Loss and Liberation – 26/07/20
Opening Music: ‘The Things We Lost’ by Marilisa Valtazanou
Opening Words of Welcome:
Good morning everyone and welcome to all who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in Kensington Unitarians’ online Sunday service. Welcome to members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today, and to all who may be listening to our podcast, or watching this service on YouTube, sometime in the future. For those who are present in the Zoom meeting ‘live’, as it were, please feel free to do the equivalent of ‘lurking in the back row’ if that’s what you need – although there are opportunities to join in by speaking or singing, there’s no pressure – and though we like to see everyone’s faces it may be that you’d prefer to switch your camera off so please do what you need to do to feel at ease this morning.
Although we haven’t each made a physical journey to gather together today – we didn’t have to go anywhere – catch a bus, tube, or train (or several), and deal with Sunday engineering works, or drive and find a parking spot – perhaps we still – in some sense – could do with taking a moment to ‘arrive’; to take a conscious breath and set aside, at least for a while, some of the mind’s hubbub, all those demands on your time and energy, which can wait for an hour or so while you attend to matters of the spirit… and bring your attention now to this sacred space that we are co-creating.
Even in the digital realm, as we gather, we form a community of meaning-making – an opportunity for comfort and challenge, for delving into the depths – for connection with that which is both within us and beyond us. And now, we have an opportunity to extend our circle of connection more widely than we ever have before, welcoming friends and visitors from around the country and indeed across the globe to our little gathering for worship. Some who have never crossed the threshold of our beloved building have been moved to come for the first time, as we gather online, and be a part of this community of the spirit. And some of us are here each week, as we have been for years now – if not decades – in person at Essex Church, committed and faithful members of this historic congregation.
So whoever you are, however you are, whatever state you’ve woken up in this morning – even if you’re still in your pyjamas – you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are.
And now I’ll light our chalice, as we do each Sunday, and at other times when we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part. We light this chalice as a reminder of the tradition that holds us, and the values and aspirations we share as a community: our commitment to the common good, and our yearning for a better world that’s yet to be, where all may know true freedom, justice, equality, and peace. May this small flame be for us a sign of faith, hope, and love.
Candles of Joy and Concern:
Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words about what it represents. When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.
I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into a time of prayer and reflection now.
You might want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is larger than ourselves.
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.
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,
experiences of wonder and delight; reassurance and relief,
bursts of playfulness, spontaneity and generosity,
feelings of achievement, creativity, and flow
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,
periods of uncertainty and anxious waiting,
realisation of our own weaknesses, mistakes and failings,
awareness of missed opportunities, those things left unsaid or undone,
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. maybe those we find difficult, where there’s a conflict going on. maybe those we don’t know so well, who we’ve heard about in the news.
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.
Reading: ‘The Vase’ by David S. Blanchard [read by Jeannene Powell]
We’ve got a reading now – and I’ll hand over to Jeannene who’s going to read for us – a piece by the Unitarian Universalist minister David S. Blanchard – a story titled ‘The Vase’.
My friend tells this story. He had been sharing an apartment with a flatmate for several years. The flatmate had many exquisite belongings: oriental rugs, Chinese imported porcelain, Sheraton furniture, and Steuben glass. Most of these objects had been acquired when the flatmate had shared his life with a lover, who had since left him. Somehow that made these things precious to the flatmate, and my friend knew it. In a way, the apartment had become a memorial to this failed relationship.
One night, my friend stopped at a florist on the way home from work and bought some large lilies. When he got home, he looked around for something to put them in, and he spied the perfect vase, a tall, elegant vase that had been one of the last gifts from the former lover. My friend arranged the flowers, put them on the mantle, and went about making dinner. All was well – at least until the warmth of the house started to open more and more of the lilies, shifting their weight. My friend was in the kitchen when he heard the vase hit the stone hearth.
This was a disaster. My friend knew his flatmate would be devastated. The vase was irreplaceable. He swept up the shards of glass, trying to decide whether to play dumb (“Vase? What vase?”) or plead for mercy. He chose the latter.
The flatmate got home. The story was told. There were no fireworks, no tears, no anguish. Just a quiet, calm acceptance of what had happened – a kind of forgiveness, a kind of letting go. The next day, the flatmate called an antiques dealer and sold most of the furniture he had preserved from the broken past. He rolled up the carpets and took them to an auction. He gave the rest of the Steuben glass to friends who had admired it. And he thanked my friend for choosing that particular vase to hold the lilies.
It wouldn’t have worked out the same way if the flatmate had smashed the vase in anger. The ending would have been different if my friend had avoided revealing a painful truth. But several things serendipitously came together: the choice of the flowers, the selection of the vase, the placement on the mantle, the warmth of the furnace, the readiness of the flatmate to reconsider the life choices he had made.
The disaster was really a blessing. From an unwanted event came an invitation to freedom. It doesn’t always work that way, but this story is a reminder that it’s possible. It’s possible for disappointment to open doors we had been afraid to enter. It’s possible that the past won’t let us live in the present. It’s possible that everything makes its own sense, even when that sense is not immediately clear to us. When life’s next catastrophe sends you reeling, sit down and take a few deep breaths, and see what happens if you peel away the layers of meaning to see what is pulsing at the core. Maybe you too will find reason to give thanks in an unlikely occasion.
Meditation: ‘Each Breath’ by Leaf Seligman (adapted)
We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a wiggle and get as comfortable as you can in your chair (if you’re in a chair!) – put your feet flat on the floor to help ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes or gently focus on the chalice flame. There’ll be some words adapted from a piece by the Unitarian Universalist minister Leaf Seligman, which will take us into a good few minutes of shared stillness, and the silence will come to an end with some beautiful music by our guest musician Marilisa Valtazanou. As ever, you are free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.
So take a moment or two to just sit with your breathing, as it comes, naturally.
We pause in the stillness to rest for a while,
to quiet ourselves so that we can feel what stirs within.
Each breath draws us closer to the pulse of life
and with each exhalation we make room for something new.
May we find in this gathering the comfort of those who care.
May we encounter patience along our growing edges
and compassion in our most tender spots.
When life presses in and shifts us off balance,
when pain assails us, and frustration mounts,
may the rhythm of our breath steady us
and bring us back to a place of gratitude.
Here, in this community of the spirit, may we find
the inspiration and encouragement we need
to face our challenges and nurture ourselves. –
In these times of upheaval and uncertainty,
may we be ever more keenly aware of our interdependence,
and the impact our everyday choices may have on others, for good or ill.
And in the presence of suffering and struggle across the globe
may we redouble our efforts to practice kindness and justice
– right where we are – with the hope that the light of our actions
will travel like the light of faraway stars, to reach far beyond our knowing.
Silence: [3 minutes silence]
Musical Interlude: ‘The Things We Found’ by Marilisa Valtazanou
Sermon: ‘Loss and Liberation’ by Jane Blackall
You don’t need me to tell you this but: we’re living in strange times, aren’t we? Every life includes some – many – unexpected and often unwanted events. In a way, that is normality, for life to not quite go as we expected, or hoped. But over the last few months many of our lives have been turned upside down.
This time of pandemic we find ourselves in has surely left no life entirely untouched (even if it hasn’t yet hit us close to home). The impact of this virus is being felt in many ways: Many of us have seen our future plans (both short- and long-term) evaporate overnight. Some have lost their lives. Others have lost loved ones. Many have suffered debilitating health problems (and the long-term effects of the virus are not yet fully known). Many have lost jobs and security – whole industries are in suspended animation – with no sense of how long it will last and what will survive on the far side. Some have been stuck at home for months now, shielding, due to underlying health conditions, and have no idea when it will be truly safe for them to emerge. Even for those who do feel able to get out and about (in a socially distanced way) – social lives, love lives, family lives, many of our opportunities to pursue life’s passions – all these things that are central to human flourishing have been interrupted – and our collective wellbeing, our mental and physical health, is suffering.
Our lives have been disrupted in innumerable ways. It’s been a cascade of loss (and, of course, there’s no shortage of loss in the average life anyway; many of life’s losses that would have been happening anyway, without Covid-19, haven’t just gone away). Everywhere you look, people are grieving, and often they’re – we’re – not even aware of it. This is something I wanted us to stop and acknowledge together in this morning’s service. It seems important, to me, that we face all this loss – and name it – and the grief that results.
Lots has been written over the years about the ‘Stages of Grief’ – a model that’s most associated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – and which has been critiqued and adapted a bit by others over the years. As I understand it these are phases which we might expect to go through, emotionally, in response to any sort of loss, but not in a particularly linear way. As we grapple with loss – and particularly when we’re dealing with an avalanche of losses – we might well loop through the various stages, or linger in one for longer, and double back. Originally the ‘Five Stages’ were ‘denial’, ‘anger’, ‘bargaining’, ‘depression’ and ‘acceptance.’ Since then others have added ‘shock’, ‘testing’ and ‘making meaning’ as additional stages.
Shock. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Testing. Acceptance. Meaning-Making. I think I’ve seen most of those grief-responses in myself, and in many of those around me, over the last four or five months, as we’ve all been affected by one loss after the other. Even those who are relatively lucky – who are in good health, and financially secure, who were safe in lockdown with ones they love, or who relished the time of solitude – even those people have had to adjust to an incredible amount of uncertainty and change this year (and we’re not done yet; not by a long chalk). For all but the most oblivious, it’s hard going. And something that’s become increasingly apparent to me as the weeks pass is that, at any given moment, we’re all likely to be in different places in those ‘Stages of Grief’ (and going round the cycle again as new waves of loss come along to knock us off balance).
If some are in ‘acceptance’ or ‘meaning-making’, while others are in ‘denial’ or ‘anger’, it can lead to clashes, or at least some quite uncomfortable conversations between us. Everybody’s seeing the situation somewhat differently, making different risk assessments, and these emotional states influence our decisions at least as much as any rational factors do. Yet all these judgements we make individually have an impact on everybody else – that’s always been true, of course – but our interconnectedness has never been more apparent. As lockdown eases, and we are largely being left to our own devices, to come to our own conclusions about what’s safe-enough, these differences in outlook may be hard to navigate. Perhaps an awareness, a keeping-in-mind, of the loss and grief that we’re all going through – particularly an awareness of where we are in those stages of grief in any given moment – might help us to be a bit wiser, and more compassionate, towards ourselves and others alike.
Covid-19 is a global catastrophe which has, already, brought huge turmoil, suffering and loss. We’re in a situation that none of us would have chosen – it is clearly a bad thing. And yet. In throwing everything up in the air it has, perhaps, caused some constructive disruption too. In many spheres of life, it seems, customs and practices that we thought could never change – “the way we’ve always done things” – has had to be chucked out of the window overnight. Of course in some cases this has been distressing, even traumatic. But in others, it’s liberating.
We’ve had to adapt incredibly fast as individuals, communities, institutions, and societies. And some have done so more successfully than others, for various reasons, perhaps often to do with the degree of support and resources that has been made available to facilitate such change. There’s a lot of inertia, it seems, in human systems. Once we get set up to do things a certain way, as long as it works well-enough, then we’re often at full stretch just keeping plates spinning. There might be a better way of doing things just-over-the-horizon but we never seem to have the spare capacity to reach for it, to experiment, because we’ve got to keep the show on the road.
I’ll say it again: Covid-19, obviously, is a catastrophe, and a situation we would not have chosen. Yet here we are. And this moment, terrible as it is, could present us with opportunities for transformation, and liberation, as individuals, communities, and societies. It could be showing us that we have a shot at the sort of collective change we might’ve thought impossible.
It could just give us the sort of kick up the bum which we could use to spur ourselves into action.
The very fact that we’re gathered on Zoom this morning is an example of this. In a relatively short period of time we’ve switched to meeting online. Now, I know, for many if not most of us this is ‘not as good as the real thing’. But for some – including some here today, I’m sure – this form of gathering has enabled participation in a Unitarian community where it just wasn’t possible at all before. Since the start of lockdown I’ve been running our Heart and Soul spiritual gatherings online. Well over 100 people have taken part so far. In doing this I’ve heard from people all over the world who were geographically isolated, or chronically ill, or just overwhelmed with life’s demands, or too anxious or shy to come in person – and now they’re able to join us. Even amongst those of us who regularly met in person at the church in Kensington – I’d say some of our online gatherings have unexpectedly enabled deeper bonds to form. These are good things that we might never have got round to – or at least not for a long while – without everything being turned on its head by Covid-19. And I sincerely hope that we’ll continue to offer a lot of these online offerings, even when it is safe for us to meet again.
These new ways of ‘doing church’ are unexpected gifts that have come out of catastrophe. Think about our purpose as a community. It isn’t really ‘to gather for an hour on Sundays at 11am in a certain building on Palace Gardens Terrace’ (as much as we love doing that). Our purpose is something more like ‘to build a better world’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven’ or ‘a vision of love and justice’ – and there are a lot of different ways in which we can go about that – both now while we’re scattered and in the future when we’re able to meet up again. In a way these terrible times have liberated us to think differently about what we’re here for and realise that we don’t have to do it in exactly the way we’ve always done it in the past.
And maybe you’re considering some of the same questions in your own individual lives too. The future isn’t going to be as we expected, imagined, or hoped – but HERE WE ARE – so now what? For now, at least, we are STILL HERE – so what is required of us? Perhaps a certain responsiveness, adaptability, agility in the face of uncertainty and disruption. [This doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m slow to change, and to grieve the losses it entails.] We don’t know what’s next but – as we’re still here – we might have the power to shape it. And until we let go of – or at least loosen our grip on – “wanting our old lives back” I reckon it will be hard for us to reach out for the new life and new possibilities that still await us.
As David Blanchard noted at the end of his piece, ‘The Vase’, which Jeannene read earlier:
“From an unwanted event came an invitation to freedom. It doesn’t always work that way, but this story is a reminder that it’s possible. It’s possible for disappointment to open doors we had previously been afraid to enter.”
In the face of all these unexpected and unwelcome losses, we need to grieve and lament – and we need to know that’s not a one-time thing but a cycle we’ll go round again and again – ultimately there may come a time when we accept the reality of the situation we find ourselves in (although it’s not what we thought we signed up for, this is how it’s going to be for the long haul, we’re not going to go “back to normal”, and we need to find a new way onward as best we can).
In this potentially transformative moment, let us cultivate awareness of what’s still good in the now, what we can be grateful for, and build on – and look ahead, with hope and purpose, towards a vision of what’s still possible – the chance we have to help bring about the better world that we dream of. On the other side of all this loss, just waiting, there may yet be a liberation. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Hymn: ‘A World Transfigured’
Time for us to sing – together-but-apart! – a good old Welsh hymn tune for us today. Don’t worry – we’re all going to have our microphones muted – so you can belt it out safe in the knowledge that only your neighbours will hear (mine are used to it by now). Well, neighbours, pets, anyone you live with, passers-by if you’ve got the window open. But it’s a hymn with a hopeful message – speaking of the possibility that the future may yet hold wonders we haven’t yet imagined – and that the seeds of love and justice that we plant now will bring about ‘A World Transfigured’ – so why not sing out and share it with everybody?! It’s a little bit high-pitched for me, but still an old favourite of mine, so give it your best shot. If the technology behaves itself the words will appear on screen shortly and you can sing along with a recording by the Unitarian Music Society – or feel free just to listen if you’d rather.
Wonders still the world shall witness
Never known in days of old,
Never dreamed by ancient sages,
Howsoever free and bold.
Sons and daughters shall inherit
Wondrous arts to us unknown,
When the dawn of peace its splendour
Over all the world has thrown.
They shall rule with wingèd freedom
Worlds of health and human good,
Worlds of commerce, worlds of science,
All made one and understood.
They shall know a world transfigured,
Which our eyes but dimly see;
They shall make its towns and woodlands
Beautiful from sea to sea.
For a spirit then shall move them
We but vaguely apprehend –
Aims magnificent and holy,
Making joy and labour friend.
Then shall bloom in song and fragrance
Harmony of thought and deed,
Fruits of peace and love and justice –
Where today we plant the seed.
Thanks to Sarah and John for hosting, Jeannene for reading, Marilisa Valtazanou for music. There are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead:
Coffee morning at 10.30 on Tuesday.
Heart and Soul – spaces tonight, Tuesday, Friday.
Thursday@Three – ‘Finding Your Voice’ – Margaret’s singing class this week.
Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time afterwards, in small groups, if you’d like. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music so stick around. Sarah has something to say on fundraising.
Back again on Zoom next week at 10am with Sarah leading again. Please bring your friends! Being online makes our services more accessible to many who would struggle to come in person for all manner of reasons. Everyone is welcome.
We’ve just got some brief closing words now, followed by a lovely song by Marilisa to end. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness for this closing.
And so, this hour of worship draws to a close.
Soon we’ll turn our attention back to the wider world,
beyond this little gathering, and return to the rest of our lives.
In just a moment I’ll blow out our chalice flame.
Let us remember, though: the light lives on, in us, always.
And in the week ahead, may we bear that light –
the light of faith, hope and love – to a hurting world.
May we truly feel our many feelings,
and authentically lament the losses of our lives;
yet may we still be sure to notice and appreciate the joys and pleasures
we might experience even in the messy midst of it all, here and now.
May we be ever-conscious of our interconnectedness
and do whatever we each can do for the common good of all –
our little bit to help bring about the better world we dream of in these testing times;
and may we take best care of ourselves, and each other, in the days to come.
Stay safe, everyone. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Out of the Ashes’ by Marilisa Valtazanou
26th July 2020