Necessary Pruning: Online Service for Sunday 20th August 2023


Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley


Opening Words by Alison Patrick, from Celebrating our Community


God of life, God of love,

God of the common things in life.

We know you are there but sometimes it is very hard to see you –

in the piles of paperwork on the desk;

in the e-mails in the inbox;

in the sink of washing up, in the supermarket and the petrol station;

on the school run and in the care home.

Our daily duties and routines can seem very small and mean

and yet they can still overwhelm us.

Here, let us find space to praise.

Here, let us find energy to find the divine in each part of our lives.

Here, let us find fellowship to seek the divine in each other.


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 Jane Blackall.

May the light of this chalice be a reminder of the
shared values and principles around which we gather:
upholding the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
cherishing all those diverse creatures and habitats
with whom we share this Earth, our home;
seeking human liberation and flourishing;
serving the common good of all.

May this little light, and all it represents, make a home in our hearts;
where it will ever guide us back to our highest aspirations,
and help us be responsive, creative, just, and loving,
in this complex and ever-changing world.

Opening Prayer


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 and climate change hover.

May we keep in touch however we can,

And help each other, however we may.

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 Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown


Sensible Shoes is a marvellous book, set in a small US town, about a group of four women who sign up for a six session spiritual formation group about taking a sacred journey, at a local retreat centre. One of them is Hannah, a Christian pastor who is given,  against her will, a nine-month sabbatical by her church. This reading is about how she learns about it (Steve is her fellow minister):


“Remember that great sermon you preached just a few months ago on John 15?” [Steve] continued.


Hannah did not reply. She had a sinking feeling that her words of wisdom about Jesus as the vine and the Father as the gardener were about to come back and bite her.


“You told the congregation that pruning isn’t punishment – it’s improvement. You reminded us that pruning is God’s way of shaping us to become even more like Christ. Jesus said the branches that get pruned are the ones bearing fruit. And you’re bearing fruit, Hannah. Lots of it. This sabbatical isn’t punishment – it’s pruning.


[While Hannah is angry that she has been given no choice, Steve continues,] “You’ve done a great job here at Westminster – the staff and elders all think so. But I also think you need some time and space to disentangle your personal and professional identities. You don’t know who you are when you’re not pastoring. You don’t know what to do when you’re not being needed. And you have no idea how tired you are. Trust me. I’ve been there.”


[Hannah protests that she only needs a month off, three at the most. But Steve replies,] “This is radical pruning we’re talking about. If we only give you a couple of months, you’ll just mark time until you can come back and pick up right where you left off.”


And so, her journey of radical spiritual transformation begins.


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 Trust by Laura Dobson


‘Trust is something that must be earned’ is a common phrase, but if we expect others to earn our trust, we place the responsibility on them. We only take responsibility for ourselves when we give trust freely.

For me, trust is something that must be learned. This lesson has not been easy for me. My subconscious brain learned, through experiencing childhood trauma, that the only person I could trust was me. And so I became extremely self-reliant. If I ask for help, I place my trust in others and risk disappointment.

To mitigate against my anxiety, which is fear of the unknown, I spent much of my life trying to keep myself safe by trying to plan every tiny detail. But complete control is an illusion. Life is chaotic. Change is the only certainty.

Unitarianism does not give you answers, but rather supports you as you ask the questions. As I step into faith, I step into trust. I let go of the need to be in control of every little detail. I embrace the Great Mystery. It is a relief to not have to try to understand everything or to want to know exactly how things are going to work out. I am able to give trust freely, not knowing whether it will be repaid.

Prayer by Linda Haggerstone


O Spirit of the ages, who transcends all time and space,
We are pilgrims on the path of love,
Seeking light and warmth to carry us on our journey.

Like our ancestors before us,
We ask for your strength and your guidance,
Your protection and your care,
As we walk along this day.

O Spirit of the ages,
Know that our hearts are uplifted
And our burdens are eased by your presence.
For this, we thank you.


Reading Uncertain world by Cliff Reed, from Beyond Darkness


In a world that is uncertain,

where all our plans may be swept away at any moment,

we can put no trust in the structures we erect,

the structures we inherit.

If they are all that we bequeath,

then we are bequeathing nothing that will last.


But we are human beings who have found in each other

a community of values.

It is these that unite us, inspire us, move us.

It is the love which underlies them that give us

joy in one another, that gives us what strength we have.


As we face the tumults that await us,

that will make our plans as meaningless as any

that human beings have ever made,

we dedicate ourselves to the values

that make us truly human –

humble before the Infinite,

humble before each other’s deepest needs,

humble before the glory

and the terror of Creation.


We draw on our fund of values

and offer one another

what strength we have – and, in love,

we offer the world what we have found.


Time of Stillness and Reflection by Jane Blackall

Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in whom we live and move and have our being;
as we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy presence within us and amongst us. [pause]

In these strange and often unsettling times,
there is a lot of change and confusion in the air,
a lot for us to cope with which we wouldn’t have chosen.
We face each day, each hour, each mood that arises in us as best we can;
we may often find ourselves fearful, lonely, irritable, frustrated, or just plain weary.
There may also be precious moments, at least, of consolation, uplift and peace.
In the quiet of this hour, may each person find what they most need, to face the days ahead.

As we look back over the past week, let us silently
give thanks for those joys and pleasures we have known:

moments of love, friendship and camaraderie, [pause]
experiences of wonder and delight; reassurance and relief, [pause]
bursts of playfulness, spontaneity and generosity, [pause]
feelings of achievement, creativity, and flow [pause]
all those times when we felt most alive and awake.

Let us also ask for the consolation, forgiveness, and guidance
we may need, as we acknowledge our sorrows and regrets:
times of loss, pain, anger, and fear, [pause]
periods of uncertainty and anxious waiting, [pause]
realisation of our own weaknesses, mistakes and failings, [pause]
awareness of missed opportunities, those things left unsaid or undone, [pause]
those moments when we struggled and felt like a mess.

Expanding our circle of concern, let us bring to mind those people, places
and situations that are in need of prayer right now, and hold them in the light:

– maybe friends or loved ones, those closest to our heart. [pause]
– maybe those we find difficult, where there’s a conflict going on. [pause]
– maybe those we don’t know so well, who we’ve heard about in the news. [pause]

God of all love, we offer up our joys and concerns,
our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness,
and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen.

Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley


Address Necessary Pruning


Last Sunday afternoon, when I reached home after a long journey back from Cheltenham, I decided to relax with my latest crochet project and a favourite programme, Sort Your Life Out. Stacey Solomon and a team of fixers help families drowning in clutter to change their lives for the better, by packing up all their worldly goods, then laying them out in a huge warehouse, so that they can see exactly how much stuff they have. The idea is, that they let go of at least half of their possessions, so that when the reduced piles are taken back into the house, and beautifully arranged by the team, it will be a clear, peaceful and uncluttered space for them to enjoy. I absolutely love it.


And in the evening, my husband and I were watching another favourite programme – Gardeners’ World. And one of Monty Don’s “jobs for the weekend” was to deadhead the buddleias, so that new flowers can grow. Was someone trying to give me a message?


It is only too easy for us to hold onto our possessions, long after they have ceased to be useful. In his wonderful book, Enough: Breaking Free from the World of Excess, John Naish wrote, “A survey of 1,000 Britons shows how frequently we regret cluttering our lives with more purchases, frittering more than £9 billion away on gadgets that rarely, if ever, get used. Top of the list are sandwich toasters.” He also mentions kitchen scales, coffee machines, foot spas and electric knives, and warns, “These products have one thing in common, the seductive promise that owning them will transport us to a world of leisured sophistication where there’s time to weigh ingredients for delicious meals, make proper coffee and loaf about sipping it in fluffy gowns.”


Later on, he suggests that we ask the following nine questions before we buy any new consumer item of dubious value:

  • “Do I need it? Do I truly, really need it, rather than just want it?
  • Has my desire for this thing been implanted by marketing techniques?
  • Do I want it because I want to be fitter, cleverer, more leisured, or just cooler? If so, will the consumer item really work that miracle?
  • Is there any other way that I could achieve my goal without accruing more stuff?
  • How many more hours will I have to work to pay for it? What else could I do with the working time that would bring more fulfilment than the consumer item?
  • Is there anything I already own that I could substitute for it?
  • Do I really want to dust, dry-clean, pay to have it serviced, or otherwise maintain it?
  • If I’m replacing something that I have already got, what’s really wrong with the old one?
  • If I really do need this thing, is there any way I could obtain it on a free-site, or borrow it from a friend, neighbour or relative?”


These are salutary questions, which I believe all of us could benefit from asking, before going on a buying spree. And since 2008, which was when Enough was published, it has become even easier to acquire more stuff – we can buy practically anything online, without leaving the comfort of the sofa.


Most of us (and I certainly include myself here) are already surrounded by far too much “stuff”. And could do with letting go of some of it. While we may not need to lose 50% of our possessions, like the families on Sort Your Life Out, I do believe that there are very few of us who do not hoard at least some useless possessions.


And the same thing applies to our spiritual lives. But in this case, it is beliefs about ourselves and others, and our place in the world, which are in need of decluttering. In our first reading, Hannah is told by her pastor that she has so entangled her personal and work lives that she doesn’t know who she is when she’s not pastoring. And that her life, her spirit, require radical pruning. Unsurprisingly, she hates the idea.


Yet this is exactly the work we need to do in the process of spiritual formation. It is about trusting, about relinquishing control, as Laura Dobson points out in our second reading. We need to learn to let go of attitudes and beliefs which no longer serve us, serve the people around us, or serve God (if we believe in Him). And letting go, doing that necessary pruning of our spirits, can be incredibly difficult, especially if we don’t realise what we’re holding onto in the first place.


Living in the 21st century is a complicated business. Never before have we been bombarded with so much information, or had so many possibilities as to how we spend our leisure time. We carry around in our pockets and handbags gadgets which can take photos, show films, play games and access millions of websites from around the world, all at the touch of a screen or the click of a mouse.  I do sometimes wonder whether we have lost anything among all this bounty. And whether we might not actually be better off without some of it. Whether we should just let some of it go.


Worrying about the next thing is an insidious problem. Because if we are forever thinking about the future, then we do not appreciate what is happening in the present. So another important aspect of letting go involves noticing what is happening at each passing moment, and being present. I find the words of Max Ehrmann’s poem, Desiderata, so moving. The whole poem is full of good advice about living in the present and appreciating what we have: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” And “Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.” And “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” And “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” Whenever I read it, I feel centred, as though someone has patted me on the shoulder and said, “There, it’s all right. Things are fine. You’re fine.”


Letting go of the need to be perfect, being “gentle with yourself” is another hard one. So I was reassured this morning to read the words of Francis de Sales, “Stop worrying. Whatever it is that  you must do to follow the path that God has shown you, do to the best of your ability. And when you have done it, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep re-running it in your mind, trying to decide whether your efforts were too little or too much, whether it was a great deed or a small one, whether you might have done better. If it wasn’t sinful, and you were trying to do the will of God, it is enough. Don’t worry. Move on. Simply. Calmly. Peacefully.” I guess that means that your best is always good enough, and that striving after perfection is not necessary. Which is good to hear.


Letting go of loved ones is always hard, but always needful. It is now nearly a decade since my two children-no-longer-children went off to university, and it took me a good couple of years to come to terms with it. I felt so lost without them…


Letting go of a loved one who has died is, of course, the hardest thing of all. The process of grief is a long and complicated one, and is different for every individual. One of the most important aspects of being a religious community is being there for people who are going through this long, sad, angry process. The only thing we can do is to be there for them, as sympathetic, empathic presences.


One of the most difficult things for us to prune away are the negative things, which keep us rooted in the past – self-doubts, regrets, and petty grievances, grudges and old hatreds. To do this involves forgiving ourselves, and forgiving other people, and asking for others’ forgiveness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Rev. Mpho Tutu launched the Forgiveness Project some years ago, and I think it is fantastic. Starting from the point that “there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no-one undeserving of forgiveness”, they have devised a Fourfold Path of Forgiving, which involves Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.


As they explain: “When we witness the anguish and harm we have caused, when we ask others to forgive us and make restitution, when we forgive and restore our relationships, we return to our inherent nature. … Forgiveness is the way we return what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost. With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move towards wholeness. Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world.”


This is not easy stuff, by any means. It involves letting go of the desire for revenge, or even justice, letting go of old grudges, and allowing oneself to heal and become whole. And it is our job as a Unitarian community, to support each other in this work.


Because as with all kinds of radical spiritual pruning, it is necessary work. It is our work. May we find the courage to do it, day by day.


Closing Words by Yvonne Aburrow and Sue Woolley


Spirit of Life and Love,

May the spirit of constant change
Be ever renewing itself in our hearts
Pruning, composting, and growing
That we may bear blossom and fruit.

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