Going with the Flow? – 09/08/20

Opening Music: Bridge over Troubled Water

Opening Words: Hello everybody, I’m Sarah Tinker and it’s a pleasure to welcome you to this Kensington Unitarians online service on Zoom. Welcome to our congregations members, welcome to friends and visitors joining us today, and to all of you who may be listening to, or watching, this service on YouTube some time in the future. If you are new to our Zoom gatherings a particularly warm welcome to you today and please join in at a level that is right for you – it’s lovely to see people’s faces but we understand when people sometimes prefer just to listen. There’s no requirement to join in, in any active way, although there is chance to speak and sing if you want at several points in the service. Your presence here in community with others, matters most to us.

So let’s together now create this as a sacred time and space, made holy by our presence and by our intention. For though we choose to maintain our physical distance for the good of all, yet we can create community across those physical distances by spending this time together and by affirming the value of gathering in this way. Our imaginations can connect us across physical distances. Let’s join in taking a conscious breath together and allow that breath to bring us to the present moment, here in our homes, in our bodies – we unique and quite remarkable beings – unique and yet intimately connected by our shared experience of life itself in the material realm … and here we are creating this time and space that we are in as an opportunity to tune in to ourselves, to one another and to that which guides us as we travel through our lives.

Chalice Lighting: And I light our chalice flame, as we do in all our gatherings, a tradition that connects us with Unitarian communities the world over, the oneness of its light reminding us that we are one people, living one life here on our one planet earth home. We can focus for a few moments on this flame ….. we can imagine a light shining within each of us and beaming out to a world so in need of its illumination and warmth…. And may this light remind us that we are not isolated beings but connected, in mystery and miracle, to the universe, to this community, and to one another.

Candles of Joy and Concern: Each week when we meet here in church in Kensington or here in our online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, where we invite one another to light a candle and share something that is in our heart. So here in our Zoom service we’ve a good few minutes for some of you to tell us of a joy or a concern, and to light a candle, real or imaginary. When you are ready to speak you can unmute yourself and just speak out so everyone can hear and then re-mute yourself when you’ve finished speaking. Do give it a go if you’d like to, as it’s quite special to hear some other voices and perspectives, and let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for so others have chance to speak too.
And I suggest we each now switch to gallery view on our own screens so we can see everyone. Our hosts Jane and Jeannene will do their best to spot if someone wants to speak and can’t unmute themselves.

So let’s now think of the joys and concerns we’ve heard expressed today, let’s breathe them in as precious glimpses of what it is to be human, ….. and as we breathe out release anything that we feel ready to let go – that we might hold this human condition we all share as lightly and lovingly as we are able.

…May we remember those who have spoken, those they have named, and those issues we hold in the silence in our own hearts. And may everyone find someone to share their joys and concerns with this day if they so wish…..

Prayer: And now we can bring those joys and concerns into a time of reflection and prayer as we join together, perhaps finding a more comfortable position to be in, so we are able to turn inwards, for these few minutes, …..calling on the spirit of love and life to be with us now and to open us to the great flow of life itself, of which we are part.

This has been another week of great challenges for our world. As the anniversary of the atomic bombs that exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago arrived, so too did news of a terrifying explosion in the Lebanese capital city of Beirut. This is another blow for a country already struggling to survive and its people mourn the dead and injured and the destruction of their once beautiful city. In the face of such devastation and all the problems besetting our world – the painfully hot evidence of climate change and global warming, people starving in the Yemen, continuing racial injustice and violence, alongside all the problems caused by the Covid 19 virus. At times there is little that we can do but bear witness – and in that spirit I invite us to share a minute in silence together to mark the sufferings of our world. …… And though this task of witness can leave us feeling powerless, let us not flinch or turn away, but rather offer all the world’s problems and our own feelings of anger or despair to a power greater than our own, and also commit ourselves to the never ending task of working with others to strengthen justice, to spread loving compassion and to support others, seeking love and justice and strength when we find ourselves in need – and this may be so for the greater good of all – this day and all days, amen.

And now let me hand over to David Talbot who has today’s reading for us and he’ll then be leading us into a time of meditation.

Reading: In this reading, Professor of Psychiatry Ronald Pies describes how at a difficult time of his life, he found certain philosophical teachings very helpful. I wonder if they speak to you at the moment. He writes that “a quote from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius always came to my rescue: “Nothing will happen to you which is not conformable to the nature of the universe.” I’d better repeat that: “Nothing will happen to you which is not conformable to the nature of the universe.”

Philosophers throughout the ages have given their guidance: we should not go to pieces in the face of evil, nor should we emulate the cruelty of our oppressors—we must do what we can to oppose injustice. We see this teaching played out in the great traditions of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. We see it in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, as well as the Buddhist monks of Chinese-occupied Tibet.

But are these not examples of people who went against the flow? Yes, in the narrow sense that they acted against the flow of ignorance, tyranny or bigotry. But when the Taoists, Buddhists and Stoics speak of going with the flow, they have in mind the great river of nature and reason, the underlying order of the universe. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred . . . for there is one Universe out of all . . . one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures.”

The sages instruct us to accept with equanimity the reality of evil in the world, but not its sovereignty; and to accept that while cruelty is a part of life, it is not a part of our common bond as intelligent human beings. Yes, we do our best to go with the flow—but not with the torrent of injustice.’ Words from Professor Ronald Pies

Meditation: And I’m now going to guide us into a time of meditation – my words will be followed by three minutes of shared silence, which will end with Sandra Smith’s piano music – she’ll be playing a piece by Smetana called Die Moldau – after the Czech river which winds its way through the countryside towards the capital city of Prague. For the Czech people to this day, Smetana’s music expresses their yearning for freedom and justice.

David’s Meditation: a Taoist meditation to breathe in all that clears and cleanses and breathing out all that we are ready to release.

Silence followed by music. Smetana’s Die Moldau

Address: Going with the Flow?

Lots of spiritual teachings are based on the image of a river flowing onwards. The message of these teachings often pivots around the saying ‘go with the flow, accept what is’. Today’s message in our gathering counter balances that ‘go with the flow’ message with another idea of standing against the tide, of resisting that which we know to be wrong, resisting all that we recognise as inhumane.

You may have heard this teaching story before. It tells of three drops of water hanging on a branch of a tree over a stream in a beautiful valley in the countryside. The drops of water had been left there hanging on the branch after some rain earlier in the day. And the story tells us that those three raindrops talked to one another as they rested below that branch. Well actually the truth is it was only one of the raindrops that said much at all because the others couldn’t get a word in edgeways. On and on and on he went ‘look at me, I’m the most wonderful raindrop in the world. Look at the way the sunlight reflects on my shiny surface. And let me tell you what great plans I have for my raindrop life. I’m going to be amazing and impress everybody.’ The raindrop just wouldn’t stop talking about themself. But at last stopping for breath was essential and as soon as that raindrop was quiet the raindrop at the other end started to talk – but what a different story that was – ‘oh I’m not very good at anything. I’m not a nice shape for a raindrop at all, I’m not very shiny. I’ll never do much in life.’ The raindrop in the middle didn’t say a word but just enjoyed the view around – the beautiful valley spreading out all around them, the lovely big tree whose branch they were hanging upon and the stream dancing merrily below them. That middle raindrop just listened in silence as the first raindrop started up again boasting about being special – on and on and on they went.

But then a gentle breeze started to blow in that valley, the wind touched the tree and the branch moved in the wind and the three raindrops were shaken off the branch into the lovely stream underneath them, which was heading on a journey toward the great river and the mighty ocean beyond. And the wise old tree who had been listening to their chatter all morning thought with a gentle smile ‘well I wonder which of them is the best looking raindrop now.’

It’s a story I’ve heard told in schools reminding youngsters not to be too boastful. But it works as a less cringe-worthy reminder to us all that we are part of something so much greater than ourselves and our opinions about ourselves and others and our plans for our lives – they all need to be held as lightly as we can hold them – because we never know when that breeze might blow us off our branch and into the mighty waters beyond us.

Most of us are now living in circumstances when it would be futile to resist what is. Our lives are changed by the Covid pandemic and we will have to await this situation’s further unfolding, whilst doing all we can to protect our health and the well-being of all those we come into contact with.

But human societies and global injustices require something more of us. Even now we cannot simply ‘go with the flow’ for there are issues that need our voices to call them out, there are circumstances that require our bravery and our commitment to stand up against the tides of indifference and resignation. Earlier on we heard a piece of music by Czech composer Smetana – music banned by the invading Nazi forces because it came to symbolise freedom against their oppressors for the Czechs. The music tells of the mighty Moldau River flowing through their land. Oppressors can repress people but rivers are hard to stop. Water has its own soft power. Taoist Lao Tzu wrote that

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

Jane is going to show us a photo now of one of the artist Antony Gormley figures placed on Crosby beach in the north west of England. There are 100 of these figures, they’ve been there 15 years now and time and the tides are taking their toll. Barnacles, rust, seaweed, damage done by rocks and people and animals and sunlight, wind and most of all the sea.

Resistance takes its toll on us, there’s no doubting that. But then none of us were born to stay untouched by life’s forces were we. And some of us are given lives that require us to stand up against the tides of society, the tides of cruelty and indifference.

Thanks to David Talbot for our reading and meditation today and also for introducing me to this short poem by Jane Upchurch – I don’t know if she wrote it in reference to Antony Gormley’s cast iron figures

‘There is a strength of steel
Stiffly resisting all movement and pressure
As waves crash and tides retreat
Or there is the strength of seaweed
The holdfast secure on the rock
Flowing and weaving with the water.
Accommodating all movements and pressure
A living harmony’
– Jane Upchurch

I really appreciate her description of the seaweed and its flexible strength, ‘a living harmony’. But I’m not sure we always get to choose between the strength of steel and the strength of seaweed. Most of us just have to see what life throws our way and then respond as best we can with the strengths we have at our disposal. Perhaps the best we can hope for is the self awareness to avoid being a pompous raindrop – full of our own self-importance and full of our own plans for ‘how things should be’. If nothing else, this year of 2020 that we’re in can surely remind us that we’re not fully in charge of this life, and yet, and yet, when we do find a way to go with the flow with what is, sometimes, just sometimes, something new and inspiring emerges. I wonder what that might be for each of you? Amen

Hymn: Shining through the Universe

Shining through the universe
runs the golden thread;
woven in along with white,
black, yellow, green and red.

Cooling water, burning fire,
metal, wood and clay;
in the earth’s five elements
the gold thread marks the Way.

If we try to pick it out
from the fabric fair,
when the threads are pulled apart
the gold’s no longer there.

Under heaven, over earth,
north to southern pole,
if you trace the golden thread
the Way will calm your soul.

“Turn your feet along the Way”,
sages taught of old;
live life well and tread the path
marked by the thread of gold.

There’s an opportunity to sing a hymn now but like all Unitarian activities this is an optional opportunity. If you would rather just read the words that are going to appear on the screen soon that’s fine with us. But if you like singing then do join in with gusto, safe in the knowledge that we will all be muted and no-one will hear you except the neighbours and I think they’re still asleep, so it will just seem like a lovely dream to them. And this hymn, shining through the universe, has great words that have something to say about the Taoist ideas of flowing with the forces of life rather than fighting against them. I hope you enjoy this recording from the Unitarian Music Society.

Announcements: And so some announcements: My thanks go to Jeannene and Jane and for their extensive background work of hosting today and to our Sandra Smith for so ably finding music to fit our theme. All of you much appreciated. It’s been such a pleasure to see you all here today. We’ll be back again next week for a 10am service here on Zoom, and you’re also welcome to join us for our 10.30 coffee morning on Tuesday and there are some spaces left for Heart and Soul, our alternative spiritual gathering. Make a note in your diaries as our next Thursday@3 group will be on August 27th when our poetry group returns – all welcome. Thank you to everyone who has made a donation towards church running costs in the last week – they are much appreciated and help to keep our particular work continuing out in the world. My suggestion this week if you have any spare money in your pocket or bank account is to donate to the Red Cross Appeal for the Lebanon and the Yemen crises. We’ve already collected £100 and the details will be in the chat soon and on our Facebook page. Don’t forget we have a virtual coffee time to chat after the service in small groups if you’d like to stick around – and we’d like to take a photo of us all when the music ends. We’re going to have some closing words in a moment followed by Handel’s famous water music – I invite you to select gallery view on your screen now so that we can all see each other for the closing words and enjoy a feeling of connection and community.

Closing Words: I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. And I send the light of this candle out into the world for all those have no choice about whether to go with the flow or stand against the tide – choice is indeed a sign of privilege. These are not easy times in which we live. Let us be gentle with ourselves and others, kindly travellers through our shared lives. May we intuit the times when we can and must stand against the tides of hatred and indifference and may we join bravely with others in our common quest for a life of love, compassion and justice. May we also learn to go with the flow of what is, for the river carries us all quite effortlessly. Amen, go well and blessed be.

Closing Music: Handel’s Water Music

Rev. Sarah Tinker

9th August 2020