Service for 22nd March 2020.
This is the first of a weekly series of services I will be posting on the website. I give my permission for any Unitarian worship leader to use the words that are unattributed, which I have written… The idea is that we can all sit in our own spaces at 11.00 am tomorrow, and join together in a virtual worship service…
In this time of insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this one hour,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
For this one hour.
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)
We light our chalice today
Remembering with gratitude all the front-line staff
Of our hospitals, shops and public services,
Who are selflessly carrying on,
To meet the needs of the people they serve.
We light our chalice in the hope
That our loved ones may be safe,
That all people may be safe,
And in faith that normality will return.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in their 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 difficult time,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
We hold in our hearts all those
Whose lives have been touched,
In whatever way,
By the coronavirus and the fall-out from it.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Then said Almitra, speak to us of Love.
And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them. And with a great voice he said:
When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you, yield to him, though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him, though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth, so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, so shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant.
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
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 Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love.
When you love, you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself. But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love; and to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart
and a song of praise upon your lips.
God, our Father and Mother,
Great Spirit of Life and Love,
All of us need love and connection,
In order to thrive as human beings.
In this time of social isolation,
Help us to show our love in other ways.
May those of us who are well,
Give generously of our time and effort,
To help those around us who are in need,
And to make them feel less alone,
By keeping in regular touch.
May those of us who are vulnerable, or ill,
Receive the help we need, and accept it with grace.
Although elbow bumps and phone calls
Are no substitute for the warmth
Of closer human contact,
May we all share whatever love we can,
And grow together in virtual community.
In a Time of Fear by Cliff Reed
In a time of pandemic, when our prayers should be for the sick
and those who tend them with courage and compassion, may we
not fall into panic and hysteria.
May unwarranted self-concern not blind us to the needs of others
or lead us into irresponsibility and the undermining of community.
May we have a deep and active concern for those in hardship and
real danger and not inflate our own lesser worries into unreal terrors.
May we be conscious that fear can be the greatest sickness, infecting our minds and spirits, paralysing our daily lives and bringing chaos to the
economies and networks on which they depend.
May our prayer be for reason and good sense that we may face the
crisis with sound knowledge and clear sight.
And may our hearts be warmed and strengthened with the love that
drives out fear.
This is our prayer and our resolve. Amen
Reading from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Time of Stillness and Reflection
Let us now join in a time of stillness and reflection. The Buddhist Mettabhavana, or Prayer of Loving Kindness, is often used in Unitarian services, or for personal meditation. This is my version of it. After each line, I invite you to close your eyes, and pray for the people concerned, using the words given, if you wish…
First of all, we pray for ourselves: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from harm, may I find peace.
Next, we pray for our loved ones, those people who are dear to us: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Next, we pray for someone less well-known to us, about whom we have no strong feelings, but whom we might know better, if we made the effort: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Next, we pray for people we don’t know, for all the people who are doing their best to make a positive difference in the world, and for those who are lost in places of scarcity and fear: may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Next, we pray for someone we dislike, or find it difficult to get on with: may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Finally, we pray for the world: may all be well, may all be happy, may all be free from harm, may all find peace.
May all find peace, today and always, Amen
Love is an amazing thing. I very much like Raymond Feist’s definition: “Love is a recognition, an opportunity to say, ‘There is something about you I cherish.’ It doesn’t entail marriage, or even physical love. There’s love of parents,” (to which I would add love of family) “love of city or nation, love of life, and love of people. All different, all love.”
And love is fundamental to human well-being. I am sure the older folk among us can remember the sad, sad photos of those little children in Romanian orphanages, left in their cots 24/7, with no attention paid to them, who had withdrawn into themselves, totally unable to relate to anyone else, because they had been starved of love and attention. And it is well known that in bringing up children, even “bad attention” is better than being ignored.
I would go so far as to say that we can only become fully rounded people if we love and are loved in return.
I have been enchanted by Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet, ever since I found it in Hudson’s in Birmingham when I was a student. As you saw in the first two readings, he (the Prophet) has some wise things to say about love. I must admit that when I was typing out the first reading, I thought, “Wow! That’s quite strong stuff.” Gibran says that the ways of love are hard and steep, that we may be wounded by it, that its voice may shatter our dreams.
But my goodness, he’s absolutely right! Deep love, true love, to which we commit ourselves with our whole hearts, will “caress [our] tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, [and] descend to [our] roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.” Love is the most powerful emotion in the world. When we truly love someone, we will put their welfare before our own, we will grieve when they are sad or unwell, and share in their joy when things are going well. Loving affects every particle of our being.
The Apostle Paul sums up the all-embracing nature of love beautifully, in the well-known words, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And, I would add, forgives all things.
Gibran’s Prophet also speaks of love as a force for change and spiritual growth. “Even as he is for your growth, so he is for your pruning.” If we see God as Love at the centre of everything (which I do), it is not surprising that the process of growing in love can be a challenging one. When we choose to try to live in a spirit of love, we are choosing to make ourselves vulnerable, and vulnerability can hurt. Love can only be offered. We can never guarantee that the other person will love us back, or love us next week, next year… or sadly, at the moment, that they will remain well.
But without love, our lives would be dry and barren indeed. Jesus recognised this when he described “Love your neighbour as yourself” as one of the two greatest commandments. It’s a cunning phrase, that. Many people only take notice of the first half “love your neighbour”. And yes, that is very important, particularly right now. When our neighbour may be an elderly or unwell person, who is unable to leave the house and needs our help. Or when our neighbour is the kind person who offers to do our shopping, fetch our medication from the pharmacy, or do something else for us that we are unable to do for ourselves. Love of neighbour will help us all to get through the next weeks and months as the scourge that is the coronavirus spreads across the UK.
But I’m also fascinated by the two, almost throwaway words “as yourself”. Because if we don’t love ourselves, we won’t believe that we are worthy of the love of others. And operating from a place of low self-esteem, low self-worth makes it less likely that we will be sufficiently generous with our hearts to love other people. As though love was like a pie – only so much to go round. Which leads to a mindset of scarcity and fear. At least, that’s what I think… Many of us will have seen instances of this in the past few days, when people have been operating from places of “looking after number one”, rather than places of love, and have stripped the shelves of supermarkets, stockpiling for a dreaded and almost entirely fictitious Armageddon.
I would rather try to follow the Prophet’s advice and “wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving… return home at eventide with gratitude; and then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.” It sounds like a wonderful way to spend our days…
Although we are being advised to keep our distance from other people physically, and we may be feeling sad that our General Assembly and many other meetings have been cancelled, and our chapel or church has been closed “until further notice”, there are many ways to show our love for other people. We can phone them up for a chat, drop them an e-mail to ask how they are, post uplifting stuff instead of doom-and-gloom on social media – the possibilities are endless. And we can look out for each other. As I said before, if we are well, and not in an “at risk” category, we can show our love by offering to help those less fortunate than we are. In our Unitarian congregations, we can set up phone-trees, so that everyone keeps in touch with at least one other person, or share news via e-mail or on the website. I know that many ministers and other worship leaders are planning to post online services, using sound recordings and videos and other things like Zoom which I’m not tech-y enough to understand.
And, if we are fortunate enough to share our homes with at least one other person, the possibilities are endless. We can try to adopt a positive mindset towards our enforced seclusion, and spend time together, talking, curled up on the sofa with a tub of popcorn and a good film, playing board games, sharing “food and faith and fellowship” on a smaller scale. Cancelled meetings can mean more time for hobbies. I’m certainly looking forward to having extra time for writing, cross-stitch, crochet and reading. I know that I’m naturally a “glass half-full” person, and I hope this doesn’t irritate those of you who are not…
It can be difficult to feel loving, or at least to behave in a loving way, towards everyone, particularly in a time of stress. Perfectly fit people in their seventies may feel indignant rather than grateful, if a friend or family member or neighbour offers to do their shopping for them. And as for that person who takes the last pack of toilet roll off the supermarket shelf, just before we got there, …well!! It can be hard to feel charitable towards them. Once again, the teachings of Jesus sum up what we should do:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. … Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”
There are people whose lives have been shining examples of putting this Golden Rule, which is shared by all the major religions, into practice. Rev. Martin Luther King was one; Nelson Mandela was another; so was Mother Theresa. I could also mention the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What all these people have in common is that whatever life threw at them, they somehow managed to rise above the natural human instincts for revenge and hate, and continued to live their lives in a spirit of love.
It’s a big wide world, and we are only little people. But we can resolve to make our little corners of the world more loving places. Let us be like Abou Ben Adhem, in the poem by 19th century poet, Leigh Hunt, with which I will close:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel, writing in a book of gold;
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou? – The vision raised its head,
And with a look made all of sweet accord,
Answer’d “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as done who loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
It came again, with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had bless’d,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
Our time together is drawing to a close.
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,