Why Are We Here? pt. 2 – 04/10/20

Opening Music: ‘More than the Sum of our Parts’ by Marilisa Valtazanou

Opening Words of Welcome: adapted from Margaret Weis:

The church is not a place; it is a people.
a community proclaiming to the world that
we are here for the work of healing and of justice.

The church is not walls built stone upon stone, held together by mortar
but rather person, linked with person, linked with person:
all ages and races and abilities and backgrounds—
all genders and sexualities and varied ways of relating –
a community built on the firm foundations of reason, faith, and love.

The church is not just a set of doors open on Sunday morning,
but the commitment day after day, and moment after moment,
of our hearts creaking open to the possibility
of new encounters and radical welcome.

The church is the gathering together of all the people, and experiences,
and fear, and love, and hope in our resilient hearts;
gathering, however we can, to say to the world:
welcome, come in, lay down your heartache, and pick up hope and love.

For the church is us—each and every one of us—together,
a beacon of hope and liberation to this world that so sorely needs it.

Good morning everyone! these words, adapted from a piece by Margaret Weis, set the tone for our service this morning and call us to worship together once again. Welcome to members, friends and visitors who have gathered live on zoom today, and to all who may be listening to our podcast, or watching this service on YouTube, sometime in the future. My name is Jane Blackall, I’m a member of the staff team at Essex Church, and I’m also a ministry student in my final year of training with Unitarian College. I’m leading the service this morning with plenty of help from members of the congregation: Roy Clark, Charlotte Chanteloup, and Jeannene Powell will all be offering reflections on this morning’s theme, and Juliet Edwards will be helping with the chalice lighting too.

Today’s service is the second half of a two-part series on the theme: ‘Why Are We Here?’ As I said last week, this is not in the existential sense, but the very down-to-earth sense, asking why we, each of us, are here with this particular church known as Kensington Unitarians. Last time we thought about the fact that we wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for those who came before us – those who took the trouble to found this congregation in the first place – and all those who cared for it in the intervening centuries so that it was still here, for us to gratefully stumble upon and turn up to, when we were looking for a radical religious home. This week we’re reflecting on our own personal answers to the question ‘why are we here?’ – what brought us to church, what keeps us coming back, and what holds us all together – Roy, Charlotte, and Jeannene will tell their stories, and you’ll have time to ponder yours too.

Before we go any further, though, let’s take a moment to make sure we’ve fully arrived. Do what you need to do to settle in – you might want to wiggle and stretch first – scrunch your shoulders up and let them go – or perhaps take one conscious breath… Set aside, if you can, anything that you don’t need to think about for the next hour. And do feel free to turn your camera off if that makes it easier for you to focus – of course we like to see all your lovely faces – but if you prefer to lurk that’s fine. Whoever you are, however you are, whatever side of bed you got out of this morning (or even if you haven’t actually got up yet) – you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are.

Chalice Lighting:

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. Our chalice words are by Douglas Taylor.

Juliet: Across the generations we have carried the flame.
We fought the injustice, sang the songs,
spoke for truth, and built something lasting.
We join in the line and we carry the flame forward.

Roy: Across the generations we are tending the flame.
Hand in hand together we share in the work of
fighting injustice, singing the songs, speaking the truth
And we are here to build something lasting.
We join in the line and we carry the flame forward

Jeannene: Across the generations we have been nourished by this flame.
We are singing new songs, breaking old barriers, sharing in the work
And as we find our own space in what has been,
we are here to make space for the next person as well
We join in the line and we carry the flame forward.

Charlotte: Across the generations, this flame comes to us.
We are here for the songs, for the justice, for the community sharing the work
We are here now, too, to build something new and lasting.
We are ready for a new day together.
We join in the line and we carry the flame forward.

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. And if you seem to be having trouble unmuting yourself please wave and one of the co-hosts will try to help with the unmuting. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s enough time for everyone who might want to speak. 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 an extended time of prayer now.

Prayer: This prayer is loosely based on some words by the UU minister Maureen Killoran. You might first 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 larger presence which holds us all. [pause]

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, we turn our full attention to you,
as we tune in to the depths of this life, and the greater wisdom
to which – and through which – we are all intimately connected. [pause]

Here we are gathered – called perhaps by our sense of sacred purpose,
or duty, or the longing for community; called to be together on this day
to worship; to lift up that which is of highest worth and which directs our lives.
Here we are gathered – called to hold ourselves to our highest values –
to remind ourselves of those hopes and dreams and possibilities which,
sometimes, in the rough-and-tumble of this world, it can be hard to hold on to.
Here we are gathered – called to do our part in weaving a web of human community.

Here, now, some of us have come in pain, bearing sufferings both physical and emotional.
To those who are dealing with health concerns, we pray, we wish, for courage and healing.
To those who are feeling lonely and isolated, we pray, we wish, for comfort and connection.
To those who are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, we pray, we wish, for rest and solace.
May we pause for a moment now, and hold gently all the concerns,
named and unnamed, that are present in our gathering. [pause]

And here, now, some of us have come with joy bubbling in our hearts – despite everything.
May we give ourselves permission to feel those joyful moments even in the midst of struggle.
May we rejoice together, recalling that our joys are multiplied when they are shared.
May we remember and return to gratitude for the simple pleasures of our days.
May we pause for a moment, and in our silence, may we give thanks for
one blessing, no matter how small, that has touched our life this week. [pause]

May this time we spend together be a blessing on our hearts, on this congregation, and may this precious blessing extend outward through each one of us so as to grace the wider world.

Spirit of Life – God of all Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close, we offer up our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness, and we 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

Reflection by Roy Clark:

I am sure l speak for many, perhaps all, when l say, l really miss our Sunday gatherings at our church home… l miss all of you! Let’s face it life can be pretty lonely right now. The last few months of separation, isolation and restrictions on meeting have been so tough on all of us. Whilst l enjoy and sometimes seek solitude, l am essentially, and anyone who knows me will attest to this, a people person. I thrive on human interaction, sharing joys and laughter as well as troubles and doubts. Being in close proximity to friends, family, acquaintances … anyone really, is deeply important to me.

Keeping our distance and other precautionary measures are of course necessary during the current crisis, but physical closeness and of course touch cannot be replicated online. Prolonged physical separation from each other can l believe be deeply damaging to our health and wellbeing in all manner of ways. On top of this the current parlous state of our world can induce a range of negative emotions. Discussing the situation with friends, many have admitted to feeling scared, angry and powerless at times… sometimes all at once. What can we do…what can l do? Well, being plugged into that spiritual charging station also known as Essex Church all these years comes in mighty handy at a time like this.

One particular life teaching which has become a touchstone for me and l know other Unitarians and fellow travellers has been to take some contemplative time to reflect on my attitudes…to look inside rather than out. Self-awareness is examined in many a reading in our services from a variety of sources and traditions and often explored in Sarah’s sermons. I employ this at normal times but it has been particularly useful in this period of relative isolation to overcome fear and worry. Being aware… through mindful living and some form of meditation or reflective practice allows me to look deeply and see how often my own attitudes, prejudices, fears and ignorance colour my interpretation of external events.

Starting with myself and being in the here and now has helped me to find equanimity. Righteous anger and frustration at world events is of course perfectly understandable, but how can we contribute to positive change in our own small ways unless we unflinchingly examine our own hearts and minds? As Gandhi famously said … be the change you want see in the world. It’s my belief that not understanding those we disagree with, sometimes profoundly, inevitably leads to resentment and emnity not just at the big stuff either but in small ways as in our everyday dealings with each other. I would love to expand on the solace l have found in this practise but time constraints mean l can only give you the flavour what l am talking about… l look forward to saying more when we all meet again! lt is also of course a personal view for as always we Unitarians are free to make our own minds up on matters of faith. Have l found a perfect panacea for these troubling times? … not exactly. We all seek our own ways of navigating the seas of uncertainty and turmoil. But maybe…yes perhaps in a small way l hope this can be something of a balm to others. Certainly l have found a deepening clear-sightedness and some inner peace over the last few months by being a refuge unto myself as the Buddha puts it, whilst also drawing on the abiding love and support of our community.

Meditation: ‘Why are you here?’

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 just a few words to take us into a time of meditation; it’s a chance to ponder the question personally: why are you here? Those words will take us into a good few minutes of shared stillness, and the silence will come to an end with some lovely acapella music from Marilisa Valtazanou. As ever, you are free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.

So – I invite you to ask yourself the question – ‘why am I here?’
What was it that brought you to this community in the first place?
And – if you’ve been here for some time – why is it that you’ve kept coming back?

Last week we spoke about the three ‘P’s of church: the place, the people, and the purpose.
What was it about this gathered community that first drew you over the threshold?
What is it about the human connections you’ve made – what do they mean to you?
What gifts, wisdom, and support, have you given and received through coming here?
What is it about the values and mission that we stand for – that you want to be part of?

In this time of shared stillness I invite you to reflect deeply
on your own personal answer to that question: ‘why am I here?’

Silence: [3 minutes silence]

Musical Interlude: ‘More Together’ by Marilisa Valtazanou

Reflection by Charlotte Chanteloup:

Faith was not a part of my childhood, it seemed like an abstract concept completely removed from my life. When I left home for my studies and later to go abroad, I started wondering more about purpose and meaning. I wandered a bit, on the Internet, looking at the main religions, had a look at Buddhism for a while, never finding what I was looking for, something that resonated with me not only intellectually but more importantly spiritually.

Then, by luck, serendipity or fate, I came across “unitarian-universalists” on the Internet: it was described as community without dogma. So, as a critical thinker, I looked for more information. For the first time I found my progressive beliefs reflected in a religious community.

When I decided to come to Kensington, I was scared it was all a cult! The various websites made it look almost too good to be true! I was suspicious that the liberal ideas advertised would be in reality just words and not seen in practise. I changed my mind in that first service. I felt welcomed, included and cared for even when no one knew me. Not only was I finding a community of ideas, but there was a space for me to ask and find answers about meaning and purpose. I wasn’t given the solution or what I had to believe in. Instead, I was given time, every Sunday, and space, in a building in Notting Hill, recent but with so much history, to walk along others who were also looking for meaning, purpose. Something more.

In a weird twist of fate, when I was supposed to leave London and move back to France definitively, the world changed. When I felt so alone, under water, and removed from everything that my life had been for 5 years, I found community again in a new space, Zoom, but still on Sundays, first with Heart and Soul and then with the services. On Sundays, I take time to be grateful, to listen carefully to the small voice within and to the universe, to reflect and pray for others and sometimes myself. But that time is holy because we make it so by our presence. Even so far away, we share so much.

We live in strange times, I miss the hymns, and the building, and the rainbow candles, and the smiles of the greeters and the stewards and everyone else. But I am so lucky that I still get the chance to see your lovely faces on a Sunday or a Tuesday and to have a chat with you, when we might not have before. The space we worship in may still be virtual, but the path and the questions and the answers and the people are still here to help to find what we yearn for.

Reflection by Jeannene Powell:

Why am I here? It’s a really good question I think. Having been on a solitary spiritual journey for the early part of my adult life, attendance to a workshop by another organisation, led me to be in the Essex Church building. What I realised from that workshop was that I need to continue my spiritual journey in community. I felt ambivalent about that though, having had the last long term experience of ongoing communal worship being at Catholic church during my childhood.

My first experience of Kensington Unitarians, was at a congregational service, a lot like today, but in person rather than online. And that service really blew me away! What I saw was the principle of “Wisdom coming from all sources” being put into action. Very different from my memories of Catholic worship. Here were people lighting candles and speaking their joys and sorrows, reading poems and sharing their own wisdom in a sermon, these things and more, bringing a sense of equality, and of every person being valued.

For a long time, when I did attend the services, I’d sit at the back, in a corner, wanting to keep to myself. I had a fear that someone might come and try to “convert me” or tell me that my own theological beliefs were wrong – something I’d experienced before from different religious groups. What I found though, was that being in this environment, people were genuinely open to hearing about different beliefs, views and ideas. Even in the service, expressly being given “permission” for us to not have to join in, or that we could participate at a level that’s right for us, allowed me to ease myself in at my own pace, and not feel pressured to make myself fit some kind of doctrinal mould.

The use of inclusive language I really appreciated, terms other than “God” being used for what we might hold as the ultimate reality or what’s held to be of most worth. It helped me feel included, rather than excluded. Questions, doubts, theological conversations were encouraged, as without it how could there be spiritual and philosophical growth?

It’s been over 11 years since that first congregational service, and I think I’ve settled in quite well – becoming a regular attendee, as regular as my busy life allows, being part of the themed ministry team and leading services prior to our building’s closure from this current pandemic, and now helping with the technical side of our Zoom services most weeks.

I feel truly embedded within this ongoing and enquiring church community, and very pleased that I am. Attending services provides a “full stop” to my week. It enables me to connect back to my own internal values and sense of what’s important to me, instead of being swept away by the dictates of tv adverts and billboard messages of what I should value, and what I should seek to attain. And of the things which are important to me, Unitarianism’s emphasis on social justice, of making society and the world a better place for all, is something which resonates with me deeply. Being able to feel passionate about a social justice issue with others, who may or may not share my own passion for that particular issue, but feel strongly about something else, has given me support, encouragement and inspiration to turn that passion into concrete action in my life. And in turn, by listening to others, I hope I’ve provided the same for them. And for that mutual support and inspiration alone, I think it’s a great reason for me to be here, even virtually, and a part of this Kensington church community.

Hymn: ‘A Church is a Living Fellowship’

Time for us to sing now – and we’re doing something a bit unusual this week – most weeks we sing along with tracks recorded by the Unitarian Music Society – this week I couldn’t find a recording of the hymn that I wanted but I had a brainwave! I went back through some podcasts of our past services and managed to find a recording of us singing in church last year, in May 2019, on the day of our AGM. So this morning we’re going to be singing along with ourselves! Which is simultaneously a bit weird and quite cool I reckon. The hymn – ‘A Church is a Living Fellowship’ – is perhaps another attempt at answering that question of ‘why are we here?’ Don’t worry – Jeanenne’s going to make sure we all have our microphones muted for this bit – so you can belt it out safe in the knowledge that the rest of us won’t be able to hear you. The words will appear on screen and you can sing along – or feel free just to listen if you’d rather.

A church is a living fellowship
More than a holy shrine,
Where people can share their hopes and fear
Less of the yours and mine;

Where bonded by trust we search for Truth
Beyond the chains of creeds,
And thought can aspire to shine with fire
From all our deepest needs.

Let’s stretch out the open hand of Love,
Conquer the fists of hate,
Divided no more by voices of war,
Greeds of our mindless state;

We’ll take all our building bricks of Truth,
Make of them homes of Life,
A future to face the shame and disgrace
In all our past of strife.

A church is a place of human trust
More than of brick and stone;
Of Love we will sing to make it ring
In every joyous tone.

Announcements: Thanks to Roy, Charlotte and Jeannene for their reflections, and Marilisa for the lovely music. There are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead: Coffee morning at 10.30 on Tuesday (back to usual). Heart and Soul – just a couple of spaces tonight and Friday. Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time afterwards, chat 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. Back again on Zoom next week at 10am when our minister Sarah will be leading once again. Bring your friends! It’s fine to share the link with trusted others and this time while we’re online makes it easier for those who are curious to try us out in a low-pressure kind of way. We’ve just got some brief closing words now, followed by some more lovely music 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.

Closing Words: words adapted from UU minister Theresa I. Soto:

In this community, we hold hope close. We don’t always
know what comes next, but that cannot deter us
in our ongoing quest for liberation and safety.

We don’t always know just what to do, but that will not mean
that we are lost in the wilderness. We rely on the certainty
beneath, the foundation of our values and ethics; our mission.

We are the people who return to Love like a North Star and hold to
the truth that we are so much greater together than we are alone.
Our hope does not live in some glimmer of an indistinct future.

Rather, we know the way to the better world of which we dream;
by covenant, and the movement forward of one right action
and the next, we know that one day we will arrive at home.

And may this be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘More than Bricks and Mortar’ by Marilisa Valtazanou

Jane Blackall, Roy Clark, Charlotte Chanteloup and Jeannene Powell

4th October 2020