Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by W.B. Yeats
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light.
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread my cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). Words by Bets Wienecke
May this flame,
Symbol of transformation since time began,
Fire our curiosity,
Strengthen our wills,
And sustain our courage
As we seek what is good within and around us.
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 Building a cathedral by Bill Darlison
When the great Cathedral of Chartres was being built in the 13th century, a traveller happened to be passing by the construction site. He was amazed at the number of workers involved in the project and the variety of jobs being done.
He approached a carpenter and asked, ‘What exactly are you doing here?
‘I’m sawing wood. What does it look like?’ was the curt reply.
Then he approached a stonemason and asked the same question, ‘What exactly are you doing here?
And got the answer ‘I’m earning a living. I’ve got a wife and children to support.’
However, a third man, an unskilled worker who looked to be sweeping up after the others, said with a beaming smile, ‘Can’t you see? I’m building a cathedral!’
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 I don’t know who is responsible for our second reading. Vernon Marshall, who has now left the denomination, used it in one of his services when he was minister at Unitarian New Meeting in Birmingham, and I liked it so much that I asked him for the text. It is called The Risk of Commitment.
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk their love.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The one who risks nothing does nothing and has nothing – and finally is nothing.
He may avoid sufferings and sorrow,
But he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love.
Chained by his certitude, he is a slave;
He has forfeited freedom.
Only one who risks is free!
Prayer Invocation by Earl Holt
Let us pray for hope for the future:
O God of time and eternity, help us look to the past with gratitude, and to the future with hope. We remember this day those who have gone before us here, who laboured not for themselves alone, but with a vision of building for the future a world better than they had known. Inspire in us also a like vision, that we too may labour for things beyond ourselves, that our lives may be dedicated to high purposes and grand horizons. Make us unafraid of hopes and dreams; release us from cynicism and despair. Teach us to be realistic about our limitations but never to lose hope in our potential to transcend them.
Help us realise the significance of these moments together, that they may open our eyes to the blessings of the past and the promise of the future. Grant us courage for today and tomorrow.
Reading I have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr,, delivered August 28th 1963 on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And when this happens, When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Ant Howe (adapted)
Eternal One, Life-Giver, Father, Mother, Companion, Lover and Friend,
We come to you in these quiet moments, seeking that which is beyond ourselves.
We make a sacred space; a time when we can express our hopes and our dreams……
For the world: We pray that we would wisely use the precious resources we have been given; that we will be diligent stewards of the earth.
For the religions of the world: May there be understanding between religions. May we learn to worship in our own way, but to live in peace with those who worship differently.
For the people of the world: We pray for those whose lives are marred by poverty, lack of food or water. When we hear about these things happening in countries far away, may we never forget that these are our brothers and sisters. May we work to end poverty in among the people of the world.
For our Unitarian & Free Christian Movement: may we be rightly proud of our past achievements, but be aware that we cannot be complacent. At a time when less people feel the need to worship in traditional churches, may we be a beacon of liberal religion.
For ourselves: We pray that our faith will bring us strength; that our faith will give us a love for our fellow men and women. We pray that our faith will be real to us and that it will help us when we are faced with difficult times and tough decisions.
And finally we pray for those who are ill: those loved ones of ours who need our thoughts and prayers. We name them silently in our hearts…. [silence]
We dedicate our prayers to you God, Divine Unity and we ask these things in your many names. Amen.
Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Art of the Possible and the Power of Dreams
Human beings are born with a great capacity for belief. Small children believe everything their parents tell them, which is how they construct a meaningful picture of the world they live in. In our particular culture, this also usually involves belief in anthropomorphic personifications (to quote Terry Pratchett) such as Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. How many of you went to see Peter Pan in pantomime as a small child and clapped to save Tinkerbell’s life? – I certainly did.
But as we get older, our parents start to introduce us to the “real world”, in which money is not in infinite supply “D’you think money grows on trees?” and someone in the playground will tell us that “Father Christmas is your parents really.” This evolution of belief is necessary in order to fit into our complicated modern society – it is generally accepted that if we believe in too many things, we are bound to become disillusioned in the end.
I find this widespread cynicism quite sad, and ask myself the question, “Whatever happened to people who believed in things?” Our politicians seem to be in politics for what they can gain, rather than what they can give, and good news is a rarity. When I hear about the latest incidence of corruption, I find it hard to maintain my belief in the fundamental goodness of humankind. I think that there are (sadly) many people like me, who used to be idealistic and believed that the world could be made a better place, but who have become disillusioned over the years, and who dare not believe in anything much any longer, in case they are let down.
Leonard Nimoy (better known to most of us as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock) once wrote “I am an incurable romantic: I believe in hope, dreams and decency. I believe in love, tenderness and kindness. I believe in mankind.”
Daring to believe in that way involves trust and faith. And if you have those, anything is possible. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr:
“I’ve decided that I’m going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days.” We saw in my last reading, his famous “I have a Dream” speech, how far that philosophy took him, as a champion of human rights, whose leadership changed the whole course of history, brought a new dimension of dignity to human life, new hope for freedom and the community of humankind. Other people who have turned their dreams into reality include Mother Theresa and Gandhi. They are inspirational, because they have dared to dream, and then spent their whole lives working to make their dreams come true.
I have called this address The Art of the Possible and the Power of Dreams and have chosen this theme because next week marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Samaritans, on 2nd November 1953, by an Anglican priest named Chad Varah. Eighteen years before, his first act as a young minister had been to bury a 14 year old girl who had killed herself when her periods started, because she thought she had some dreadful disease. Varah never forgot this girl and, in his own words, seized “every opportunity to teach young people about sex, and finding that it led youngsters to join my youth clubs and young couples to come for marriage preparation, and couples drifting apart to seek marriage guidance before it was invented”. He was labelled a dirty old man for his troubles, but carried on with his work regardless. People got in touch with him to talk through their problems, and he was delighted to help.
Then one day he read in a digest that there were three suicides a day in Greater London. To use his own words again, “What were they supposed to do if they didn’t want a Doctor or Social Worker from our splendid Welfare State? What sort of a someone might they want? Well, some had chosen me, because of my liberal views. If it was so easy to save lives, why didn’t I do it all the time? How, I answered myself, and live on what? And how would they get in touch at the moment of crisis?” He concluded that he simply didn’t have the time and that “it’d need a priest with one of those city churches with no parishioners” to do the job.
A short while later, he was offered the benefice of St Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City of London, a church endowed by the Worshipful Company of Grocers. He told them of his idea of setting up a helpline for suicidal people, and the Samaritans was born.
For the first few weeks, he dealt with all the callers-up and callers-in himself, then other people began offering to help. On 2nd February 1954, he called these volunteers together and said, “Over to you, Samaritans. Never again shall I pick up the emergency phone, nor be the one to say ‘Come in and have a coffee’, when a client taps at the door. I shall select you and supervise you and discipline you and sack you if necessary, and see the clients who need something more than your befriending, and I shall make the decisions you are not competent to make. But you are the life-savers, and one day everyone will recognise what suicidal people need.”
The rest is history. There are now over 200 branches of the Samaritans in the United Kingdom, and in 1974 Varah founded Befrienders International, the worldwide body of Samaritans branches. The basic principles have remained the same – Samaritan volunteers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer that unique befriending service, and to provide confidential emotional support to anyone experiencing emotional distress or despair. In 2021, in the UK alone, Samaritans received a contact every 10 seconds, most of which were by phone, from many who felt suicidal at the time of the call. They are dealt with by a total of more than 22,000 volunteers, who between them give over a million hours of their time to befriend people in need of emotional support. I think they are splendid.
Yet none of it would have happened, had Chad Varah not had that initial dream of supporting those in isolation and despair. And the grit and determination to turn his dream into reality.
I ran the London Marathon in 2004, in aid of the Samaritans, and raised more than £1,500 for them. I had spent the previous four months turning a personal dream into reality. The 18-week training schedule was hard work; I had to run in the pouring rain and driving wind, as well as on bright, crisp, clear, sunny mornings, when it felt good to be alive. I had problems with blisters, as well as with a nagging injury. But I did it, not only because it was a personal dream; I also wanted to help the Samaritans in their so-worthwhile work.
The crowd were simply unbelievable. In spite of the awful weather they had turned out in their thousands to cheer the runners on, and having your name called out every minute was really encouraging. And the support I had from friends and family was marvellous. I learned that people are incredibly supportive of those who are striving to make a dream come true. I knew all along that it was something I had to do, and will never forget the feeling of having done it, of having achieved the dream.
And it wasn’t just me. So many of the runners were running for charity, raising millions of pounds for their chosen cause. It was inspirational to be sharing the same space with them.
But the point is, the dream, or the vision, or the ideal, is only the beginning of the process. To turn that dream or vision or ideal into something concrete and real involves a lot of hard work. It is very easy to lose sight of the dream, and to give up half way. But if our belief is strong enough, anything is possible. People need something to believe in, something to strive for, something to give life a deeper meaning.
However, believing in something, trusting in something, involves a leap of faith, and the willingness to be exposed, to take risks. Which isn’t easy. Our second reading, The Risk of Commitment, shows this clearly. There is always an element of risk in sticking our heads up above the parapet, in daring to believe that the world could be a better place, and that we can do something about it.
So what dreams might a Unitarian have? I agree with Martin Luther King that, “You ought to believe something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days.” Yet at the moment, most Unitarian congregations (with a few exceptions) have a small number of members, and a few more regular attenders. I am very afraid that if we don’t manage to attract some new people soon, even this small presence will cease to exist.
I simply cannot believe that we are the only people in this part of the world who could share these beliefs, and benefit from being part of our fellowship. The Quakers are similar to ourselves in many respects, yet their membership numbers are much healthier than ours.
I believe that we (British Unitarians and Unitarians in the Midlands) should take a leaf from the Unitarian Universalists’ book and make it our first priority to reach out to seekers and include new members in the life of our community. I believe that this is far more important than almost anything else, if Unitarianism is to survive in this country. And I believe passionately that it should, that our message is so worthwhile sharing – which is why I trained for ministry – another dream.
May we dream big dreams about the future of Unitarianism, and do the hard work needed to turn them into reality.
Closing Words One Dream to Fulfil by Sara Henderson and Sue Woolley
Sara Henderson, the Australian author of The Strength of our Dreams, once wrote:
“Always live your life with one dream to fulfil.
No matter how many of your dreams
you have realised in the past,
always have a dream to go.
Because when you stop dreaming,
life becomes a mundane existence.”
May we dream big, and have faith
That our dreams may become reality.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley