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about how urgent it is becoming to step back from our “onwards and upward forever” mindset and to consider instead how vital it is to protect what is left of the earth, which we have despoiled so badly in the last two hundred and fifty or so years. We urgently need to bring our relationship to the world back into a better balance.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise very early in human history. And people have been searching for the elusive ideal of “paradise” ever since. In the twelfth century, the Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “You do not enter the garden of paradise with your feet, but with your heart.” To which I would add, and by using our brains and minds, so that we think before we act.
There is a fascinating article about the concept of Paradise by Hugh S. Pyper in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. In it, he explains the various theories about Paradise – it is “the garden of the Lord”, or a reference to a Golden Age, or the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blest, or a physical garden somewhere in the Middle East. At the end of the article, he brings it right up to date, writing, “But the quest for the earthly paradise has never quite died… Even for those Christians who would not read the geography of Genesis literally, paradise has lately gained new significance as a reminder of the natural order which has been threatened by human despoliation of the earth. It also holds out a vision of a world restored to ecological balance and transcending social, sexual and racial difference.”
Perhaps paradise is only attainable when we stop treating the earth as a resource to be used and start to think of it as a precious place to be respected, cleaned up and cared for. As I said a fortnight ago, but do not apologise for repeating, in the “old days” (that is, before the Industrial Revolution) most of humankind lived much more closely to the earth. It is only in the last two hundred and fifty years, with the huge technological so-called “advances” that have been made in Western society (so well documented by Bronowski in the programmes) that the connection has been broken. In that time, to quote Jonathan Helfand, a Jewish theologian, “Western man has acted as master and lord of his environment, paying no heed to the effects of his actions on the environment. In the name of progress, water, land, air, and the wildlife they support have been despoiled and depleted, perhaps beyond reclaim.”
Earlier, I quoted the well-known phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man” from the 18th century Scottish poet, Robert Burns. And discovered that it is from an incredibly depressing poem of his called Man was made to mourn: a dirge. It seems that even then, in 1784, when the poem was written, the inequalities of society were beginning to be recognised. He writes of the moors, where “hundreds labour to support a haughty lordling’s pride” and continues in words that seem peculiarly applicable to our lives in the 21st century, if we take his use of the word “man” to apply to all of humankind.
“O man! While in thy early years, / How prodigal of time! / Mis-spending all thy precious hours – / Thy glorious, youthful prime! / Alternate follies take the sway; / Licentious passions burn; / Which tenfold force gives Nature’s law. / That man was made to mourn. / Look not alone on youthful prime, / Or manhood’s active might; / Man then is useful to his kind / Supported in his right; / But see him on the edge of life, / With cares and sorrows worn; / Then Age and Want – oh! Ill-match’d pair – / Shew man was made to mourn.”
I wonder whether as a human race, we are now past our “youthful prime” or “manhood’s active might”, when we could not see beyond the present good of the privileged few, could not comprehend how our actions exacerbated – are still exacerbating – the poverty and hard living conditions of the many, nor yet our impact on the wider family of all living things.
Or whether we have one last chance to make things right. By beginning to listen to the voices of the climate change protestors, of the International Panel for Climate Change, or of the many people who can now clearly see the massive effect our current ways of being are having on other people, on other living beings, on the Earth. As Jacob Bronowski wrote fifty years ago, “We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”
We are people of faith. And for me, that includes faith in the ability of humankind to transcend its self interest for the greater good of not only human society, but also that of all other living beings. We have to begin where we are, in the context of our local communities. There was a fascinating session about Rooted Ministry at this year’s GA meetings. In her article about it in the current issue of The Inquirer, Rev Maud Robinson wrote, “[Rev Oscar Sinclair] invited us to spend some time looking closely at our congregation’s context, by answering the following questions about our own church or chapel: What does your neighbourhood look like? Who lives nearby? What facilities are nearby, and what’s missing? What is the congregation’s relationship to the community that surrounds it?”
I believe these are questions which every Unitarian congregation needs to answer. As Maud comments, “Maybe, one of our future tools will be to open up our space to the wider community, not with the aim of getting bums on pews or recruiting new committee members, but simply to get new groups of people interacting with each other, in order to find out what the future might be, and how human beings can continue to flourish into the 21st century and beyond.”
Maybe then, we will have something to rejoice about, rather than only things to mourn. I surely hope so. Because, as Celia Midgley wrote in our final reading, “We are called to care. Care about everything, the small and the great. Care about tiny plants and creatures, about large trees and rivers, about buildings and cities. Care about people we pass on the street, make way for them. Care about those we may never meet but who, like us, inhabit this world.”
May it be so, Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we choose the better path,
by taking action to make our world
a more equal, greener place.
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