Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by David Usher
Open your hearts to the wonder of worship.
Open your minds to the eternal quest for meaning and truth.
Open your eyes to the miracle of creation.
Open your arms to the embrace of your fellow men and women.
Open your souls, and let the divine sweep in.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). 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.
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
Story The Wooden Bowl (source unknown)
A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth.
The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. ‘We must do something about Father,’ said the son. ‘I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.’
So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in Grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.
The four-year-old watched it all in silence.
One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, ‘What are you making?’
Just as sweetly, the boy responded, ‘Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up.’ The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done.
That evening the husband took Grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.
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 Loving What is Before Us by Richard Rohr, Part One
Jewish and Christian traditions of creation spirituality have their origins in Hebrew Scriptures such as Psalms 104 and 148. It is a spirituality that is rooted, first of all, in nature, in experience, and in the world as it is. This rich Hebrew spirituality formed the mind, heart, and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.
Maybe we don’t feel the impact of that until we realize how many people think religion has to do with ideas and concepts and formulas from books. That’s how clergy and theologians were trained for years. We went away, not into a world of nature and silence and primal relationships, but into a world of books. Well, that’s not biblical spirituality, and that’s not where religion begins. It begins in observing “what is.” Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible essence of God and God’s everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (Romans 1:20). … The first foundation of any true religious seeing is, quite simply, learning how to see and love what is. Contemplation is meeting reality in its most simple and direct form unjudged, unexplained, and uncontrolled!
Prayer by Sheena Gabriel
Spirit of all that is,
We give thanks for beauty unnoticed,
for the many miracles of nature,
which lie like un-opened love letters,
strewn about our feet,
awaiting a response.
May we not be blind or indifferent
to the prodigious gifts that come our way.
Grant us the vision to see
the world with fresh eyes;
to look beneath the surface of things
and be open to secrets that lay hidden.
And help us to remember that despite
the pain and suffering that haunts our world,
somewhere in the universe
Beauty is always unfolding;
silently, secretly, without fan-fare,
waiting to be discovered…
May it be so, Amen
Reading Loving What is Before Us by Richard Rohr, Part Two (adapted)
If we don’t know how to love what’s right in front of us, then we don’t know how to see what is. So, we must start with a stone! We move from the stone to the plant world and learn how to appreciate growing things and see God in them. In all of the natural world, we see the vestigia Dei, which means the fingerprints or footprints of God.
Perhaps once we can see God in plants and animals, we might learn to see God in our neighbours. And then we might learn to love the world. And then, when all of that loving has taken place, when all of that seeing has happened, when such people come to me and tell me they love [God], I’ll believe it! They’re capable of loving [God]. The soul is prepared. The soul is freed, and it’s learned how to see and how to receive and how to move in and how to move out from itself. Such individuals might well understand how to love God.
Time of Stillness and Reflection by Jenny Jacobs (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
With all the problems and challenging situations in our lives, nevertheless, we have the safe still point of this community, on this Sunday, in this space.
Let us give thanks for the stability we enjoy in our lives amidst our friends and families.
Let us pray for all of our brothers and sisters whose lives are not so blessed; whose lives and communities are devastated by war, by terrorism, by famine, by drought or flood, by sickness, by climate change.
Let us remember and hold in our hearts those who have had to leave their communities, hoping to build new relationships and new lives in foreign lands.
Let us open our hearts so that we can empathise with our fellows and feel their pain.
Let us recognise all those things we have in common with them and with people everywhere; our shared hopes and aspirations, for a settled home, a safe haven, rewarding work, a bright future for our children.
Let us help build our society into a place which extends the hand of welcome to all those who need it both without and within.
Let us work towards a safer, fairer world for all, wherever they may be.
Let us live our lives in such a way that we always behave towards others with the same care and compassion we would hope to receive ourselves.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Loving what is before us
“Loving what is before us” sounds like such a simple thing to do. But it really isn’t. Otherwise more of us would succeed in doing what Jane Blackall recommends in our chalice lighting words: “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.”
As Richard Rohr wrote in our second reading, “many people think religion has to do with ideas and concepts and formulas from books.” So we disappear into our heads and often seem to be either unable or unwilling to see what is right under our noses. I am very aware that I’m sitting in front of my computer right now, producing more words, more ideas…
But perhaps the words of this service may inspire you to engage more directly with “what is before us” in a direct and experiential way. As Richard Rohr explains, “Creation spirituality… is a spirituality that is rooted, first of all, in nature, in experience, and in the world as it is.” When we wake up to what is happening in the world all around us, we are then in a much better position to respond to it in an authentic way, by loving it rather than judging it, or turning aside, as though it was nothing to do with us.
A few months ago, I told you about the Anniversary Service which Rev Winnie Gordon led at this year’s GA meetings. I said, “At our GA meetings earlier this month, our Anniversary Service preacher, Rev Winnie Gordon, spoke out powerfully for the need for all of us to “show up for justice.” Among many other issues, she spoke about climate change, saying, “World leaders agreed in 2015 that we should do everything possible to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Currently it stands at 1.15°C, dangerously close to that limit. An estimated 30% of species face increased extinction rates as earth’s temperature rises, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Last year saw record-breaking temperatures, floods, and droughts. Storms devastated many regions, destroying crops and livelihoods, pushing communities to the brink of famine. One third of Pakistan was plunged underwater. Wildfires devastated wildlife, land and homes. Of the 59.1 million people internally displaced in 2021 across the world, most were displaced by climate-related disasters.”
She went on to ask, “When will we wake up and truly be aware of the problems and how we are complicit in them?” And stated, “Our faith calls us to responsibility for the fate of this planet. Calls us to account for each other in our working, playing, nurturing and growing, our educating and profiting – in this world, now and for all generations to come. Activism transcends creed, dogmas, doctrine, and social constructs (if done right), and mends (makes whole) the divisions and separateness. That our individualistic beliefs create.” Her words were a powerful call to action, for all of us, by all of us.
So among other things, “loving what is before us” is about being awake and aware of the impacts our complex society has on our blue-green planet. Like she said, it calls us to account for each other in “our working, playing, nurturing and growing, our educating and profiting.” It is no good if we shake our heads sadly and go back to what we were doing before. We have to make a real commitment to love what is before us, and to change our behaviour accordingly.
As Richard Rohr said in our third reading, “If we don’t know how to love what’s right in front of us, then we don’t know how to see what is…. In all of the natural world, we see the vestigia Dei, which means the fingerprints or footprints of God. Perhaps once we can see God in plants and animals, we might learn to see God in our neighbours. And then we might learn to love the world.”
Yet the choice to love and respect our world and each other can be a big ask. Perhaps many of us find the second rather more difficult than the first. We may be well aware of the Golden Rule, which tells us to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, and not to treat others in ways we would dislike to be treated ourselves. But it is easier said than done to avoid falling into the trap of judging others rather than loving them. We are only human, after all, and if someone does something which annoys or hurts us, our natural response will probably be to retaliate. It takes a special kind of person to “turn the other cheek” or “go the extra mile” as Jesus advises us. And most of us, me included, find that very hard, even if we know in our hearts it is the right thing to do.
Today’s story illustrates beautifully the point of compassion – which is another way of describing “loving what is before us”. As Karen Armstrong writes in The Spiral Staircase: “Compassion does not of course mean to feel pity or condescension, but to feel with. … It is not enough to understand other people’s beliefs, rituals and ethical practices intellectually. You have to feel them too and make an imaginative though disciplined identification.”
The Golden Rule lies at the heart of all religions. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone followed it! If every person genuinely tried to behave to the rest of humankind with a concern and care for how they would feel. As it says in the Charter for Compassion, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creature, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”
Most of us belong to a Unitarian community. If we are to embrace the Golden Rule, we need to start here, where we are. Let us ask ourselves the questions
- Have I shown mutual respect and goodwill to my friends and neighbours?
- Have I practiced constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others?
- Am I doing as I would be done by?
Until we can answer a wholehearted “yes” to these questions, there is little point in us trying to practice compassion in the wider world. C.S. Lewis has a lovely illustration of this in The Screwtape Letters, which I would like to share with you. Screwtape, the senior devil, is advising Wormwood, the junior devil, how to undermine his “patient’s” relationship with his mother:
“It is no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very “spiritual”, that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages will follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees; the operation is not at all difficult and you will find it very entertaining. In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother – the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table.”
And “Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”
This is what we need to understand, to get hold of. It’s not much good giving money to charities to help with environmental and man-made disasters, if we are not following the Golden Rule in our everyday lives, and treating the people we meet and interact with every day with respect and benevolence and compassion. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we should not give money to charity or act charitably in the wider world; far from it. But until we get our local, everyday lives right, our heads and hearts will not be in the right place to do much good in the wider world.
I believe that adopting the practice of “loving what is before us” is a worthwhile one for us all to try to cultivate, if we are serious about learning to live in harmony with the world, its diverse creatures and habitats, and the people around us. If we truly care about our planet and about each other, we need to at least attempt it.
May it be so, Amen
Closing Words by Vince McCully and Sue Woolley
Spirit of Life and Love,
May God bless us with honesty
And in our honesty with ourselves, wisdom.
And in wisdom, knowledge.
And in knowledge of ourselves, humility.
And in humility, acceptance.
And in acceptance of our limitations, trust in God.
And in our trust in God, courage to live as God wishes us to –
happily, in love and harmony with all creatures and with all of creation.
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