Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Rabindranath Tagore
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let me awake.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Elizabeth M. Strong)
This chalice lighting is an American Unitarian Universalist one. But I feel that the Universalist values mentioned are just as relevant to Unitarians in the UK:
Our Unitarian heritage bids us light our chalice
In the name of freedom,
In the light of reason,
In actions of tolerance.
We gather in community to celebrate a heritage of freedom, reason, and tolerance.
Our Universalist heritage bids us light our chalice
In the name of faith,
In the light of hope,
In actions of love.
We gather in community to celebrate a heritage of faith, hope, and love.
Let us bring this Unitarian Universalist heritage into our world and our lives today.
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 overshadow us.
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 The connection between the Brahmo Samaj and the other liberal churches of the world by Dr. Kalyansri Dasgupta
Duncan Howlett has aptly described Universalism as a doctrine of “Testing, Questing and never Resting, with Open Mind and Open Heart.”
Each of these items bears detailed examination. The root question is how can we be sure about the truth of our beliefs? After all, there is no doubt that we human beings are fallible. The only way we can surmount our human fallibility is by continually testing the validity of our assumptions. We have to accept that we are prone to making mistakes and deceiving one another all the time. We must therefore check everything by all the means at our disposal. This is true even in the case of religion, where we can no longer be certain of the infallibility of scriptures or prophets.
If our human capacity for error is a severe limitation, then our imagination and probing curiosity are surely among our greatest assets. It is the human spirit of inquiry and questing, in other words, seeking for the truth, which is behind all advances in Philosophy or Religion. The enquiring mind pushes beyond ideas that we already have, in order to discover new perfections. In this process of Questing, we are never really satisfied until we feel that we have gone as far as is humanly possible. This is what is meant by “never Resting”. On the path of discovery we are bound to meet like-minded souls also engaged in the same search for truth. We must be open to dialogue with them, and at least listen to them even if we do not agree.
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 from The connection between the Brahmo Samaj and the other liberal churches of the world by Dr. Kalyansri Dasgupta
While the open mind enlarges our own frontiers, it is not enough to merely be open to other ideas. Acceptance of the other person as a brother and a comrade makes religion truly universal. Merely accepting that “In the Father’s house there are many mansions” does not better our human lot the way “Love thy neighbour as thyself” does. True Universalism is based on the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man” more than anything else.
Universalists believe that religion should be dynamic and not static. Everything in this world is evolving, and religion too, changes with time. Any religion that adheres to a set of unchanging beliefs is a dead religion. Of course, any change has to be tested for validity by applying our God given powers of logic and reasoning, and must be acceptable to our conscience. The Brahmos believe that God reveals Himself in His own creation, and speaks to man through his conscience. The relationship between God and man is one of loving and giving. Our life is a gift from God. What we do with our life is our gift to God.
Prayer People of the Book by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth
One God, proclaimed by all true prophets and messengers,
we bow before you in prayer.
Grant us the wisdom to know you as Oneness, the Divine Unity,
embracing all the names with which we address you –
all humble and reverent worshippers, all humanity, all life,
and all Creation.
We give thanks for the revelation of your will and nature
in the sacred books that are but one Book.
With gratitude we recognise your revelation in the natural world
and in the human heart; in all works of love and beauty
that flow from you.
We are grateful for the justice that your laws inspire, and for the
compassion and mercy with which we should administer them.
We give thanks for all men and women whose kindness, courage,
and benevolence bless the world with your loving Spirit.
We grieve and we are ashamed that some have taken your Book,
torn out the pages, cut up the chapters, shredded the sentences,
then used the fragments to turn us against each other.
We are People of the Book, that you have written in all tongues
and on hearts made ready; help us to unite in what we share
and to forbear in what we don’t.
May it be so, Amen
Reading Why We Are Here by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place
We are not here to judge,
but to live as best we can,
in peace and harmony with
our neighbours, always aware
of our own shortcomings.
We are not here to condemn,
but to give such encouragement
and assistance as we can to those
we meet along the road.
We are not here to lecture others on goodness,
but to ask how well we match up
to the best that we know, the vision
in our souls, and then try harder.
We are not here to claim a place with the ‘elect’,
a place in heaven,
but to live on this earth with love in our hearts
and kindness in our deeds,
just like everyone else.
We are not here to speak for God,
but to heed the divine voice in ourselves
and to be the divine presence in this
glorious, complex and suffering world.
We are here to love our neighbour
as we love ourselves; to be human
to the best of our ability.
Time of Stillness and Reflection A world awake by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place
Source of love,
help us to love, when it is hard to do so.
Source of courage,
help us to endure when we are afraid.
Source of inspiration,
breathe into us when we are dried up.
The world cries out for love to heal its hatred and indifference.
The world cries out for courage to heal its cowardice and weakness.
The world cries out for inspiration to heal its soul-hunger and its withered hopes.
Source of vision,
show us the vision of a better world.
Show us the vision of a better world:
a world awake to its oneness,
a world of colour, song and comradeship,
a world full of fairness, joy and festivals.
And give us the faith to feed the vision and to make it real.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur
Last Friday, Sikhs the world over marked the anniversary of the martyrdom of the 9th Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was executed on 24th November 1675. I learned about him a few years ago, and would like to share with you what a special person he was.
Guru Tegh Bahadur was one of the ten Gurus (or spiritual leaders) of Sikhism, one of ten torches lit by the same flame, who spread the religion of Sikhism throughout the Punjab and beyond during the 16th and 17th centuries CE. They were all interesting people, but Guru Tegh Bahadur stands out for me, because of his martyrdom, and why this occurred.
When Guru Tegh Bahadur became 9th Guru in 1664, it was in the middle of a hard time for Sikhs. Much of India was ruled by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who was very intolerant of Hindus and Sikhs, requiring them all to convert to Islam. According to Sikh tradition, a group of high-caste Hindus, Brahmins from Kashmir, came to Guru Tegh Bahadur and asked him to intercede with the emperor on their behalf, because he was a holy man. The Guru told the Hindus to tell the emperor that Hindus would accept Islam if he, Guru Tegh Bahadur, could be persuaded to accept it. This got the Hindus off the hook. As a result, the Guru was arrested and taken, with his three companions, to Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi.
According to tradition, the Guru was offered many rewards if he would change his religion, but he would not accept any of them. He was then forced to watch while his three companions were put to death in various horrible ways – one was sawn in half, the second was boiled to death, and the third roasted alive in oil-soaked cloth. But still the Guru would not recant.
It is what happened next that really makes me admire Guru Tegh Bahadur. He stated that he was not just defending the rights of Sikhs to religious freedom, but believed that anyone who worshipped God should be allowed to worship as they wished, whether they were Sikh, Hindu or Muslim. Aurangzeb realised that the Guru would never change his mind, and had him beheaded. The site of his martyrdom is now a famous landmark in Delhi, the Sis Ganj Gurdwara.
Guru Tegh Bahadur’s memory is revered by Sikhs, as “the first and only prophet in the world to die for the right of people to practice whatever religion they choose.”
The story of Guru Tegh Bahadur really made me think about why people from different religions find it so hard to tolerate each other. I suspect that one reason is because religion is something you do with your whole heart and soul – it’s a 100% commitment. And it’s difficult to give that level of commitment to one particular religion if another is just as valid. In other words, believers in a particular religious faith almost have to believe that their religion is the best, and that they are aspiring to the highest they know. This is a natural human instinct, and is why people have religions at all.
But unfortunately, believing that your religion is the best usually seems to include the corollary belief that therefore other people’s religions aren’t the best, and should not be tolerated. We know from our own experiences that this ain’t necessarily so, but this is because of the Unitarian reliance on reason as one of our foremost tenets. Most religions are founded on passion, rather than reason. Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, argues that both are necessary parts of the human soul:
“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction. Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing; And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.”
I agree with him.
Fifteen years ago, I did an Open University course on Introducing Religions, which made me appreciate at one time both how diverse, and yet often how similar, they are. Hindus believe in many gods, and Buddhists don’t have a personal God, but Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs all believe in one God, and I found it fascinating to discover how close their fundamental beliefs are. For example: Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs all believe that there is only one God, and that He (or She or It) is perfect; knows everything; has always existed and will always exist; is everywhere; is loving (in different ways); and created everything. They are all, if not singing from the same hymn sheet, then at least holding important beliefs in common.
BUT the vast majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims also believe that their one exclusive Way of believing in and worshipping God (or Allah or Jehovah) is the One True Way, and that therefore everyone else’s way of belief and worship is wrong, or at the very best, mistaken. If, like the Bahá’i, you believe that there is only one God, or like the Sikhs, that all religions have the same God, then there’s no problem. But if you are Christian or Muslim or Jewish, you probably believe that your God is the only one, which is not quite the same thing.
And then of course, belief in God (whatever you call him or her) is not the only belief in any religion. There are a whole host of subsidiary beliefs, rituals and customs, which are unique to each religion; which have built up over the centuries; and which play an important role in the manner of living as a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Christian, or a Buddhist or a Sikh. Unlike the fundamental belief in a divine person, these rituals and customs tend to be peculiar to each religion, and even to different denominations within each religion. Let’s take an example from Christianity, the doctrine of trans-substantiation. So far as I understand it, Roman Catholics believe that the wafer and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ when they pass their lips. Whereas other Christian denominations see the wafer and wine as symbols of the body and blood, which is rather different.
On a wider scale, each religion has its own customs for life ceremonies such as birth, marriage and death, and laws about living good lives, which may cover all aspects of adherents’ lives from the food they eat, to whether or not they cut their hair, or wear shoes while at worship or a hundred and one other things. It’s as much about cultural heritage as about religion. While the principles underlying these varying laws and customs may be broadly similar, such as doing good to others, looking after the elderly etc etc, the actual practices are unique to each religion and jealously guarded as such.
I know that some people do convert to other religions as adults. But I think it must be very hard to really convert on a deep level, because so much of the everyday way of life is something that is ingrained from childhood, and very difficult to learn as a newcomer in adulthood. Generally, people may switch between denominations within the same religion quite happily, but the more fundamental switch between religions is more tricky, because you are having to jettison so much cultural baggage at the same time.
One of the major reasons for religious intolerance and religious strife is fear of the unknown. The vast majority of people know very little about other religions, and it is part of human nature to fear the unknown (or the different). I’m now going to embark on a wild generalisation. When a person brought up in the Christian tradition, for example, looks at a Muslim person (for example), they won’t know any of the beliefs in common that Muslims and Christians have. They will only see that the outside trappings are different – the mosque instead of the church, the taking off of shoes, the Halal meat, the wearing of headscarves by women and so on and so on. Muslims are Different to Us, (capital D, capital U) and therefore cannot be trusted, and are therefore feared. Or to take an example closer to home, until not so long ago, many Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics regarded each other as spawns of the devil.
And so, ignorance breeds intolerance, which in turn breeds fear and hatred, which can easily turn into all-out strife. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous politicians who sit at particular points on the religious divide, see it as their job in life to foment intolerance and fear, so that they can whip “their” people up to commit acts of aggression and violence in the name of religion or communism or the American Way of Life – whatever! The links between states and religions are very strong; the dividing line between tribalism and nationalism is a very thin one.
Having started with the story of a great exemplar, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and having led you on an exploration of what all great religions have in common, I would like to finish with some advice from my favourite religious text: Quaker Advices and Queries:
“Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others. Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.”
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we respect the life journeys
and the religious and spiritual journeys
of others, and seek to understand them.
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