Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Alex Brianson
Spirit of Life, you who animate the Universe
Help us to remember the gift that is a human life.
With our consciousness and senses, we can touch, taste, see and feel
So much that is good, and alluring, and enticing.
Spirit of Life, some of us here today may be thinking of concerns more than joys,
Of loss rather than enjoyment.
For those of us, we ask for healing and restoration.
To those of us, we pledge our aid.
Just as cares arise, so shall they pass.
Just as grief pains, new joy beckons.
Spirit of Life, may we remember that life is a dance.
And may we ensure that we move to the rhythm divine.
So may it be.
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 David Usher.
We light this candle as a symbol of our faith.
By its light may our vision be illumined;
By its warmth may our fellowship be encouraged;
And by its flame may our yearnings for peace, justice
and the life of the spirit be enkindled.
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,
Reading: from Respect, from Inner Beauty: A Book of Virtues by the Brahma Kumaris
Respect is never catching anyone out, never pulling at their shortcomings so that they become a target for laughter. It means watching and nurturing strength and it is based on the awareness that everyone has value, because everyone is unique. It rests also on humility, because humility knows that what’s visible in a fool is only a chapter of their whole story.
So respect is keeping yourself equidistant between strength and weakness. Not advertising strength outright but gently highlighting it by giving it a task. With a child, not saying: you’re such a good painter, but just giving [him] paper and brushes; with a child, not saying: you’re a hopeless painter, but just giving [her] paper and a pen instead. Never to ignore weakness, for that is disrespect, just to provide a different focus.
Where there is real respect, there is the understanding that talents are constantly changing and sometimes it is just a matter of where the light is falling as to what is seen. Where the sun isn’t shining doesn’t indicate a gap; only that something is resting in the shadow. You just never know what’s there, so it’s best not to kill anyone by categorising them.
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 Respect, from Inner Beauty: A Book of Virtues by the Brahma Kumaris
It is as fruitful to respect things as it is to respect people. To respect things has its origin in respecting the body – with all its strengths and weaknesses. To approach with the same balance – neither selling beauty nor ridiculing ugliness, neither advertising health nor indulging pain. The middle way is like standing in the doorway, touching nothing. …
Where there has been disregard for anyone or anything, there is hurt. The repercussions are enormous. Where a person has been hurt, the rebound is often obscure and dangerous, hard to identify, because you can’t just say: you’ve hurt me. It’s hard to be direct, so someone walking by suddenly gets hit instead and a whole chain begins. Where a thing has been abused, disrespected, then it causes trouble. It breaks, makes a mess, holds you up. Either way, disrespect takes away freedom and blocks the way.
Where there is respect, it is like forging a straight path through life, so that you can reach a point of stillness, and then, looking back, see only light. Nothing pushed into the shadows to create shortcuts, and no sudden reawakenings of old feelings. You’ve walked poised through life, observing the ups and downs with dignity. The result is that the respect you’ve given returns to you.
Prayer by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place
God of Love,
you who know our weakness
so much more than we do ourselves,
fill our hearts with the will to forgive
and the grace to be forgiven.
It is so hard to transcend our hurt,
our anger and our pain,
and sometimes we despair.
But somewhere deep in ourselves,
your loving spirit is at work –
help us, O help us, to know it and receive it.
Reading Love within us by Ann Latham, from With Heart and Mind 2
In 1983, three of our four children married within four weeks of each other and in consequence left the family home to create their own family units. No longer was I in charge of their wellbeing – if mothers ever are in charge! And I had a crisis of identity, experiencing a feeling of redundancy within the family. I felt strange, disorientated, and for a while, when preparing our evening meal, I boiled a large saucepan of potatoes – for three! Many of us at some stage on our journey through life ask the question, “Who am I?”
My response to this question came some time after those three weddings. I put pen to paper and allowed the pen to express my innermost feelings – unabridged. Strange to say, verse emerged, ending with an answer to my question – “Who am I?”
The answer? “I am a person and will build on this.” Though not good verse, it helped me discover and rediscover the person hidden deep within the outward me.
Martin Buber wrote, “Every person is unique, a gift to unfold and make flower,” and from John Ruskin, “The weakest among us has a gift, however seemingly trivial, which is one’s own and, worthily used, is a gift to be offered to life.”
Today, our “doing” often overpowers our “being” and we lose sight of who and what we are and forget that each one is a distinctive individual expression of a Universal Life Force or Spirit beyond our complete understanding. If we believe the Life Spirit to be Love, then surely Love is within us too.
I can now say with conviction, “I am a person of worth, as we all are, because we have Love within us.”
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Ann Latham, adapted
Spirit of Life and Love,
In all the busy-ness of life, may we take time out
to Stop, Look, and Listen.
Look at the stars at night, marvel at the vastness of space
and the Life Force motivating it – and then listen.
Listen to the sounds of the world in which we live:
the rustle of the wind in the trees,
the singing of birds, especially early morning when all is quiet,
the laughter of children at play,
and the crying of someone or something in distress.
Who are we?
We are part of this wondrous world,
in its joy and sorrow… and we give thanks.
Great Spirit of Life,
May we be worthy expressions
of your Universal Love for all.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
When my daughter Becky was still quite young (certainly at primary school) she came home one day with a piece of paper for me. I can’t remember the exact details, but she had been asked to describe her mother in three words. And the words she had chosen were “Strong, Determined, Positive”. And I thought, “I’ll take that.” It was interesting to see how she perceived me, to see myself through my daughter’s eyes, as a person with positive qualities, and worthy of respect.
It must have happened in the late nineties / early noughties, as I can remember chanting the words to myself like a mantra as I ran, to encourage myself up the hills. I still find them helpful and reassuring today, reminders that I am strong, determined and positive.
Which goes to show that labels can be positive as well as negative. It depends on the spirit in which they are given, I think. Although in general, I still maintain that labelling others is wrong. We are each “unique, precious, a child of God” as the Quakers say. All worthy of respect, just the way we are.
So much for ourselves as others see us. The other half of that equation is “others as we see them”, which has the potential to be far more dangerous. Because if we are not careful, we can fall into judgement and “othering”, seeing other people as somehow less than we are ourselves. It can lead to all sorts of -isms: sexism, racism, homophobia. Which are the opposite of respect.
Ultimately, every time we judge someone by how they identify themselves or how we identify them – by what they look like, how they dress, the colour of their skin, their age, their religious faith, their sexual orientation, their gender, we are not respecting their unique embodiment as a human being. Whenever we judge people by what they are, rather than for their behaviour, we are guilty of being non-inclusive, on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, age, size and [dis]ability, to name the most common differences. And this seems to be all too prevalent in UK society today, no matter what we look like or whom we are attracted to.
Why do we do this to ourselves, to each other? We are all human beings, each one unique, each one worthy of love and justice and respect, each one with unique gifts to offer the world. As my friend Yvonne Aburrow once wrote, “everyone is an unique combination of beauty and diversity, and we should celebrate that. And each form of oppression of that beauty and diversity is different, with its own distinct history, which is different in different places, which is why we need feminism, and LGBT liberation, and Black liberation, and the disability rights campaign,… rather than a single munged-together ‘human’ campaign.”
We need to learn to be aware of ourselves and each other as “unique combinations of beauty and diversity” and to respect and appreciate the struggles that each of us goes through to be recognised as such.
We also need to take the time and trouble to understand the faiths of others, their religious and spiritual beliefs. And not to condemn them with devastating generalities, as has happened all too frequently in the case of Muslims since 9/11, more than twenty years ago. Even Unitarians, who consider themselves to be very tolerant and inclusive, are often not so. At our best, we share the wisdom we have found on our faith journeys and are open to being influenced by the beliefs and wisdom of others.
As I have said before, when I came to Unitarianism at the age of 18, it was in reaction to certain tenets of Christianity, which I could not believe – such as Jesus being the unique Son of God, born of a virgin; the idea of original sin, that we are all born with fatal flaws; and also the doctrine of the atonement – the belief that Jesus’s death on the cross two thousand years ago is the only thing that can bring us back into right relationship with God the Father. I reacted strongly against these beliefs, which meant that for many years, I was what might be called an “ABC Unitarian” – anything but Christianity. My mind was closed to the wisdom of that religion.
But in the last decade or so, I have consciously tried to let go of this negativity about Christianity. I have met, and read books by, many Christians, and have found that Christianity is far more diverse than I had believed, and that many Christians hold beliefs that are important to me, that I have now integrated into my own belief system. That God is Love, and that Love is at the centre of everything. That Jesus’s teaching centred on love and compassion for others. That the Spirit of the divine is active in our lives, if only we are wide awake enough to sense it.
I think this is also important in the wider context of how we live in society and how we react to events in the news. Which is by no means consistent. All of us bring our own agendas, our own pre-conceived attitudes, to what we read and hear. We find it only too easy to lazily believe what we are told, and not make the stringent effort to seek out the deeper truths for ourselves. So that we respond with love, rather than reflexive anger and indignation (or not).
I have also learned that it is very easy to be judgemental about the mannerisms of others, and allow that to get in the way of our respect for them as individuals. To share a silly example, you may have watched comedian, Michael McIntyre, on TV. His trademark style is to pace up and down constantly while he is talking, which I find so distracting. I find it much easier to appreciate his jokes if I listen rather than watching him. I think it may be because I was taught that it is polite to focus on a person’s face when they are talking to you, and the prowling or pacing makes this very difficult, and hence I feel uneasy.
Of course, I realise that I, too, probably have mannerisms which annoy or distract other people, which I’m not aware of because I can’t see myself. There is a lovely passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which illustrates this perfectly:
“When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient, that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy – if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this is easily managed.”
It is so easy for us to make judgements about people for superficial reasons like this. And so very wrong. We need to remember, to constantly have in mind, the Quaker words, I quoted earlier: “each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.” And should not be judged, but seen whole, and loved and respected just the way they are. This is the heart of compassion.
I believe it is only when we go through the process which Ann Latham described in our final reading, only when we truly know ourselves and learn to love ourselves, flaws, warts and all, that we can become our best selves. It is only when we are true to ourselves and are at peace with who we are, that we can reach out to others, knowing that they, too, are “unique, precious, children of God”.
Every single person ever born has “that of God” in them and is worthy of love and respect. So easy to write or say, so difficult to put into practice. But at least it can be a gold standard, to which we can aspire. So that every time we meet a new person, we do not judge them by what we see on the surface, but take the trouble to get to know them properly. So that the divine spark in us can reach out to the divine spark in them. We are all human and imperfect, and all need the love and support and respect of others to make our way in the world.
I will leave you with the words of the Brahma Kumaris: “Where there is real respect, there is the understanding that talents are constantly changing and sometimes it is just a matter of where the light is falling as to what is seen. Where the sun isn’t shining doesn’t indicate a gap; only that something is resting in the shadow. You just never know what’s there, so it’s best not to kill anyone by categorising them.”
May it be so, Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we be open to others as complete people,
and stay out of judgement, rather
Learning to treat each unique person with respect.
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